Georgia streams gain federal protection under new rule signed Wednesday

Thousands of miles of Georgia’s streams, including those that feed the Flint River in Middle Georgia, will gain federal protection under a final rule signed Wednesday.

The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly 10 years, according to a statement from Environment Georgia, a statewide advocacy agency.

All told, nearly 60 percent of Georgia’s 40,000 miles of streams, including those feeding the Savannah and the Chattahoochee rivers, will gain the protections.

“Georgia rivers -- where we swim, fish, and go boating -- can only be clean if we protect the streams that feed them,” said Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia. “That’s why today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”

By closing a loophole created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, the rule returns Clean Water Act protections to streams that feed the drinking water sources for more than 4.9 million Georgians and one in three Americans. Millions of acres of wetlands, which help with flood control and filtering of pollutants, also will again be shielded under federal law.

The court rulings had put small streams, headwaters and certain wetlands in a legal limbo, allowing polluters and developers to dump into them or destroy them in some cases without a permit, according to the statement. In a four-year period after the decisions, the Environmental Protection Agency had to drop more than 1,500 cases against polluters, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

First proposed in March 2014, the joint rule by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is backed by scientific review and has gained broad support. Georgians joined Americans across the country to submit 800,000 comments in favor of the rule last fall.