Block bill that threatens Jordan Lake

June 12, 2013 

In a battle over protecting drinking water, advocates are taking to the air.

Two groups – WakeUP Wake County and Waterkeepers Carolina – launched a radio ad campaign Tuesday in the hopes of fending off a General Assembly bill that would scrap a hard-won plan for cleaning up water that flows into Jordan Lake.

In the ad, a female announcer asks, “Shouldn’t we keep pollution from wastewater plants and development out of rivers and streams that flow into the lake before we end up drinking it?”

The answer would seem to be self-evident, and most Triangle legislators agree. But some legislators from areas upstream from the lake – meaning they don’t drink from it – think the clean-up plan is too onerous for municipalities and inhibits development in the Greensboro-Burlington area.

Thus we have Senate Bill 515. Its primary sponsors are Sen. Rick Gunn (R-Burlington) and Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Greensboro). They successfully pushed the bill through the Senate, and it’s now in the House Environment Committee awaiting action.

The measure would throw out more than a decade of work spent fashioning and approving the cleanup rules. It calls for a new review of pollution sources and remedies. In the meantime, there would be no rules, and one of the Triangle’s primary drinking water sources would continue to degrade.

The fight to stop this bill is one clean-water advocates need to win. Otherwise, the Triangle will lose.

The lake, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1963, is on the border of Wake and Chatham counties, southwest of Raleigh. It provides drinking water to more than 300,000 North Carolinians, including those served by the Cary water system.

Signs that upstream sources were hurting the lake’s water quality prompted a lengthy effort among cities, developers and state agencies to come up with rules to reduce pollutants in water flowing into the lake. Those rules aim at improving municipal water-treatment plants and stemming stormwater runoff from development that floods the lake with nutrients and feeds algae blooms.

Backers of SB 515 say the rules, several years old, haven’t worked. Supporters of the rules – Democrats and Republicans – say the rules haven’t had a chance to work because of deadlines being pushed back.

Like all water resources, Jordan Lake is fragile and finite. Gunn, the co-sponsor, came up with an argument for his bill straight out of the 1960s. The lake has always had water-quality problems, he said, and trying to fix them upstream is a bad idea because it’s hard on developers and cities that want to let them do their business.

SB 515 suggests it would be better to let the lake fill up with pollutants and then treat the water there. But turning Jordan Lake into a treatment pond would not meet federal requirements under the federal Clean Water Act, and it certainly would fall far below the standards people want for the source of their drinking water.

Durham Sen. Mike Woodard rightly noted during Senate debate that it would be possible, over time, to work with developers on projects that still would protect the watershed. Woodard also raised the possibility that if the state repeals environmental rules, it might lose its right to issue permits for development. That, Woodard noted, would indeed make it hard on developers.

In the rush to make deadlines for bills to be passed into law, bad ideas can move ahead, particularly in a General Assembly so sharply divided by party. Let us hope that cooler heads prevail in this case.

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