Jordan Lake’s troubled waters

July 13, 2013 

The more than 300,000 people in the western Triangle who rely on Jordan Lake for their drinking water got a message from the General Assembly last week: Let them drink blame.

In this case, blame comes in the flavor of blue-green algae that is blooming in the lake because of increasing levels of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing in from areas upstream, primarily from Burlington and Greensboro.

State and local officials and citizens worked for years to develop requirements known as the Jordan Lake rules to limit upstream pollutants. Most local governments in the watershed have taken steps to comply, but some in Guilford and Alamance counties have resisted. They say the rules limit how their land can be used for residential and industrial development and require costly changes to wastewater treatment and stormwater control systems.

Blame game

Now forces in the General Assembly are pushing an argument that Jordan Lake was poorly designed and will inevitably be subject to algae blooms. They say, let’s drop – or at least suspend – the rules and see what can be done to treat water in the lake itself. In other words, don’t blame our runoff from development and agriculture and our wastewater discharges. Blame the Army Corps of Engineers for designing the lake without building in ways to absorb runoff and nutrients from the explosive development that followed the lake’s opening 20 years ago.

That such an argument is self-serving is obvious. But it’s also foolish and dangerous to the health of people who drink the water and to the local economy that’s vital to all of North Carolina.

Implementing the rules has been repeatedly delayed, and now some lawmakers want to hold off for another three years, at least. This delay, approved by a state House committee last week, is supposed to be an improvement on a Senate bill offered by Sen. Rick Gunn that would have just ended the plans. But a delay allows another three years of upstream development without the full protective measures the rules require.

Robin W. Smith, a former assistant secretary for the environment at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, wrote in her environmental blog last week that the delay is more than a suspension. She wrote: “The three-year delay in implementing the rules does not maintain the status quo – it allows nitrogen and phosphorus loading to Jordan Lake to increase. In the end, delay may also increase the cost of addressing the water quality problem.”

Stirring the lake

Gunn, a Burlington commercial real estate executive, proposes using the interim to test whether new technology can prevent algae buildup. One idea mentioned by a House Environment Committee member last week was to use solar-powered devices that move through the lake and agitate the water, reducing algae concentrations. This is an idea that combines Jules Verne and Rube Goldberg. It’s speculative, needlessly complicated and unlikely to work. If the need is to reduce pollution, reduce it.

Part of the difficulty with the Jordan Lake rules is that they demand concessions from one region to benefit another without compensation. Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins said his city has fought the rules for 15 years because compliance is costly and it’s not clear that Greensboro’s sacrifice ultimately helps a lake that’s prone to algae buildup. “There has to be some benefit for the cost incurred,” he said.

Helping Greensboro and other upstream communities with the costs should be the focus of the General Assembly’s efforts, not eliminating the costs by postponing or killing the rules.

This is an unnecessary water war and one that the Triangle cannot afford to lose. When regional interests are at odds, it is up to the governor to provide the longer view and find ways to address complaints of both sides. Gov. Pat McCrory should speak directly to the issue. If the state can’t work this out, the Environmental Protection Agency will.

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