Falls Lake cleanup will be costly, contentious

Communities in the watershed face the prospect of paying millions of dollars.

Staff writerMarch 7, 2010 

  • 1983: The lake is created by damming the Neuse River in response to flooding.

    2005: The state legislature recognizes that the lake needs to be cleaned up.

    2008: The state Division of Water Quality designates the lake "impaired" based on findings of high levels of pollutants in water samples

    Summer 2009: Beaverdam and Sandling beaches are closed six times because of high levels of bacteria in the water.

    March 2010: The Division of Water Quality proposes rules to ensure that the lake will comply with state and federal water quality standards.

    What's next?

    Spring 2010: The state Environmental Management Commission solicits public comment on a cleanup plan.

    January 2011: The Environmental Management Commission is due to complete a proposal.

    2016: Raleigh will have to spend millions to upgrade its water treatment plants if water quality in the lake doesn't improve.

    For more information, including a link to the draft Falls Lake rules, visit www.fallslakestakeholder .org .

Underneath the glassy surface of Falls Lake, pollution threatens the drinking water of a half-million people in Wake County and the growth of a large part of the Triangle.

Five years after the need for a cleanup was recognized by the state legislature, the state Environmental Management Commission is hammering out a strategy to reduce pollutants flowing into the almost 12,500-acre reservoir from streams and rivers in Orange, Person, Granville, Wake and Durham counties that have led to rising levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the lake.

The next few months will prove crucial with Triangle city and county governments, homebuilders, environmental groups and concerned citizens being asked to tell the commission what they think should happen.

The push and pull between the interests of Durham and Raleigh - the two communities with possibly the most at stake - may lead to tense relations between the two cities.

Raleigh, and a large part of Wake County, needs Falls Lake for its drinking water and will spend millions upgrading the city's water treatment plant if pollution isn't reduced by 2016.

But Durham looks as though it will be on the hook for millions of dollars to lower the amount of sediment-laden stormwater that rushes off pavement in its urban core into streams, creeks and rivers that flow into the lake. Durham doesn't get its water from Falls Lake but from Lake Michie and the Little River Reservoir.

"Who pays and who benefits when it comes to reservoirs?" asked state Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham. "Should some of that cost be shared?"

Answering those questions will require the state to forge through Durham and Raleigh's conflicting concerns, as well as those of other parties interested in the welfare of the lake.

The N.C. Division of Water Quality designated the lake "impaired" in 2008, forcing action on a problem disputed by almost no one.

Last week, the water quality division released draft rules to ensure compliance with state and federal water quality standards. The rules address how local governments must deal with stormwater runoff and how new construction will happen in the Falls Lake watershed. The Environmental Management Commission will use the rules as the basis for a cleanup plan.

The Division of Water Quality rules, which Durham leaders have already said they're unhappy with, looks to lower the nutrient levels in the lower half of the lake east of N.C. 50 within 10 years and gives a 30-year deadline for the upper portion, where most of the pollution is concentrated.

Durham city officials have complained that getting the lake's algae levels down to what the state is proposing for the shallow upper part of the lake isn't possible, even if the entire watershed were forested.

The division's draft rules also don't require evaluation of the lake's improvement over the course of the cleanup, something both the city and county of Durham want to make sure the measures being used to clean the lake are working, said Drew Cummings, an assistant Durham County manager.

"To me, that's good government," Cummings said. "It's how you ensure that you're spending your money most wisely."

Environmental groups are worried that Durham is trying to stall the cleanup by asking for a measurement of improvements.

With the draft rules now out, a window has opened for the public and the various groups with a stake in the lake's cleanup to offer their thoughts to the state agency and attend public hearings expected this spring before the Environmental Management Commission.

The 19-member commission oversees and gives rules to several divisions in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, including the water quality division. The commission has to meet a January deadline to hand in a final proposal to the legislature.

Sources of pollution

Falls Lake, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, was created by damming the Neuse River in response to flooding that had damaged land downstream.

Straddling Wake and Durham counties and completed in 1983, the lake serves as the drinking water source for more than 450,000 people in Raleigh and surrounding Wake communities. With more than 25,000 acres of public land ringing the lake, it's also a recreation area and has become a favorite for fishers, kayakers, boaters, campers and families looking for respite from North Carolina's hot summers on the lake's four public beaches maintained by the state parks system.

The Division of Water Quality labeled the lake as "impaired" after scientists who sampled its water found high levels of phosphorus and nitrates that likely washed into the lake from its watershed in Durham, Granville, Person and Wake counties.

Nature offers a way to clean rainwater, with the ground filtering away many of the nutrients as water passes through soil. But with more and more development in the Falls Lake watershed, rainwater can rush right into storm drains and get dumped directly into streams without going through that process.

The phosphorus and nitrogen come from a variety of sources, including sediment and minerals washed off paved surfaces, leaking septic systems and treated water from wastewater plants. Natural decomposition on forest floors, agricultural fertilizers and waste, pollutants from the atmosphere and decaying aquatic vegetation also contribute.

Too much nitrogen and phosphorus can cause algae spurts, leaving the water murky, smelling of fish and low in oxygen.

Beach closings

Two beaches on the lake - Beaverdam and Sandling - were closed a total of six times last summer, when Wake County officials found bacteria levels unsafe for swimming. Human activity in the lake also contributes to unsanitary conditions.

JoAnn Burkholder, an N.C. State University aquatic ecology professor who has been researching the Falls Lake pollution, said the unsafe conditions on the beaches may be symptoms of the lake's illnesses.

"That indicates to me that something has seriously gone wrong," Burkholder said about the beach closures at a recent forum about Falls Lake.

Much of the cost to clean up Falls Lake will likely fall on Durham, Person, Orange and Granville counties, communities to the north of the reservoir that are in the lake's watershed.

Durham, with two-thirds of the county in the lake's watershed, will be hit particularly hard. Development there is eyed as a major contributor to the lake's problems, with many of the polluted tributaries such as Ellerbee Creek flowing through Durham's urban center before reaching Falls Lake, Burkholder said.

To fix the lake, Durham might have to shell out $20 million over the next decade. City leaders say the cost could rise to as much as $1 billion overall to upgrade a sewage plant and bring existing development into compliance. Among other measures, that could involve encouraging more stormwater to be filtered by the soil, which would help curb pollution in the lake's upper reaches, where pollution is most concentrated.

Taxpayers would likely bear those costs.

Durham is not deaf to the concerns about Falls Lake but is just not sure it can pay for it, said Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees. The latter stages of the cleanup will hit Durham wallets particularly hard.

"That's not really possible," Voorhees said.

Raleigh's fears

But money is also behind Raleigh's push to start cleaning up soon.

If the lake quality doesn't improve by 2016, a $115 million upgrade of Raleigh's E.M. Johnson Water Treatment Plant, which handles all the water for Raleigh's system, will be needed. In addition, as much as $200 million in other improvements may be necessary.

That's because high levels of phosphorus and nitrates can also increase the amount of what are known as total organic carbons, which can produce carcinogenic compounds when combined with the chlorine that Raleigh uses to treat its water, said Ken Waldroup, an assistant public utilities director for Raleigh.

The levels of compounds are below the federal maximum but have been steadily increasing, causing concern for Raleigh water officials, Waldroup said. He says that drinking water is safe and that the projected problems are years down the road and will occur only if conditions don't improve at the lake.

Despite Waldroup's assurances, there is still some worry about the drinking water.

"We're not saying the water is unsafe to drink, but it is becoming more expensive and more of a problem to clean up," said Karen Ringe ofWakeUP Wake County, a community group pushing for faster cleanup.

Trying to avoid fighting and derailment of the plan, several local city and county governments, through the regional Triangle J Council of Governments, hashed out some differences and released a consensus agreement in February that would reduce nitrogen levels by 20 percent and phosphorus by 40 percent by 2016 by concentrating on two different stages of cleanup.

Part of that was spurred by a desire to avoid the lengthy and turbulent process that nearby Jordan Lake reservoir, which provides drinking water toCary, underwent. It took more than a decade to determine how to rid Jordan of its pollution, a plan that just went into effect.

But the Jordan plan didn't satisfy all with an interest in the process, including environmental groups looking for a faster cleanup schedule and developers who are wary of what it could mean for new projects. Builders fret the Jordan rules will require more acreage per home and more retaining ponds that could prevent heavy rains from pushing water straight into stormwater pipes leading to streams.

Developers are also eyeing the Falls Lake discussion and are concerned that the cleanup rules will hurt builders who are going to have to absorb the expense of complying with those rules, said Frank Thomas, the government relations director for the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham counties.

"It will significantly increase the cost of providing new homes," Thomas said. "It's not like we're dealing with a strong market to start with."

Some environmental groups, however, don't think the consensus rules go far enough. They say the rules stop at trying to protect Raleigh's drinking water without trying to bring the lake to even lower levels of pollution that would make it a better habitat for animal and plant ecosystems.

"It's not fair for us to pass on a legacy of filth to our grandchildren because we're scared or nervous about what it means financially," said Alissa Bierma, the Upper Neuse riverkeeper for the NeuseRiver Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of the water body.

"Falls Lake should be swimmable, fishable and drinkable," said state Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh lawmaker active in pushing for the lake's cleanup.

And the state has to figure out what it takes to do that.

Staff writer Jim Wise contributed to this report.

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4622

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