More land near Falls Lake will be preserved, allowing nature to protect drinking water

Falls Lake is Wake County’s main source of drinking water.
Falls Lake is Wake County’s main source of drinking water. tlong@newsobserver.com

More than 1,000 acres of undeveloped land near Falls Lake will be preserved, allowing Mother Nature to help protect the Wake County’s largest source of drinking water.

State organizations, Wake County, Granville County and the city of Raleigh are pooling their money to spend $8.3 million in conservation funds to buy land in the Beaverdam Lake-Smith Creek area, about 30 miles north of Raleigh.

The area could eventually feature hiking trails and paddling opportunities, but the main goal is to protect Falls Lake, which provides water for about 570,000 Wake residents.

“Clean and plentiful drinking water is only possible if sensitive areas along rivers, creeks and reservoirs can filter and absorb run-off,” the Tar River Land Conservancy says on its website. Undisturbed areas, particularly wooded sites like the Smith Creek property, act as a natural buffer that prevents everything from highway chemicals to fertilizers from seeping into drinking water.

Experts say watershed protection projects require an upfront investment but little to no maintenance costs – just sit back and let nature do its thing.

Wake County plans to contribute $1.3 million to the purchase, although only 13 of the 1,083 acres lie within the county. The investment goes far beyond “that little sliver,” because water quality starts at the source, said Chris Snow, parks and recreation director for Wake.

“You’re using the upland forest to filter the water before it gets to the lake,” he said. “The standing trees and natural vegetation do a much better job than anything we could plant.”

This nature-knows-best approach to water treatment is part of a worldwide shift toward watershed protection as a means of pre-treating drinking water cheaply and efficiently.

New York City relies almost exclusively on watershed protection for its drinking water. The city says there’s no need to treat 90 percent of the water from the Catskill/Delaware and Croton watersheds before it reaches consumers. Officials there estimate it would cost nearly $10 billion to build a filtration plant to do the work a healthy watershed does for free.

The Tar River Land Conservancy, a nonprofit that monitors more than 18,000 acres across North Carolina, will own and manage the land near Falls Lake once it is purchased. An additional easement on nearly 40 percent of the land will go to North Carolina’s Clean Water Management Fund. Such easements restrict development near natural waterways and prevent erosion and contamination.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a landtrust to get this land acquired and preserved,” said Derek Halberg, director of the conservancy.

Halberg said he and his team have been walking the property for more than three years, but “it’s safe to say there are places we haven’t seen.”

The 5 percent of the property that isn’t forested is still nature’s handiwork: It was cleared by beavers, of “Beaverdam” fame, over the course of centuries.

“We think we know why the settlers might have given it that name over 150 years ago,” Halberg said. “The beavers have created some incredible waterfowl and aquatic habitat.”

Along with hiking and biking trails, the area will also be prime bird-watching real estate. North Carolina is an important pit stop for migratory geese, ducks and songbirds on their way to Central America and South America.

For now, the Tar River Land Conservancy is waiting for the deal to be finalized in the coming months.

“We’ll be able to focus more on long-term compatible recreational uses once we’ve completed the acquisition,” Halberg said. “Our first goal is to ensure the water coming off the property is as pristine as possible for drinking water.”