Wake vote could hurt lake cleanup

Further fouling of Falls Lake would weaken plans to cut pollution

Staff writerMarch 2, 2010 

— The Wake County Board of Commissioners might allow commercial development in the Falls Lake watershed, a scenario that environmental groups and Raleigh city staff warned could impede efforts to clean the polluted waters of the lake.

The commissioners bypassed a decision on the proposal at their meeting Tuesday and sent it to a committee to be hashed out. Though the proposed text change would affect as many as 10 spots in county watersheds, it came out of a request to allow a lumberyard at N.C. 98 and Old Creedmoor Road near Falls Lake to be redeveloped into a shopping center.

Concerns have popped up over it because Falls Lake provides drinking water for Raleigh and several Wake County towns.

The lake water is considered impaired, or polluted, from high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen caused by increased development and agricultural byproducts in the reservoir's watershed in Durham, Granville and Person counties.

The commissioners' discussion Tuesday came on the same day that the N.C. Division of Water Quality released its proposed plan to clean up the lake. The plan needs approval by a state environmental commission before January 2011, a deadline set by the state legislature.

The lake's high levels of algae, which are an indicator of phosphorus and nitrogen levels, can harm water quality. Raleigh public utilities staff have said that the water is safe now but that unless the lake is cleaned up hundreds of millions of dollars will have to be spent to upgrade their system.

The draft rules released by the state gave a 10-year timeline to reduce the algae concentrations in the lower half of the lake below N.C. 50 where Raleigh draws water for treatment. The upper part of the lake, which has much higher levels of pollution, has a 20-year window to improve its level in the draft rules.

The N.C. Environmental Management Commission is next looking for comment from the public, including the multiple municipalities and communities affected by the rules as well as environmental groups and the region's building industry, which may have to adjust how developments are designed and how rain run-off is handled.

Growth begets pollution

As the region has seen more growth, more surfaces have been paved, reducing the natural filtration of rainwater by the ground. Covering the ground with roofs, roads and driveways lets water with worrisome levels of pollution and nutrients to seep into the lake.

In January, the cleanup plan will land in the hands of the state legislature.

But in Wake County, the county's planning staff and commissioners were asked by Raleigh lawyer Lacy Reaves to allow the redevelopment of existing properties that are within the Falls Lake watershed. Reaves, a land-use attorney, wouldn't identify the client for whom he was acting because Reaves said he didn't have permission to speak to the press.

Reaves told the commissioners that allowing the lumberyard to be zoned for a shopping center could end up helping the lake, by adding stormwater controls on the plot of land near N.C. 98. County planning staff and a planning committee recommended making the changes Reaves requested.

Raleigh weighs in

The city of Raleigh, wading into the shopping center concerns, asked the commissioners to turn down the proposal so as to prevent additional commercial development in the Falls watershed.

But allowing development in the watershed gives the wrong message for Durham and Granville and Person counties, which are likely to shoulder most of the cost of the cleanup, said Bob Mulder, a Raleigh resident who has been active in watershed issues.

The Falls Lake cleanup is expected to require new developments to reduce the amount of pavement they use and will require communities to find ways to offset the toll that existing housing and commercial developments are taking.

"Wake County would have zero credibility," Mulder said.

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or 829-4622

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