Environmental policy is the result of a multitude of actions taken by many institutions and individuals over a period of time. It is this interplay between groups representing diverse interests and governmental officials that has molded Georgia’s environmental policy. As understanding of environmental matters has increased, policymaking institutions have adjusted to changing needs. Although efforts to protect environmental quality have progressed, the pressures on Georgia’s environment have continued to increase and intensify. In light of the growing complexity of environmental problems and issues, environmental policy in Georgia will have to adapt to be better able to address environmental matters in the future.
In the second half of the twentieth century the American public became increasingly concerned about environmental degradation. In response, federal policymakers began focusing on the enactment and implementation of such statutes as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. These and other landmark pieces of environmental legislation passed during the 1960s and 1970s were designed to curb pollution and other abuses. State legislatures passed similar laws to allow them to implement federal programs to address their own environmental concerns. Federal and state legislative bodies thus emerged as major forums for developing environmental policy.
Environmental law emerged as a centerpiece for environmental policy in Georgia in the mid-1960s. In response to significant water pollution problems, the Georgia General Assembly passed the state’s first major environmental legislation, the Water Quality Control Act of 1964. This was followed in 1968 by the passage of the Georgia Surface Mining Act, which requires the reclamation of lands after mining.
In the 1970s Georgia took major legislative steps to protect its environment. In 1970 the General Assembly enacted the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, establishing a permit system for actions that would convert coastal marshes to dry land uses. In 1972 a new agency, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was created. At the same time environmental permitting authority was concentrated in the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of the DNR. Passage of the Solid Waste Management Act and the Ground Water Use Act was also accomplished in the state in 1972. Other environmental legislation of the 1970s included laws addressing the allocation of surface water, control of soil sedimentation and erosion, and protection of air quality.
In Georgia as in other states, the 1980s and 1990s saw a heightened focus on policymaking activities at the state capitol. This focus was reflected in the increase of lobbyists registered in Georgia during this period, from 300 in 1973 to around 1,000 by 2001. A rising concern about environmental matters could also be seen in the increase in the number of environmental organizations in Georgia, from fewer than 5 in the early 1970s to more than 100 in 2001.
Twenty-first Century Challenges
Although the overall condition of Georgia’s environment is good, there are challenges that largely stem from the need to protect the state’s air, water, and land resources in the face of rapid population growth.
As required by the federal Clean Air Act and by Georgia law, the EPD has prepared state implementation plans that will lead each air quality control region in the state to either attain or move toward the attainment of national ambient air quality standards for six main pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and ozone. Generally, the quality of Georgia’s air remains good. The Atlanta metropolitan area, however, does not meet the standards for ground-level ozone, and several challenges remain elsewhere. For example, the air in Columbus, Macon, Athens, and Augusta shows elevated ozone levels, and additional emission controls may be necessary to improve the air in those cities. Reduction of elevated particulate matter concentrations throughout the state may also involve considerable new controls on the burning of all types of fossil fuels.
As Georgia’s population continues to grow, stress on both the quality and quantity of the state’s water resources intensifies. The state must address such issues as current and future water use in north Georgia; agricultural water use in southwest Georgia; saltwater intrusion; the Biscayne aquifer (part of the Floridan aquifer system) along the coast; water allocation; reduction of pollution from nonpoint sources; water conservation and wastewater reuse; water and wastewater infrastructure construction and maintenance; and drought mitigation. Environmental policies implemented to deal with these issues include new legislation requiring the EPD to prepare river basin management plans, passage of the Flint River Drought Protection Act in 2000, and the creation of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District in 2001.
Assimilating population growth while minimizing its environmental impact is a major challenge in Georgia. The 2000 census report ranked Georgia as the sixth-fastest growing state in the 1990s, growing 26.4 percent during this period. Growth continued, although at a slightly slower pace, in the subsequent decade, with the 2010 census revealing a population growth of 18.3 percent. U.S. Census Bureau estimates in 2011 further indicated that Georgia had become the fourth-fastest growing state in the nation. One side effect of Georgia’s thriving economy and steadily increasing population is land development practices that degrade the state’s air and water quality and result in a loss of greenspace.
In an attempt to address growth issues comprehensively in order to protect environmental quality, the state legislature passed the Georgia Planning Act in 1989. This act includes protective measures for vital areas of the state, including wetlands, water supply watersheds, significant groundwater-recharge areas, stream corridors, and the higher elevations of the mountains (where many drinking-water sources originate). In 2000, under Governor Roy Barnes, the Georgia General Assembly enacted legislation to create the Georgia Community Greenspace Program to encourage the adoption of policies and regulations that would preserve greenspace in rapidly growing counties. Funding for this program ended in 2004.
In 2005, under Governor Sonny Perdue, the legislature passed the Georgia Land Conservation Act, which created a trust fund and a loan fund to which communities can apply to offset the costs of protecting their land and water resources.
Future Environmental Policy Considerations
Environmental policies in Georgia are in flux. Until recently, protecting environmental quality has been accomplished mainly through regulatory policies. These policies, which have been directed at major sources of pollution, have been effective in achieving improved air and water quality in spite of rapid population growth coupled with industrial and commercial expansion. Much of the environmental improvement that has been achieved thus far is based on improved technology (for example, more effective wastewater treatment plants, better air pollution control measures for industry, more efficient cars). Now, however, the focus has shifted to smaller, dispersed pollution sources (for example, individual land-use activities and cars), which, collectively, have a significant effect on the environment. Such nonpoint pollution cannot be resolved solely through regulation of major pollution sources. New and innovative methods are necessary to address the complex environmental problems of the twenty-first century and beyond. Such environmental policy changes should include:
(1) taking a longer-term perspective regarding the environmental impact of individual actions;
(2) placing a greater emphasis on research to identify options that can minimize environmental impacts;
(3) emphasizing smaller, dispersed, nonpoint sources of pollution; and
(4) increasing efforts toward pollution prevention and source reduction.