Water Resource Issues and Local Land Use Decisions - A Recommended Approach

by David Kyler

1. It is clear from recent actions taken by the County Commission that our elected officials are justifiably concerned about the allocation of water by EPD under existing criteria being used by the state. The following proposal is an effort to ensure that better information is applied in making local land use decisions as they affect the use, consumption, quality, and long-term commitment of water resources. Without this new initiative by Glynn County, unless state criteria change, EPD will continue to issue water permits on a first-come, first-serve basis, without regard for the long-term priorities of local government. If this practice continues, the cost and quality of water for future users will impose burdens that may well work against the development interests of the county. Therefore, it is vital that Glynn County openly consider a variety of options for improving local control over water and other natural resource issues by amending and consistently enforcing land use management ordinances.

By unanimous vote, our local elected officials decided to send a letter to EPD objecting to the proposed Live Oak power plant groundwater withdrawal and to initiate an effort to revise the state rules to give priority to public wells for withdrawals of 100,000 gallons a day or more. Public wells allow a far more adaptable use of water resources to meet emerging demands that serve the interests of Glynn County citizens, compared with private industrial wells dedicated to a single large water use that often lasts for many decades.

These are valid concerns even when the science is reliable, but groundwater modeling is inaccurate, and site-specific effects may differ greatly from the general relationships and characteristics predicted. (The most compelling illustration of this fact is that shallow wells are often adversely affected by withdrawals from deeper aquifers, yet the models claim there is utterly no interconnection between these aquifers.) Because of these concerns and related water allocation issues, the Center opposed the permit for Live Oak, and three very qualified ground- water professionals, with extensive experience in modeling and evaluating regional aquifers, endorsed our position. Despite this, we were the only member of the Glynn County Water Resource Management Advisory Committee that voted against the Live Oak permit. For this and related reasons, we strongly urge the Glynn County Commissioners to carefully evaluate the process used to create advisory committees, the purpose of such advisory groups, and in particular to re-examine the role and performance of the Water Resource Committee.

2. On November 19 the Water Resource Management Advisory Committee discussed various aspects of the proposed zoning ordinance amendment related to evaluating water use.
  • Though there was no official consensus vote taken by the committee on any aspect of the proposed amendment, there seemed to be wide agreement that whatever language may be adopted, it should apply to all 'large' users of water (however that term is defined), not just industrial users. In other words, whether commercial, industrial, residential, or golf courses, any proposed land use needing water above a certain amount should be analyzed in a special way, to be set forth by the proposed amendment.
  • Second, the Advisory Committee generally agreed that using the site plan review process alone was inadequate for making land use decisions, and that whatever parameters are adopted, they should apply to zoning decisions as well as site plan review. This had been the main problem with the Live Oak Power Plant proposal, because the zoning was already in place, and the leverage available through site plan review is weak since it does not involve an action by the 'legislative authority' (elected officials).

It is illogical to conduct analysis of water resource impacts independent of zoning decisions, as is the case with the proposed ordinance amendment. If county officials want priority given to public wells, the most effective way to achieve that objective would be to limit water demand by using local land use controls to influence the type, timing, and location of new development. (Note: Such factors are already a legitimate function of local government as a means for protecting public interest by providing orderly, balanced growth for the benefit of all citizens.) A rezoning review is the most powerful tool available to local governments for getting control on water demand by carefully considering land uses and their implications. Therefore, the county should seriously consider amending the ordinance to require assessment of major water use in zoning decisions as well as in site plan review. By EPD's reckoning under existing rules, if a local government does not prevent a prospective water user from getting local permits for land use, that city or county has forfeited its right to have any further say about a water withdrawal permit - no matter how large the withdrawal or how long the period over which it would be in effect.

3. While it is desirable to parallel state permit applications as much as possible, the county should not restrict itself to using only such information in the language of its ordinance ­ after all, there may be water consumption, allocation, and quality issues of specific importance to Glynn County and its citizens that are not recognized in the standards used by EPD in evaluating permits. For instance, we need to be asking not just whether the needed water is available (based on current science), but also what effect proposed water use(s) will have on the countyıs future options for meeting foreseeable water demands, and the relative costs and benefits of meeting these various demands. Included in this assessment, for example, the County may want to consider the efficiency of the proposed user compared with the average water use efficiency in that user category (industry type, etc.). In this case, the County would adopt some standard of efficiency that would be required of all large water users before their land use request could be further considered. We are not suggesting that this should be the only type of criteria, but it is likely to be one of several key factors to be considered in making land use decisions as they affect water resources (including control of run-off, reduction, monitoring and assessment of wastewater discharges, etc.).

4. The Water Resource Management Advisory Committee had some problem with the terminology "no negative impact." Alternative language to be substituted instead was "acceptable" or "unacceptable" as determined by some standard of passing (or failing) a "public interest test." I have suggested several factors that could be included in such a determination in my written comments (submitted to the Planning Commission secretary), such as water-use efficiency, the duration and adaptability of the proposed water use, and other parameters measuring public interest, such as water quality impacts. But we provide no specific quantitative amounts that should be adopted as thresholds or standards - these would have to be recommended through further study and, to become effective, ultimately adopted by the County Commission and then rigorously enforced by county officials. True and responsible water management cannot be achieved without such acceptability criteria. Consistent enforcement of these criteria and other local standards is also essential to legally defensible decisions that will protect the county's interests.

5. We recommend that the County Commission form a study committee to spend some time developing a proposal for creating a separate section of the zoning ordinance that would cover all significant natural resource impacts of proposed land uses, not only water resource impacts. This would ensure that when decisions are made, they take into account potentially major impacts on air and water quality, water supply, wildlife habitat, and fisheries. As many have said, we must consider natural resources as part of our public infrastructure, and accordingly make land use decisions that reflect responsible management of that natural capital. If this principle is not followed, the costs of protecting or restoring public health, water supply, and ecosystems (when even possible) will be substantial and potentially prolonged, with conceivably severe consequences for our citizens. To prevent adverse outcomes, standards used for making land use decisions should be refined to improve the County's ability to predict such impacts and control them locally, serving multiple aspects of public interest as growth continues.
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