Summer 2000 Newsletter

Coastal Georgia's Conditions & Trends: Is a Sustainable Region Possible?
Part One in a Series

After three years of operation, it seems reasonable, if not long overdue, for the Center to ask if it is even possible for coastal Georgia's relationship with the natural environment to become sustainable - for us to live within the limits of the capacity of natural resources on a continuing basis. Or, perhaps more to the point considering our region's conditions and trends: Are current policies and practices in coastal Georgia sustainable enough to benefit us without depriving future generations of living quality and desirable economic options? To begin, let's take a closer look at highlights of the region's environmental status, and where we seem to be headed.

Population, Development, and Resource Demands
As most people know, Georgia is one of the nation's fastest growing states, and as one might guess, the coast is second only to Atlanta in sub-state regional growth-rate. In 1995, the six coastal counties had a population estimated at around 500,000, and we will probably see an additional 50,000 more on record when the census figures taken earlier this year are released. At these growth rates, within 35 years, this region's population will double to about one million.

Although relatively little of the region's total area is developed, population growth and the types of land uses we have promoted (or at least allowed) have taken an increasing toll on natural resources. By some measures, these environmental burdens are growing faster than population itself. Per person, we are disturbing more land, driving more cars and road-miles, burning more fuel (for both travel and power production), and generating more waste than ever before.

A rough estimate is that while the region's population has grown by 20% during the 1990's, actively used land area has expanded by 30%, from about 150 square miles to nearly 200 square miles in the six coastal counties. Although this is still a small portion of the region's total land area, consider the sites that are being most rapidly developed. In recent years, coastal residents have seen housing and commercial projects built on marginal lands, with low elevations, poorly drained soils, high exposure to flooding, and causing greater risk of non-point pollution.

Not only does this put more people and property at risk in these newly developed areas, but it imposes greater public costs on all taxpayers - for things like flood protection, emergency evacuation and recovery, water quality protection and treatment, and -- at least in outlying areas -- roads, water and sewer lines, schools, medical facilities, and police and fire protection. The hidden costs of these trends also include risks to the diversity, stability, and productivity of coastal ecosystems, with ominous implications for quality of life, local property-tax burden, small business operating costs and profitability, and even human health.

According to officials in Chatham County (by far, the region's most urbanized area), in the past decade more than $100 million has been spent on drainage projects, yet every time there is a major storm, more properties are damaged and more roads are impassible. Nationally published articles about coastal growth cite trends that have resulted in enormous leaps in the dollar value of property at risk from flooding and hurricane damage - far greater than any population increases - because people are building on high-risk sites, marginally suitable or unsuitable for active use, while sinking proportionally more money into homes, businesses, and related improvements.

Keep in mind that these trends are underwritten by the federally-subsidized flood insurance program, and sanctioned by cities and counties that routinely rezone land, install and extend water and sewer lines, and issue building permits with little or no assessment of the true costs. By naively assuming that all growth is equally beneficial to their communities, many elected officials are unwittingly contributing to the long-term decline of key aspects of the region's unique character, economy, and environment.

By other measures, we are improving, if only by coincidental, small steps. For example, coastal jobs that have been created in the last decade are arguably less destructive than those of certain older businesses, such as heavy industry. The most obvious example is an inevitable shift away from water-intensive industrial activity - notably pulp and paper producers. Over the past two decades, since problems of saltwater intrusion into the Floridan aquifer have become evident (culminating in state-imposed restrictions on withdrawal of ground-water from this source), there has been no new business located in the region dependent on enormous volumes of water. Remaining water-intensive industries have taken steps to conserve, reducing the total amount of water consumed, yet the industrial sector still uses about three-quarters of the water supplied within the region.

Conversely, among coastal jobs being lost are those that are friendly to the environment, and even potentially sustainable. Although documentation is inadequate, local seafood processors observe that declining catch of blue crab and white shrimp have caused a gradual but substantial reduction in their employee ranks. If these trends continue, within a decade or two there may be no processing of locally-caught seafood, despite coastal Georgia's longstanding reputation for these products.

This would be truly tragic, because even in their threatened state, these businesses still support thousands of workers. The Center estimates that, in combination with nature-based tourism business, about one out of five coastal jobs still depend on our natural resources, directly, or indirectly. This computes to about 40,000 jobs - a substantial sum by any measure. It is quite likely that certain of these adverse trends in environmentally dependent businesses are irreversible, while others, such as nature-based tourism, have the potential to compensate for losses in conventional commercial fishing and seafood processing. In any case, improving environmental protection will become even more essential to our region's economy and quality of life. (* To be continued in the Fall 2000 issue.)
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