The state environmental department rejected a proposal by local governments to preserve land along Falls Lake because state officials say they’re not sure land conservation would prevent pollution-causing nutrients from entering the drinking-water source.
Falls Lake is considered impaired under the Clean Water Act because of its high nitrogen and phosphorus levels. The Upper Neuse River Basin Association, which represents Raleigh, Durham and 12 other municipalities, sought to prevent such nutrients from entering the lake by curbing development around it.
The state already has some rules for building in the Falls Lake watershed, which spans 770 square miles across the northern Piedmont. Developers and government members of the Upper Neuse watershed can build retention ponds or stormwater drainage systems to earn points under North Carolina’s “nutrient credit” system.
The number of credits a developer must earn before starting construction varies depending on the size of the project and its environmental impact. Currently, the state awards no credits for preserving land around Falls Lake.
“Land preservation has so many environmental benefits that it seems a logical extension to make it part of the solution to restoring Falls Lake,” said Ken Waldroup, Raleigh’s assistant public utilities director. “Right now, (developers) can’t choose preservation as a means for complying with the Falls rules. We were trying to open that door.”
The proposal identified 260,000 acres – about 406 square miles – of land as high-priority conservation areas.
The state Department of Environmental Quality rejected the proposal on grounds that it doesn’t comply with state requirements for offering incentives.
North Carolina’s rules require private and municipal land owners to reduce pollution-causing nutrients to qualify for credits. Because land preservation keeps nutrient levels status quo rather than reducing them, the state cannot by law offer credits, Jay Zimmerman, director of the department’s water resources division, wrote in an email to the Upper Neuse Association.
“Offering a credit for land conservation could incentivize it at the expense of other practices for which actual reductions can be estimated,” Zimmerman said.
He suggested that development may do more than conservation to reduce nutrients.
“(T)here is a consensus understanding that securing a conservation easement alone, without additional restoration efforts, will not result in net nutrient loading reductions,” he wrote.
Zimmerman said the state would, however, consider reinstating the conservation tax credit. Property owners who want to preserve their land in sensitive areas can apply for federal tax deductions, but not state deductions.
“Moving forward, I have also asked staff to prioritize consideration of land conservation as a potential enhancement for other restoration measures,” he wrote.
Waldroup said Raleigh has had a good relationship with DEQ officials as they’ve worked together to create a nutrient-management credit system. This is the first time the department has rejected one of the city’s proposals, he said.
Forrest Westall, executive director of the Upper Neuse association, said he can see where DEQ is coming from with its decision. The state is requiring his group’s member cities to help offset pollution that occurred amid rampant development between 2006 and 2012, and he said the state may want cities to take more active measures against pollution than merely buying undeveloped land and keeping it the way it is.
But Durham councilwoman Jillian Johnson noted that other mitigation strategies are more expensive.
“Municipalities are finding it to be really difficult to get in range of the standards established by the Falls Lake Rules,” Johnson said. “How can we protect water without completely bankrupting communities?”
Westall, for his part, said DEQ rejected his group’s proposal by following the letter of the rule rather than the spirit of it.
“This is an important public policy issue and represents a narrow view of the importance of land conservation in helping to maintain and improve water quality in the watershed,” he wrote in an email.
Stopping pollution before it happens is easier than cleaning it up after it happens, said Reid Wilson, executive director of Conservation Trust for North Carolina.
“Think about when a person gets a flu. They take medicine to make themselves feel better,” Wilson said. “But in the future, they take better steps like washing their hands and eating well to make sure they keep from getting sick.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”