Point of View

Let's not wait to save Falls Lake

June 22, 2009 

Thinking about swimming in Falls Lake? Think again. In the last month alone, two Falls Lake beaches have been closed due to unsafe levels of coliform and enterococci bacteria. In fact, Wake County officials recommend that anyone swimming or water skiing in the lake wash thoroughly after exposure to the water.

Meanwhile, scientists monitoring the Falls Lake intake for Raleigh's drinking water have found algae overgrowth that is creating high levels of cyanobacteria -- bacteria potentially toxic to humans. "Dead zones" in the water, created by the algae, are literally choking out aquatic life.

Falls Lake is screaming for help and, unfortunately, it's receiving a response equivalent to "Not right now dear, I'm busy."

Falls Lake is the main source of drinking water for much of Wake County. State and local officials are well aware that the lake is polluted and that the situation is getting worse as development around of the lake carries more urban, road and agriculture runoff into streams feeding the reservoir.

Because the lake is officially "impaired," the General Assembly ordered that rules be developed to clean it up; the deadline set to do that has already been extended once. Now, the state Division of Water Quality wants another two-and-a-half-year extension.

To the contrary: it's time to get moving on the rules. With the development expected during the next economic boom, we cannot afford to wait to put better stormwater controls in place.

Cleaning up the lake will not be easy, because many "stakeholders" are involved, from cities to developers to farmers to state government itself. Those 500,000 of us who rely on the lake for drinking water are stakeholders too, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of new people who will be living downstream in the next two decades.

The rule development process for Jordan Lake (which provides drinking water for Cary) has taken close to 12 years, but the Falls Lake process can happen more quickly. Here's why.

Unlike the Jordan process, where a diverse group of stakeholders did not participate until the scientific tools had already been developed, the Falls Lake process has had stakeholder input since the beginning. Following the 2005 completion of the Falls Lake Special Study, local governments, homebuilders, environmentalists, government agencies, universities and the Farm Bureau were invited to join the state in creating the tools and rules needed to save the lake.

The thousands of hours already devoted to the stakeholder and technical advisory process should -- and do -- mean something, and should allow the Falls Lake process to conclude more quickly than was the case with Jordan.

Fortunately Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, as well as state Sen. Josh Stein and Reps. Jennifer Weiss and Grier Martin, understand the need for action now. They are recommending an extension of only one year unless significant steps are taken to protect and improve Falls Lake until the rules are in place.

One option would be to implement the Jordan Lake rules on new development concurrently in the Falls watershed. Stakeholders spent years working out a plan for Jordan, and those same stakeholders will likely recommend a similar approach for Falls Lake.

If you drink from, fish in, swim in or simply care for Falls Lake, you are a stakeholder in the outcome of the Falls Lake rules.

"Project Citizen" students at East Millbrook Middle School recently identified pollution of the lake as one of the biggest problems of their community and even held a mock legislative hearing to propose solutions. We could all take some direction from these bright kids, who seem to grasp what is at stake for their future.

Alissa Bierma is the Upper Neuse riverkeeper for the Neuse River Foundation. Karen Rindge is executive director of WakeUp Wake County. More about the issue is at fallslakestakeholder.org, neuseriver.org and wakeupwakecounty.com.

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