New guidebook to help Georgia communities protect wetlands

Athens, Ga. – A new publication from the University of Georgia River Basin Center will help local governments and community groups develop programs to protect wetlands and the services they provide. “Local Wetland Programs: A Guide for Georgia Communities” by RBC Senior Legal Fellow Katie Sheehan contains background information on wetlands and existing laws, programs and policies. It also includes 25 regulatory and non-regulatory programs communities can implement, funding and technical resources and strategies for avoiding legal challenges.

Wetlands are essential components of healthy watersheds and provide a multitude of natural services that benefit both people and wildlife. In addition to being beautiful, peaceful natural areas, wetlands can provide flood control, water quality improvement, groundwater recharge, erosion prevention, fisheries and wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities. An intact wetland system can provide many services at a fraction of the cost of comparable man-made structures, so protecting or restoring wetlands can also save taxpayers money.

Until recent decades, however, the value of wetlands was not widely understood or appreciated. Human activities such as agricultural and other land use conversions (often encouraged or subsidized by the federal government) resulted in the loss of more than half of the nation’s wetlands between the early 1600s and the 1980s. Federal policies and laws introduced in recent decades have slowed the rate of wetland losses, but, as noted by former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the country’s wetland coverage “remain[s] on a downward trend that is alarming.” One noteworthy cause for concern is a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court cases that appear to have removed federal protection from so-called “isolated” wetlands.

Fortunately, local governments have the authority to implement regulatory and non-regulatory programs that can stop wetland losses, and even increase overall wetlands acreage, in a community.

“The hope for this guidebook,” Sheehan said, “is that it will help local leaders and average citizens in Georgia communities appreciate the value of wetlands and tailor programs to fit their needs. Local governments are familiar with the resources within their communities and are used to making land use decisions, so they are actually uniquely qualified to craft effective wetland programs that protect and restore these natural resources and the services they provide.”

The types of programs covered in the guidebook are wide-ranging and include education and awareness initiatives, inventories, acquisition, restoration projects, tax and other incentives, permit programs, buffers, zoning standards, development practices, and special programs for climate change adaptation and management.

Sheehan’s guidebook was developed through a collaboration with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, with funding provided by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Wetland Program Development Grant. It is available for free on the River Basin Center’s website at www.rivercenter.uga.edu/publications/pdf/local_wetland_programs_2013.pdf and on the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s website at http://www.gaepd.org/Documents/WetlandsProgram.html.

UGA River Basin Center
The River Basin Center, a public service and outreach initiative of the UGA Odum School of Ecology, brings together science and policy to help communities manage and protect water and related land resources sustainably. For more information, see www.rivercenter.uga.edu.