Georgia Governor Expected to Sign Overhaul to Soil and Water Commission (HB 397)

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On Friday, March 27, 2015 the Georgia legislature passed HB 397, overhauling the State Soil and Water Conservation Commission (“Commission“). HB 397 is intended to curb the Commission’s independence and streamline its regulations. The bill transforms the Commission from an independent state agency to one within the umbrella and oversight of the Department of Agriculture. One state representative provides that the bill is expected to save the state up to $300,000. See Michael Caldwell, Legislative Tracker, http://www.caldwellforhouse.com/votes/hb-397-state-soil-and-water-conservation-commission-revise-provisions-provisions/ (Mar. 9, 2015).

Final passage of the bill comes days after Brent Dykes, Executive Director for the Commission, gets axed. In a statement to the Atlanta Journal Constitution (“AJC“) Dykes stated, “[i]t has become increasingly evident that [it] is time for someone else to lead this organization; someone who has the full support of the current state board.” (emphasis added). Dykes leaves after having served within the Commission for 18 years. See Kristina Torres, Senate passes bill affecting state agency that just fired director, AJC, here (Mar. 26, 2015).

Pursuant to HB 397, Governor Nathan Deal will make appointments to the commission, with one member coming from each of the five soil and water conservation districts. Further, the reorganized commission will tap into the expertise of the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences through the appointment of the college’s Dean, Director, and two Associate Deans to advisory roles. Additionally, advisors to the Commission will include the Commissioner of Natural Resources, Commissioner of Agriculture, Director of State Forestry, and others.

The bill removes the Commission’s power to award grants of up to 40% of the cost of obtaining a permit under the Clean Water Act for the construction of new public water supply reservoirs. Additionally, the bill creates an Erosion and Sediment Control Overview Council (“Council“) to approve the Manual for Erosion and Sediment Control in Georgia (“Manual” or “Green Book“). The Green Book is created to provide guidance on best practices for protecting against erosion and sedimentation. The Council will be comprised of two legislators; members of the Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Transportation, and the State Road and Tollway Authority; representatives from the highway contracting industry and the electric utility industry; and a privately employed engineer.

Not all were on board with the bill, however. Organizations such as the Georgia Water Coalition (“GWC“) strongly opposed the bill, stating that it “pulls the commission into the Governor’s orbit by radically changing the composition of the commission’s primary governing board.” The GWC further echoed concerns that the council was comprised of “Georgia Department of Transportation officials with potential conflicts of interest. . .while failing to actually resolve the confusion over which edition of the Green Book design professionals and road builders should use to keep dirt out of our waterways.” Georgia Water Coalition, http://www.garivers.org/gawater/getinvolved.html (Mar. 30, 2015).

HB 397 is currently before the Governor for signing and is expected to obtain final approval in the upcoming weeks.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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