Point of View

The fantasy of the clean-water fairy

May 18, 2013 


Jordan Lake's Visa Point was closed due to contamination in 1998.

MEL NATHANSON — N&O file photo

It is fantasy thinking to pretend that Jordan Lake will somehow clean itself up if the General Assembly repeals upstream pollution controls as proposed in Senate Bill 515, which the N.C. Senate passed last week.

Jordan Lake provides drinking water to the growing cities of Cary, Apex and Morrisville, as well as to Western Wake and Chatham counties. In addition to serving as a crucial water supply, Jordan Lake is a major North Carolina asset for fish and wildlife conservation and for a wide range of recreation activities easily accessible to several million North Carolina citizens, taxpayers and voters.

Since its impoundment in 1983, Jordan Lake has consistently shown substantial nutrient over-enrichment, which has led to algal blooms and other water-quality problems, problems well familiar to those boating, swimming and fishing on the lake as well as to downstream communities whose water treatment plants are often unable to remove resulting discoloration, taste and odor.

Most of this nutrient over-enrichment is caused by surface water run-off flowing from surrounding and upstream yards, streets, parking lots and fields, all of which is untreated and contains whatever the water picks up as it flows downhill and eventually into the lake. Many people mistakenly believe this “stormwater runoff” flows through wastewater treatment plants before ending up in our streams, rivers and reservoirs.

As North Carolina has become a more popular and populated state, more of our fields, forests and other lands have been converted into residential communities, streets, highways, shopping centers, expanding towns and cities, and commercial and industrial facilities, all resulting in more and more impervious surface. Increased impervious surface means less opportunity for rain water to soak into the ground to allow the natural, cleansing filtration process.

This increased surface water runoff compounds the problem of what flows untreated into our streams, rivers and reservoirs, including Jordan Lake.

In the 1990s, recognizing that growth and development around Jordan Lake would increase, individuals, private groups and state, local and federal government agencies began closely studying the problem of increasing degradation of the lake’s water quality. To help focus this study, the Division of Water Quality of DENR in 2003-2006 conducted more than 50 large-scale, structured stakeholder meetings, all involving dozens of groups and hundreds of individuals.

These meetings, through discussion, negotiation and compromise, produced considerable agreement on goals and strategies for cleaning up the lake and maintaining water quality thereafter.

In 2007-08, the N.C. Environmental Management Commission held three public hearings attended by more than 400 people, oversaw a public comment period during which 7,100 written comments were received and held 14 subsequent meetings to deliberate over received comments.

This highly public, participatory and transparent process resulted in the EMC’s passage in 2008 of a set of water-quality regulations balancing the responsibilities, needs and abilities of the five major sectors affecting lake water quality: existing development, wastewater dischargers, new development, agriculture and state and federal governments.

There was widespread recognition that changes needed to start as soon as possible. A statement often heard during those discussions was, “We either pay for clean-up now or we pay a lot more in the future.”

After some modification, the General Assembly ratified the Jordan Lake regulations in 2009, and as implementation began, many people began to realize that a clean and healthy Jordan Lake was a likely reality and not just a wishful hope.

Then unexpectedly this month, without public notice or discussion, with no transparency, no public involvement, no stakeholder process and no advanced word, Senate Bill 515 emerged. This bill in one fell swoop would repeal the entire set of Jordan Lake water-quality regulations that were so carefully created, despite the fact those regulations were the product of widespread study, discussion, compromise and consensus.

And what solution does the Senate propose? Nothing but further study! What possibly could be left to study?

It took a long time for the water-quality problems of Jordan Lake to develop, and common sense and good science tell us it will take a long time for the solutions to be effective. Further study is not only unnecessary but a waste of time, allowing the water of Jordan Lake, crucial to and enjoyed by so many North Carolinians, to drift back into the serious problems we hoped and believed were behind us.

There are no silver bullets here, no magic wands and no clean-water good fairy. Thinking otherwise is a sad and dangerous fantasy that will leave a large segment of North Carolina’s population with dirty water and a beautiful, useful lake spoiled.

Stephen T. Smith is chairman of the N.C. Environmental Management Commission.

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