In 2002, the counties and cities of the Etowah basin began working together to create a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the imperiled fish species that live in the Etowah's waters. Their impetus was not merely to protect wildlife-although the HCP is designed to protect the unique fish species of the Etowah, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth-but rather, to ensure that the protection of fish does not compromise the ability of the region to continue to grow and develop. Because three of the fish species are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), developers faced lengthy delays to their projects in order to assure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which enforces the ESA, that impacts to fish would be minimal. In addition, they faced potential enforcement actions if fish were killed. But many projects fell through the cracks, creating an uneven regulatory field and inadequate protection for the fish.
Recognizing that this situation was neither fair nor sustainable, the local governments have pursued an alternative approach: writing a Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP. Under an HCP, local governments can pass ordinances and policies to ensure that development activities do not cause too much harm to fish species. In return, developers will have greatly reduced consultation times with FWS, saving them money. The local governments will also receive an Incidental Take Permit, which gives them and all developers who adhere to the regulations protection from prosecution if fish are accidentally killed. The bottom line is that the Etowah Aquatic HCP will result in time and money savings for developers, more uniform and fair enforcement conducted primarily by local-not federal-officials, and better protection for the imperiled fish of the Etowah. An added benefit is that policies that protect fish also protect water quality.
Development of the Etowah Aquatic HCP has been overseen by a Steering
Committee, the voting members of which are representatives of the local
governments within the basin. Non-voting members include representatives
from local water and sewer authoritiies, stakeholder organizations, and
federal and state agencies. The Steering Commitee appointed several ad
hoc Technical Committees to research and develop policies for the HCP.
The Technical Committees are made up of experts from within the Etowah
basin and are staffed by researchers from the University of Georgia. An
Advisory Committee assists the Steering Committee and Technical
Committees with scientific and legal research, public education and
outreach, and organization of meetings. A Scientific Advisory Committee,
composed of scientists with expertise in the ecology and population
biology of the Etowah's aquatic imperiled species, provided an
independent review of the HCP throughout the planning process. Other
reviewers vetted the Runoff Limits policy and the document as a whole.
The Etowah Aquatic HCP was submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for review on Dec. 21, 2006. The FWS state and regional offices returned comments on the HCP in February, 2007. The comments have been addressed, and significant changes were reviewed by HCP Steering Committee members representing participating local governments. The revised Etowah Aquatic HCP was resubmitted to FWS on May 10, 2007.
Participating local governments have each passed a resolution to officially authorize the submission of the document on their behalf. Other local governments can opt into the HCP at a later date if they desire, though they may have to go through a separate notice and comment period which may extend the amount of time it will take for them to receive their incidental take permits.
Adoption of HCP policies is not necessary until after the FWS completes its review of the HCP, at which point the Etowah Aquatic HCP Steering Committee and the FWS must agree on the final version of the document.
For more information:
Eric Prowell, Hydrologist
USFWS, Georgia Ecological Services
105 West Park Drive, Suite D.
Athens GA 30606