The Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division jointly announced Aug. 22 the Initiative for Watershed Excellence: Upper Altamaha Pilot Project. The project is managed by UGA’s River Basin Center and involves a consortium of students and personnel from Mercer University, Gainesville College’s Oconee campus, and Georgia College and State University. The initiative will help stakeholders in the 52 counties in the Upper Altamaha watershed region to better manage their water resources.
“Region 4 is proud to participate with our partners in this collaborative effort to launch and support this first-of-a-kind project,” says Jimmy Palmer, EPA Region 4 administrator in Atlanta. “We believe this initiative provides an efficient and effective approach to improving water quality, as well as the quality of life for our citizens.”
The Upper Altamaha watershed was chosen because it lies entirely within Georgia’s borders, thereby simplifying the scope of water resource issues that might be addressed in this pilot effort. The program is expected to become self-supporting within five years.
“We want to promote local stakeholders’ involvement in protecting and improving the natural and economic resources of their watershed,” says Bill Cox, director of EPA’s Region 4 Watershed Management Office. “What differentiates this concept is that this initiative is built around providing support for all aspects of the watershed approach: building local capacity, watershed assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation. This is one of the first opportunities to organize this type of assistance around the watershed management framework in a holistic fashion. By involving our universities’ faculties and students, we can provide support that will have the benefit of lessons learned over time, keeping the costs low and providing students with real world experience that meets the needs of the community. It will also help communities develop and employ cost-effective watershed management approaches.”
“We’ll provide training and technical assistance to local and regional government officials and staff, nongovernmental organizations, business interests and other stakeholders on topics of watershed concern,” says Laurie Fowler, co-director of the River Basin Center, part of UGA’s Institute of Ecology. Community assistance may also take the form of workshops on riparian buffers, stormwater management, land use planning tools, and development of permit fee programs, grants and other funding opportunities.
The economic value of the initiative may be enormous. The program can help provide relatively low cost assistance to local governments and stakeholders who need help on a wide range of watershed management issues. It can also help identify funding sources for things as varied as water monitoring equipment, public septic systems or restoration of streams. The program can also coordinate water resource planning on a regional basis.
The Upper Altamaha region has seen tremendous growth-between 1990 and 2000, the state of Georgia saw a 26.4 percent increase in population, more than twice the national average-and pressure on water resources is expected to increase in the coming years. Coordination between stakeholders is critical to managing those resources.
The initiative will be a start, beginning with a Web site (www.rivercenter.uga.edu/service/iwe.htm) and prioritization of needs. The River Basin Center has begun creating a database of watershed stakeholders and convened a team to prioritize their needs. An initial survey of stakeholders that included local governments, advocacy groups and federal and state agencies revealed a strong interest by stakeholders in receiving accurate gauges of current and future land use, and in education programs to teach cost-effective water management techniques.
In early September, after it has been determined what issues have the highest priority over the greatest area of the Upper Altamaha watershed, the River Basin Center will submit a detailed plan to the EPA and EPD for stakeholder assistance projects that will show the greatest impact.
“We envision the formation of watershed ‘centers of excellence’ in the Southeast, covering specific geographic areas based on ecoregions, river basins or similar organizing concepts,” says Cox. “The centers would be made up of one or more colleges or universities. The goal is to apply research, instruction and student involvement in solving some of the major issues affecting watersheds and water quality in our communities.”
“It’s a huge project, the first time we’ve attempted anything this size,” says Ron Carroll, River Basin Center co-director. “But this program has the potential to spread across the country. It could be a real boon to water management.”