State officials have approved a request from western Wake County towns to draw more water from Jordan Lake over the objections of communities downstream.
The Environmental Management Commission voted Thursday to let Cary, Apex, Morrisville and the Wake County portion of Research Triangle Park take 33 million gallons of water a day from the lake, a 38 percent increase over the 24 million gallons they take now.
The towns say the increase is necessary to enable the fast-growing part of the county to double in population by 2045.
Critics, mostly from Cumberland County, said they fear the interbasin transfer could jeopardize the water supplies of downstream cities from Lillington to Wilmington. Jordan Lake lies in the Cape Fear River Basin, and most of the water the towns remove from the lake will be discharged to the Neuse River Basin.
Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said he was glad the plan was approved.
“A lot of what we were asking made sense to me,” Weinbrecht said. “And the fears were just unfounded. So I’m glad that’s through, and we can move forward.”
Even though the approval went into effect as soon as it was signed Thursday, it’s unlikely the Wake towns will start drawing the extra water right away.
“The truth is, since it’s a 30-year plan, nothing is going to change immediately,” said Tom Fransen, water planning section chief for the Division of Water Resources within the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Like electricity, Fransen said, every additional bit of water costs more money, so the towns likely would only take more when they absolutely need it, years down the road.
The 33 million gallons of Jordan Lake water now allocated to western Wake County represents a third of the lake’s water supply set aside for use by local utilities. The 13-member Jordan Lake Partnership, which also approved the increase, has a potential 100 million gallons of water a day to draw from the lake.
Much of the opposition to the increased use of Jordan Lake water stems from the amount the Wake towns plan to return to the Cape Fear River Basin in the form of wastewater.
Thursday’s approval allows them to discharge 31 million gallons of wastewater per day into the Neuse River Basin. Currently, almost all of the area’s 24 million gallons are also sent to the Neuse.
That worries downstream communities who want to safeguard their own water supplies. Lynne Greene, vice chair of the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, said she and others on the utilities board will spend the coming days meeting to see if and how they should challenge the approval.
“It’s not the outcome we would’ve liked to see, no,” Greene said. “As far as what we’re going to do in the future, we haven’t discussed it as a committee. So I don’t know what we might do.”
The first step, she said, will be hearing from Mick Noland, the Fayetteville utility’s chief operations officer for water resources. In a written statement, Noland said the group will consider contesting or appealing the decision.
“We are disappointed with this decision,” Noland said. “We felt like there was a good basis for denying the request or at least delaying the decision until we could get more information.”
Tommy Craven, a member of the Environmental Management Commission from Raleigh, said he supported the plan because the fears associated with it weren’t substantiated by DENR’s work.
Several opponents of the plan protested what they described as a review process that didn’t give them enough time to research the proposed transfer and speak out against it.
The Environmental Management Commission didn’t allow public comments at Thursday’s meeting, but DENR staff reviewed 125 pages of documents containing dozens of comments submitted for and against the proposal. There were also public hearings in Apex and Fayetteville.
“Certainly everyone who was interested in the process got the chance to participate,” Craven said.
On Wednesday, state Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Fayetteville, introduced a bill that would require more testing of the Cape Fear River Basin and the long-range water plans of cities along the river.
Glazier couldn’t be reached for comment about the commission’s decision Thursday.
Future return plans
The Western Wake Partners, consisting primarily of Cary and Apex, have spent nearly $300 million building a wastewater treatment plant in New Hill. It could return water into the Cape Fear River Basin but will go largely unused, at least at first.
It’s intended mainly to accommodate future growth, and local officials say connecting existing sewer lines to the remote plant near the Chatham County line would be prohibitively expensive.
Steve Brown, Cary’s director of water resources, has said towns downstream will eventually start seeing more water returned to the Cape Fear from that plant.
“We will grow into the facility as it sits today, “ Brown said in a recent interview. “This is a 30-year plan we’re talking about. And we plan well.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran