Originally created 02/24/02

Sciences group clarifies position on airport master plan



MEANINGFUL PROGRESS for Augusta is something we all want. If we define progress as a single step forward, true progress is not attained if an action takes one step forward and another step back.

Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy is committed to working with the community and its leaders to help Augusta to make genuine progress.

One of the academy's functions is to provide leadership for community participation in balancing economic growth with sustainable use of our shared natural resources.

The academy is therefore sensitive to public issues that affect these limited resources. One such issue is the Augusta Aviation Commission's master plan to expand Augusta Regional Airport.

The aviation panel's chairperson recently briefed the academy on the master plan. The academy welcomes a working relationship with the commission and believes that a community dialogue is essential for progress. These discussions resulted in the academy making an informal proposal to the commission for the academy to serve in an advisory role for scoping environmental studies of the commission's master plan.

WE ALREADY have expressed to the commission that the less-inclusive environmental assessment process would not adequately address the complexity of ecological issues relating to its master plan.

Instead, the academy endorses for this project a full environmental impact statement to ensure that the study is comprehensive in scope and that alternatives are given due consideration. While this process is more costly, it does provide a framework to make more judicious long term decisions.

This recommendation has been shared in meetings and discussions with the aviation commission and its environmental consultant, as well as with the airport director.

The runway construction alternative the commission supports would impact the wetlands complex and the terminus of five major drainage systems flowing into Phinizy Swamp. These systems serve a 73-square-mile watershed. In heavy rainfall, the flow in the terminus often exceeds 5,000 cubic feet per second. Construction and mitigation costs would be excessive.

The academy does not support any airport construction that would encroach into Phinizy Swamp or impact the remaining natural resources and the compromised habitats of historic Phinizy Swamp.

CONSEQUENCES OF such an alternative could include irreversible damages to Butler Creek and its floodplain, which are already overtaxed with storm water flows and sediment loads. This course of action also would result in aircraft takeoffs and landings directly over historic habitat for native bird populations and for birds following the Savannah River migration corridor.

Moreover, constructing a runway in this area must be examined in light of the Federal Aviation Administration's Advisory Circular No. 150/5200-33. This illustrates the need for a master plan for Phinizy Swamp. The swamp and adjoining areas, including airport property, are part of a greater riverine ecosystem.

A major change to any one segment will have whole-system impacts. Because these are city properties and city issues, development of the master plan would require city resources. A carefully researched and thoughtfully assembled master plan will identify strategies for managing natural resources as well as opportunities for accommodating development.

Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy has a track record of working with the community and its leaders to create a better Augusta through sustainability. A prime example is the preservation of natural wetlands we achieved by establishing Phinizy Swamp Nature Park. Phinizy Swamp provides flood relief for Augusta, natural treatment of storm water, a final conduit for treated municipal wastewater, and habitat for flora and fauna.

OTHER EXAMPLES of our leadership on natural resources management include:

Coordinating with Georgia departments of Transportation and Natural Resources to expand our education and research programs to properties adjacent to Bobby Jones Expressway Extension.

Working with Merry Land Properties to create a wetland mitigation bank to restore floodplain used for clay mining since the late 1800s.

Participating in Augusta's Watershed Assessment Team to study issues associated with increased demands on the Savannah River.

Community input and participation on local projects affecting our environment are essential for effective stewardship of the community's natural resources. The academy creates a means for public input on natural resource issues.

MEMBERS OF THE community may submit comments to pswampnp@bellsouth.net, writing "public input" in the subject line. This input will be categorized and analyzed, shared with leaders, and archived for future reference.

(Editor's note: The writer is founder, president emeritus, and director of science of Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.)