Southwest Wake News

Cary, Apex interbasin water plan for Jordan Lake divisive

A proposal that would allow western Wake County to take millions of extra gallons of water from Jordan Lake each day has received nearly three times more negative comments from the public than positive ones, according to a review of comments submitted to the state.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources solicited feedback in January and early February on an interbasin transfer proposal and held public hearings in Apex and Fayetteville.

More than 60 individuals, non-profit groups and local governments submitted oral or written comments. Of those, 15 were in favor of the proposal and 44 were opposed.

Cary, Apex, Morrisville and the Wake County portion of Research Triangle Park are asking DENR to take 33 million gallons of water from Jordan Lake, a 38-percent increase over the 24 gallons they take now. They say the increase is necessary to enable the fast-growing part of the county to double in population by 2045.

But critics, mostly from Cumberland County, said they fear the interbasin transfer could jeopardize the water supplies of cities from Lillington to Wilmington.

Despite the opposition, a hearing officer with DENR is recommending the plan be approved. The hearing officer’s recommendation also suggests requiring water conservation and drought management plans within 90 days of approval, and to allow DENR to lower the water allocation if growth slows down.

The Environmental Management Commission will vote on the issue Thursday, March 12.

Strong opposition

The comments submitted to DENR come from farmers, environmentalists, government workers, business leaders, politicians and water experts.

The Wilmington City Council sent DENR a resolution opposing the plan, as did Hope Mills, Eastover, Cumberland County, the Cumberland County Mayors Association, New Hanover County, the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, Sustainable Sandhills and the Wilmington-based Cape Fear River Watch.

Officials from Orange County, Durham County, Wake County, Raleigh and the Jordan Lake Partnership joined with business leaders and politicians from Cary, Morrisville and Apex to support the plan.

Much of the opposition stems from the amount of water Cary, Apex and the rest of the municipalities plan to return to Jordan Lake, which naturally flows into the Cape Fear River.

The communities only plan to initially return 2 million of their 33 gallons. The other 31 million gallons would be transferred into the Neuse River Basin, as almost all of the area’s 24 million gallons currently are.

“I understand the water needs of these growing population centers, but the Cape Fear River is a historically and ecologically significant river that should not be sacrificed to growth,” wrote Rob Johnson, who said his family has been farming in Harnett County since 1780.

Elizabeth Rooks, chief operating officer for Research Triangle Park, said the park has 570 developable acres, and many current companies want to expand.

“However, long-range sustainable planning for water supply is crucial to retaining our existing companies, enabling their future expansion and attracting new companies to RTP,” she said.

Critics say that unless more water is returned to the Cape Fear, cities downstream could have their growth stunted and also could be more susceptible to droughts.

“Allowing limitation of future development opportunities for Lillington and Fayetteville by allowing this IBT as proposed does not represent responsible leadership,” wrote Leonard Bull, a Fayetteville resident and N.C. State University professor emeritus.

Some people upstream agree, including three Cary residents who wrote they opposed the plan.

One of them, Lou Benoit, warned DENR not to give in to “the pressure of greed” from developers.

The Western Wake Partners, consisting primarily of Cary and Apex, have spent nearly $300 million building a wastewater treatment plant in New Hill that could return water into the Cape Fear River Basin.

The plant has an 18-million gallon capacity but would only process 2 million gallons under this plan.

It’s intended mainly to accommodate future growth, and local officials say connecting existing sewer lines to the remote plant would be prohibitively expensive.

Steve Brown, Cary’s director of water resources, said towns downstream will eventually start seeing more water returned to the Cape Fear.

“We will grow into the facility as it sits today,” he said in an interview. “This is a 30-year plan we’re talking about. And we plan well.”

Environmental concerns

Supporters point to an environmental assessment that found taking the extra water out of the Cape Fear would have “no significant impact” downstream.

“I don’t think anybody would want to dry a river up, or anything of that nature,” Apex Mayor Bill Sutton said.

Opponents say the study wasn’t detailed enough.

“No environmental assessment has been done south of Lillington,” wrote Dr. Jo Ellen Hirsch of Fayetteville. “Parts of the Cape Fear River Basin host significant endangered species and the effects of even small changes in flow and increased concentrations of pollutants on these populations are ... unknown.”

The Conservation Fund and the Triangle Land Conservancy both said they are concerned with pollution from the expected development that’s driving the need for the increase but didn’t offer opinions on the plan itself.

Bill Hollman, N.C. director of the Conservation Fund and a former head of DENR, noted that Cary, Apex and other local governments would save millions of dollars if not required to immediately return more water to the Cape Fear.

He wrote that they should “invest the savings in green infrastructure in the Jordan Lake watershed. Green infrastructure provided many other public benefits, increases the quality of life in the region and enhances property values.”

Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran