Riparian Buffers and Stream Setbacks

There are several laws in Georgia mandating stream riparian buffer protection as outlined in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (O.C.G.A.), including: the Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act, the Georgia Planning Act Minimum Standards, and the Metropolitan River Protection Act. All affected local governments must comply (minimally) with these regulations within local plans and ordinances. Non-compliance to the Georgia Planning Act may result in a loss of Federal water and sewer funding through the Department of Community Affairs.

Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act

Requirements:
The Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act of 1975 (O.C.G.A. 12-7) and its subsequent amendments require that primary and secondary trout streams maintain an undisturbed riparian buffer of 50 ft, and all other streams maintain a minimum buffer of 25 ft (measured from where vegetation is wrested by normal stream flow).

Exemptions:
Surface mining, granite quarrying, minor land-disturbing activities (e.g. garden), agricultural operations, and Soil and Water Conservation Service projects are all exempted from compliance with the above buffer requirements. Forestry land management practices are allowed within the riparian buffer, with a period of three years required before land can be developed. Single family home construction, DOT and other road construction projects, and electric utility projects are also exempt from permitting, although these activities must comply with the minimum standards outlined in O.C.G.A. 12-7-6.

Georgia Planning Act Minimum Standards

Requirements:
The Georgia Planning Act Minimum Standards of 1983 (O.C.G.A. 12-2-8) provide local governments with criteria designed to protect specific waterways. The sections that pertain to stream riparian buffers are: Criteria for Water Supply Watersheds (391-3-16-.01) and Criteria for River Corridor Protection (391-3-16-.04). According to this law, all water supply watersheds must provide 100 ft buffers from the stream banks of all tributaries within a 7 mile radius of the water intake. Also required is a 150 ft impervious surface setback, and septic tanks and drainfields are prohibited within this setback. Water supply watersheds less than 100 mi2 must also protect tributaries outside the 7 mile radius upstream of the water intake. These streams must have a 50 ft riparian buffer from the stream bank, a 75 ft impervious surface setback, and no septic tanks or drainfields may be built within the 75 ft setback. Pursuant to the criteria for river corridor protection, all rivers with average annual flow (as defined by the U.S. Geological Survey) greater than 400 cfs must have a 100 ft as measured from the riverbanks and mean high water.

Exemptions:
Local governments may exempt mining activities, utilities, forestry and agriculture activities, and existing prior uses from the buffer requirements. Utilities must be located back as far as possible from the stream, must not impair drinking water quality, and the installation and maintenance must protect the buffer as best possible. Forestry and agriculture must comply with best management practices and must not impair drinking water quality.

Metropolitan River Protection Act

Requirements:
The Metropolitan River Protection Act (O.C.G.A. 12-5-440 to 12-5-457) applies to all metropolitan areas with a population of more than 1,000,000 which have a major stream that provides >40% of the public water supply. As of the current census, the regulations only pertain to a section of the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, Georgia. No land-disturbing activities may occur in the 35 ft riparian buffer along the main stem of the Chattahoochee River and along all tributaries within 2,000 ft of the river.

Exemptions:
None. See O.C.G.A. 12-5-444 for restrictions and clarifications of land-disturbing activities that must be complied with in the comprehensive plan.

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