Preserving Green Space Keeps Water Clean
Counties across metro Atlanta have gotten the message that buying open space for parks and recreation is not only popular with residents, it saves them money.
"We need to keep this water pure for the residents of Douglas County," said Claude Abercrombie, Douglas County Commissioner. "This is about the future. My grandchildren will be drinking this water."
Abercrombie and his fellow county commissioners have seen to it. In June, the county bought 800 acres around the Dog River. The $5.6 million acquisition - purchased with tax-exempt bonds to be paid off from revenue raised by a new 1 percent sales tax - will protect the county's reservoir.
The latest trend appears to be green-space purchases around stream banks, an investment that keeps watersheds and reservoirs cleaner.
Protecting land around waterways prevents shoreline erosion, and ultimately water and sewer departments will have less silt to dredge. Filtering sediment to make water drinkable can cost millions of dollars.
"More and more communities are discovering that it just makes good bottom-line sense to use green space as a water-quality measure," said John Sibley, president of the Georgia Conservancy, a nonprofit group that advocates environmental protection.
The Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority paid $1.4 million two years ago to dredge the northern portion of the Dog River, removing 80,000 cubic yards of silt. That much mud would cover an acre of land to a depth of 50 feet.
Pete Frost, who runs the authority, said he can't place a dollar figure on how much purchasing the land around watersheds could save in dredging costs, but he said it could be significant. The county no longer uses Bear Creek as a reservoir because it contains too much silt.
"The biggest pollutant we have in Douglas County is dirt," Frost said. "As we have developed, there are more rooftops, driveways and new roads. When the water runs off, it runs off much quicker than it did before."
Three Washington environmental groups issued a national report last week and found that Atlanta developed more land --- 609,500 acres from 1982 to 1997 --- and gained more impervious surface than any other metropolitan area in the country.
Development sends an additional 57 billion to 133 billion gallons of polluted runoff into streams and rivers each year, according to the study. With more development, less undeveloped land is available to absorb storm water. That causes runoff to travel at a faster velocity, picking up pollutants along the way. Open space next to streams, rivers and creek acts as a natural filtration system.
Lonice Barrett, commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources, said Georgia's drought has drawn attention to the need for those natural buffers. "I've never seen as much interest in water as we're seeing right now," he said.
Before the drought - now in its fourth year - environmentalists warned that stream bank erosion could create water-quality problems. Now leaders around the region are listening and trying to figure out how to protect a resource long taken for granted before it dries up.
"It's amazing what a drought will do, isn't it?" said Russ Marane, Georgia state director of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that has helped metro Atlanta counties purchase green space. "The interest is increasing every month as this drought is prolonged."
Douglas County also bought 500 acres along the Chattahoochee River. In June, Pickens County acquired 800 acres along the headwaters of Swamp Creek, and DeKalb County over the last year purchased more than 1,200 acres for the Arabia Mountain Expansion that will help protect Stephenson Creek in the southeastern area of the county.
Gwinnett has acquired nearly 5,000 acres of green space, including 350 acres around Norris Lake that will protect stream corridors at the basins. While open space and recreation have been the primary goal, water protection has been an added benefit, said County Commission Chairman Wayne Hill. County leaders have talked about focusing green space near watersheds, he said.
"I don't think we have a choice," Hill said. "We'll become forced to become more interested in it as a water quality and runoff issue."
Mike Mulcare, president of Friends of Douglas County, a citizen activist group that focuses on the environment, said he couldn't get politicians to listen to environmental concerns five years ago.
"It's better to start from a proactive position in preserving green space than to go back and try and fix things, vis-a-vis dredging the reservoir," he said. "There's a direct economic payback to preserving green space."
Local governments are finding a variety of funding sources for the green-space purchases.
Many are getting money from the Georgia Community Greenspace Program. In the last two years, it has awarded $60 million to fast-growing and urban counties to purchase open land. One of the program's stated goals is water-quality protection for rivers, steams and lakes.
Clay Long, who chairs what is commonly referred to as the Governor's Greenspace Program, said stream bank protection is something the region hadn't been worrying about. "The reality is water has been so plentiful in the Southeast, particularly in Georgia," he said.
"The best place to look for the quality of the environment we live in is what kind of condition your water is in," he added. "It's crucial that we protect these watershed areas. It's part of the whole cycle of nature --- from the tiny branches to the big rivers."
Pickens County purchased its 800 acres with $1.7 million in federal highway funds, provided to protect scenic views. But the land purchase also will help preserve watersheds along the property, said Barbara Decker, executive director of Mountain Conservation Trust of Georgia, which helped broker the deal.
The county also contributed $300,000 and received a $120,000 grant from the Governor's Greenspace Program to make the $2.1 million purchase.
"You have to be really creative to finance these things," Decker said. "There are not many foundations that will give money for land acquisition."
DeKalb County has leveraged $675,000 from Federal Emergency Management Agency for grants to buy small amounts of flood-plain property. But for large acquisitions, the county has relied on money from the state, $5.5 million from the Governor's Greenspace Program and millions more from voters. They passed a $130 million bond referendum last year, earmarking $90 million for land purchases. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation also awarded the county $1.6 million.
"A major focus of land acquisition efforts is the preservation of our natural resources, and clearly the watershed protection is a strong emphasis in that arena," said Tina Arbes, assistant county administrator who heads the office of Park Bonds and Green Space.
Betsy Otto, a spokesperson for American Rivers, one of the three environmental groups that published the study, is encouraged that some counties in Atlanta are purchasing green space around watersheds.
"We can't continue to ignore this fundamental part of our water shortage problems," she said. "Counties and municipalities need to take steps now to protect their natural water systems or problems will come back to hurt them."