Jason Wisniewski, aquatic zoologist, holds up a bag of mussels collected from the Flint River in the southern part of the state. Six species of mussels are on the federal endangered species list.
By Pam O’Dell
Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Aquatic Zoologist Jason Wisniewski spends his days reaching deep into the thick and slimy bottom of the Flint River’s tributaries hoping to bring up creatures whose astounding ecological resilience is finally giving out: mussels. “I love my job,” Wisniewski says as he describes desperate efforts to save six species on the federal endangered species list before they disappear from the Flint - and the planet - forever.
Years of drought and ‘over allocation’ of agriculture water permits are the primary reasons tributaries in the Flint have periodically gone dry. While the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) retains power (within the Endangered Species Act) to enact significant sanctions and environmental groups consider legal action (contending that Georgia’s efforts amount to ‘too little too late’) historic challenges to Georgia’s riparian water rights doctrine lie in the balance.
During the ’70s, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GAEPD) issued a significant number of water withdrawal permits in the Flint Basin. The department did so without requiring meters measuring water withdrawals. To this day, the department does not know how much water is being withdrawn from the Flint.
During the late ’90s, significant droughts hit the state. Gordon Rogers, executive director of the Flint River Keeper, says this led to significant depletion of the aquifer as well as decreased flows in the lower Flint and the rapid demise of mussel species.
When threatened with ESA violations, the state made significant efforts to ascertain how much water was being used, in order to implement a reduction program. Meanwhile, several species of mussels disappeared.
Although the FWS continues to supervise the mussel recovery effort (helping to design a “recovery plan” and meeting with stakeholders to reduce water usage), Field Supervisor Sandra Tucker concedes that significant and immediate action must be taken to save the mussels.
Wisniewski remembers the day he noticed that water levels in a creek appeared dangerously low. He notified DNR leadership, and a well, pumping 900 gallons of water per minute into the creek, was installed in short order “just to keep the mussels wet. When water levels measure low, water is pumped to keep them alive.” Wisniewski said.
Other heroic efforts have included gathering up mussels, keeping them in a lab-style environment, until the tributaries have sufficient water to keep them alive.
“These bandaids are a ridiculous waste of time and money,” Rogers says. It is obvious that the state needs to do the difficult work and cut back on withdrawals. This is a self-inflicted crisis. Now, instead of making hard political choices, they want to employ band aids and threaten historic property rights. “
Rogers is referring to a controversial project the state is undertaking to pump water into lower aquifers for use during drought periods. The property rights issue created unlikely allies: environmentalists and conservative groups such as the Atlanta TEA Party, during an effort to significantly amend the Flint River Protection Act last legislative session.
The groups contend that SB213 (which passed the Senate but was held in the House) sets in place a significant and dangerous water policy reversal. The bill employs the ‘prior appropriation’ doctrine, as is common to Western states such as Colorado and California. The policy is non-riparian which means that water ownership is not associated with land ownership. Water rights are given to the first “beneficial use.”
This is in sharp contrast to the doctrine historically used in Georgia (and common to states East of the Mississippi) which favors traditional riparian rights (water rights connected to the land). The doctrine is based on the belief that water belongs to all (including the mussels). Hence, water should not be traded or diverted for any particular user.
Water trading concerns environmentalists as it often leads to man-made infrastructure changes and the destruction of ecosystems. “Setting a precedent which reverses historic water and property rights to provide a ‘quick fix’ to a complicated problem which government created makes no sense. It is bad government, it is irresponsible,” contends Rogers.
American Rivers, a national environmental group, listed the Flint as “the most endangered river in the nation” in large part, because of the threat SB312 poses to the river.
Meanwhile, mussels perish from what Wisniewski believes is the Eden of biodiversity. “These mussels don’t exist anywhere else on the planet. It’s our job to make sure that someone far wiser than I who put them there is respected.”
O’Dell provides news on state government through The O’Dell Report in newspapers in North Georgia and her blog, odellreport.com. She can be contacted at pamodellreport @gmail.com