Originally created 04/02/04

River access should be granted in public interest, not private profit

I thought with the relatively recent withdrawal of U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood's House Resolution 2753 (a threat to turn over ownership of the Corps of Engineer's lakeshore property to the counties) that we might have a reprieve (at least temporarily) on the threats to our water resource in the large reservoirs (Clarks Hill, Russell and Hartwell) upstream. However, that does not seem to be the case.

According to a Corps of Engineers Issue Paper, dated Oct. 7, 2003, there has been a series of meetings between the Corps and developers, meetings that included U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett. These meetings concerned access to the shore of the Russell Reservoir. The issue paper also describes several conflicts between Corps' reservoir management policy and the developers' desire for private control of access to the lakeshore. It appears that these conflicts continue to the present. It seems that the engine driving the developers' need for private access is private profit.

There is nothing wrong with private profit as a motivating factor; for some it is a very effective motivator. However, if the profit comes at the expense of the public, we have to evaluate whether it is appropriate. Because the water in the reservoirs eventually becomes the drinking water and recreational water for many of us downstream, we have a vested interest in maintaining the water quality in the reservoirs. If the water quality downstream will be compromised by allowing private interests to control access to the lake, then the control of that access should not be granted. The evidence indicates that private control of the lakeshore does compromise water quality. Again, we use Lake Lanier as a prime example of that problem.

Note that we are not talking about denying anyone access to the lake. We are simply talking about rules that apply to access to the lake, such as how much pollution will be allowed into the lake from runoff, including fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; rules for how close a septic field can be placed to the lake; rules for dock construction on a public lake; rules for activities that can cause the introduction of sediment into the lake; rules for uses of shoreline property that can impact other users of the lake; and rules that apply to the interactions of lake users and lake residents.

Indeed, the Corps rules guarantee public access to the lake, but when private profits are the motivator what guarantee does the public have that public access will be a consideration? In fact, it is demonstrable that lakes with privately controlled shorelines are much less accessible to the public than are lakes with shorelines controlled by government.

The primary motivation of private real estate interests is almost always immediate private gain, a motivation that will control access to the lake where exceptions are made to Corps policy. Actions motivated by immediate private gain will not include resource protections unless we insist that they do so. Since the Corps policy already incorporates those resource protections, it is simply a matter of insisting that the developments take place within the confines of resource protection. Corps policy, while not perfect, is motivated by public interest and will protect our resource better than the profit motive, especially since the profit motive is based on using our water resource as a real estate resource.

Though the current attempt to privatize the shoreline of Lake Russell represents only a small fraction of the shoreline of that lake, the precedent presents a problem for future management of the shorelines of the lakes. Once that precedent is set, other developers will want their share of paradise and the lakes will suffer the death of a thousand cuts.

The Savannah Riverkeeper, an organization that closely watches the environment in and around the Savannah River, is not opposed to using the presence of the reservoirs in the upper basin to drive the economic engine of the upper basin, but it insists that the economic development be done in such a way that it be sustainable for the upper basin and protective of the water resource for the upper basin and the lower basin.

The Corps of Engineers is a government regulatory agency and any meetings in which changes in policy are discussed should be open to the public. However, the meetings in question were not only closed, they were held in Charlotte, N.C., a good distance from the affected lakeshore. Neither the secrecy nor the involvement of Graham and Barrett would be necessary if the players were proposing to play by the rules. Just the fact that the meetings took place outside of public scrutiny is an indication that something is amiss.

But the clincher is the fact that orders have been given within the Corps for the Corps scientists to justify the variance in Corps policy to allow private access for this development, a variance that is not justifiable. And that explains the role of Graham and Barrett in the meetings. Access, whether it is to the reservoir or to our politicians, needs to be controlled in the public interest.

(Editor's note: Mr. Carl is executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper, an Augusta-based river stewardship organization.)