The state may soon have the power to change local water quality standards, if a proposed amendment to Georgia’s Rules and Regulations for Water Quality Control passes next month.
The Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division (EPD) recently announced the proposal, which would give the state power to grant variances to water quality standards and remove designated uses through a "use attainability analysis," according to a notice issued by the EPD.
"The variance language is procedural; it allows the state to do this – but there has to be a use attainability analysis done before they can make any changes to water quality standards," said Elizabeth Booth, manager of the EPD’s watershed planning and monitoring program.
The whole point of water quality standards is to help enhance existing water quality, prevent pollution, and to maintain/improve the biological integrity of state waters. The standards are also to help protect public health and the conservation of fish and wildlife/aquatic life.
The new proposal says the government might be able to change those standards, if certain issues can be proven.
"Where the quality of the waters exceeds levels necessary to support propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and recreation in and on the water, that quality shall be maintained and protected," the amendment said.
But if EPD can be shown that "allowing lower water quality is necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area in which the waters are located," then those standards may potentially be lowered.
Booth said the variance is primarily aimed at Savannah Harbor, which currently says there can be no discharge into it from Savannah all the way up to Augusta. Savannah will be required to foot the bill of funding the use attainability analysis to prove a variance on the harbor is necessary – just like any other areas wishing to request one.
"The variance language says ‘I cannot meet the water quality standards so I’m asking for a variance for those standards,’" Booth said.
"In order to do that, you have to upgrade your water treatment facility and you have to prove you’re doing the best that you can. And if you can prove, ‘I am doing the best, and if I do any more it’s going to cost a lot of money,’ then a variance might be an option," she said.
The EPD has assured that, if a degradation or lowered water quality standard is granted, water quality will remain adequate, according to the notice.
"Anybody who wants to do this – just because we’re adding this variance – it ain’t easy." Booth said.
"A variance will have to get EPD and Environmental Protection Agency approval, be incorporated into our rules, have public hearings, and then go before the Department of Natural Resources board. If passed, the variance would also have to illustrate proven improvements over time," she said.
Local environmental organizations have some concerns.
"It’s not a step we want to take," said Frank Carl, Savannah Riverkeeper and executive director.
"We really don’t want to go there, because the unintended consequences of bringing up that possibility are myriad. It opens a Pandora’s Box – we would need a use attainability analysis for fecal coliform, mercury, and (the list) could go on and on and on – and we don’t need to go there," he said.
Chandra Brown, Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper and executive director, has apprehensions for Bryan County’s waters.
"This rule change could have devastating effects on blackwater streams. EPD has been saying for years that the streams can’t meet water quality standards for dissolved oxygen due to ‘natural’ reasons. We have strong concerns that this variance process will just allow these small blackwater streams to become dumps for waste," Brown said.
Since the EPD said the variance is specifically for the Savannah Harbor, Brown wondered why the rule wasn’t stated as such.
"I understand they’re doing it for the Savannah Harbor, but once they’ve put a regulation like that on the books, it’s there and it’s available for use for other entities and other areas of the state," Brown said.