Soil conservation agency on state chopping block under Deal’s budget

It sounds wonky but it’s a big issue’


  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, a former state rep turned eco attorney at GreenLaw, says commission’s work is vital to protecting waterways from major pollutant

Of all the moves in Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed budget for next year, one that environmentalists are watching closely is the proposed end of independence for a conservation agency that has recently tried to toughen rules on a dirty pollutant.

The Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission came from Dust Bowl-era efforts to help farmers keep their soil rich, and later, to keep water clean. Its officials also write the so-called “Green Book,” the erosion rules that developers across the state must follow if they’re going to start digging and moving dirt.

“It sounds wonky but it’s a big issue,” says state representative-turned-environmental attorney Stephanie Stuckey Benfield of GreenLaw. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that the number one pollutant in our waterways … is runoff … dirt from construction sites.”

One of the key tools to keeping dirt out of streams are silt fences: the orange or black fabric fences or booms that criss-cross construction sites to keep soil in place. The Green Book sets technical standards that products must meet to be legal in Georgia.

In 2010, funded by a federal grant, SWCC began what turned out to be a three-year process of research for updating the circa-2000 Green Book.

Some local SWCC supervisors in metro Atlanta looked forward to starting use of the new Green Book, the sixth edition, right about now. But something put the brakes on it.

The updated rules on silt fence standards in the sixth edition touched some nerves and began about a year of industry-led pushback. A bare quorum of the commission voted late last year to let the old book stand — and make the new book optional. It wasn’t necessarily death for the sixth edition, but it was not the best outcome, in Benfield’s opinion.

“If the sixth edition is followed, the technology that is being used on these sites is going to be best practices, it’s going to be the most protective of our waterways,” Benfield says. She wants the new book to become the sole standard.

Just weeks after the commission announced its sort-of non-decision, Deal’s office released the governor’s draft budget. The spending plan showed SWCC’s $2.6 million budget line cut down to zero and most of its staff, functions,and funding moved to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

In case of that move, it’s not clear how Green Book decisions would be made, or if there would still be a five-seat commission to make that decision in public as is done now. Or even what would happen to the sixth edition.

A request for comment to Gov. Deal’s office was not returned. The state agriculture department has yet to announce its opinion. The SWCC’s current executive director, Brent Dykes, said that he’s not going to voice an opinion on the proposal.

“It needs to go through the legislative process,” Dykes says. “If that’s the will of the legislative body then it gets signed by the governor, that’s the way it works.”

Last year, Deal’s budget started out with the same proposal to put SWCC under the agriculture department, but it did not survive the General Assembly’s vetting.