More water from Falls Lake could mean long delay for Little River project

Raleigh wants extra years of water from Fall Lake, but that could postpone proposed Little River Reservoir by decades

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comOctober 14, 2012 


— The City of Raleigh wants to explore gaining extra years of projected water supply by making a change in the way that the millions of gallons in Falls Lake are divided for use. If approved, the change could delay the proposed Little River reservoir by decades.

On Thursday, Tom Reeder, director of the state Division of Water Resources, presented a plan to the state Environmental Review Commission under which millions of gallons daily of Falls Lake water, now set aside to dilute pollution downstream, would be made available for treatment and use as city water.

The approach would be subject to review by the Army Corp of Engineers and state regulators. But if it is OK’d, it could mean a delay of 20 years or more in the damming of the Little River in eastern Wake County for additional Raleigh water supply.

Wake County has spent $15 million buying land for the proposed reservoir, but federal regulations require the city to explore alternatives to damming the river that could have a smaller environmental impact.

County Commissioner Joe Bryan said he wants to see it built soon.

“I think we need to be pursuing all the options,” Bryan said. “We get delayed too much by some of these environmental rules. I’m not personally interested in any kind of delay.”

Kenneth Waldroup, assistant public utility director for Raleigh, said studying the option of using more water from Falls Lake for city supply could easily take three years and cost $3 million. But the city is required at least to consider alternatives to damming the Little River, with its estimated $263 million cost and possible damage to endangered species and other habitat. It’s likely that the city, in the long term, will need the extra water from Falls Lake, a supply from the proposed reservoir and other sources yet to be found.

“It comes down to a fundamental question of competing interests,” Waldroup said. “There are interests that would prefer that we have no reservoir.”

However, without impounded bodies of water such as Falls Lake to conserve dependable water supply, Wake County would not have sustained the growth it has seen since the 1980s, Waldroup said.

Falls Lake, completed in the 1980s by the damming of the Neuse River, is the primary source of drinking water for Raleigh. More than 60 percent of the water in it must be maintained for flood control purposes, and sedimentation takes up another 7 percent.

Of the remaining 30 percent, the “water supply,” or portion used for Raleigh city water, would be increased from about 13 percent to 15 percent. The “water quality” pool, or portion used to dilute pollution, would decrease.

“The city of Raleigh believes there’s an excess of water in that water quality pool,” Reeder said.

Karen Rindge, executive director of the community organization WakeUp Wake County, thinks the reallocation idea is an attractive one, particularly in contrast to damming the Little River.

“I’m not convinced that they’re going to do the Little River reservoir,” Rindge said, noting that WakeUp Wake County has no official position on the reservoir project.

“We have been waiting for three years to get the draft environmental impact statement, and there’s supposed to be a public hearing, but it keeps getting put off,” she said. “It’s going to be really expensive, and it’s going to flood a lot of nice land. I think it makes more sense to look at, ‘Can we get more water reasonably out of Falls Lake?’”

The idea of taking more water from the lake arose from a new analytical tool that allows governments to analyze comparative rates of growth, water supply and water usage for communities. However, both Waldroup and commissioner Bryan think waiting too long could result in even stricter environmental regulations being in place by the time the project can be built.

“As more endangered species are listed, the regulatory hurdles are simply going to become exponentially more difficult,” Waldroup said.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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