When a controversial water-cleaning experiment on Jordan Lake is over, its technology may find a new subject in Falls Lake, the water supply for much of Wake County.
The state legislature last year ordered the placement of dozens of floating “SolarBee” machines to fight algae in the waters of Jordan Lake. In a vote that pitted Wake County legislators against upstream officials, the new law also froze expensive pollution-reduction rules in favor of the pilot project, which is meant to kill off algae.
Now Rep. Larry Yarborough, a Roxboro Republican, is hoping the same program might work in Falls Lake, which stretches for miles north of Raleigh.
Yarborough said on Tuesday that new environmental regulations are suffocating the economies of rural Person and Granville counties, which fall in his district.
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His bill, HB 630, would require the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to research whether all the current Falls Lake environmental laws are necessary. It also would ask DENR to determine whether the SolarBee water circulators might clear the waters of Falls Lake, a water source for more than 500,000 people in Wake County.
“We’re looking for ways to continue to improve these upper Falls Lake regulations. As you may know, they've pretty much destroyed development (in the watershed),” Yarborough said.
He was referring to one of the central concepts of the Falls Lake Nutrient Management Strategy, also known as the Falls Lake Rules.
The rules are meant to fight “algal blooms.” An excess of algae can degrade water, potentially sickening people and animals and raising treatment costs.
The current rules try to starve algae by keeping polluting nutrients out of the lake. Those nutrients – including fertilizers – often are carried by water runoff from developed lands.
During the debate over the Jordan Lake Rules, several water scientists from local universities said that nutrient reduction is a well-established approach, warning that the SolarBees represented an experiment. Proponents say fleets of the 850-pound devices could improve water quality at a reduced cost.
The government program for Falls Lake, adopted in 2010, fights the algal-bloom phenomenon by requiring developers to build retention ponds and filtering systems, keeping pollutants from reaching the river.
That’s not cheap. The rules could, in total, cost the developers of new land in the watershed a combined $5 million to $10 million per year. The overall cost, including expenses for new wastewater treatment plants and other facilities, could top $1 billion, according to state estimates.
“The land values are not high enough to support of all of the engineering costs,” Yarborough said.
DENR would consider expanding the SolarBee project to Falls Lake after the “pilot program” in Jordan Lake ends early next year and its results are analyzed. The state would start looking for rules to eliminate from the Falls Lake program before then, in October.
Yarborough’s bill is relatively modest compared to the legislature’s changes to the Jordan Lake Rules in 2013. While Yarborough wants to study Falls Lake, the legislature in 2013 threatened a total repeal of the Jordan Lake Rules, ultimately settling on a delay.
The Falls Lake program applies largely to the smaller towns and cities northwest of Falls Lake. Roxboro, Hillsborough, Butner, Creedmoor, Bahama and Rougemont all drain toward the lake, then on to Raleigh.
All 14 local and county governments within the lake’s drainage area have adopted new rules about how developers should handle stormwater.
“They certainly impact one of our primary industrial corridors on the south side of Roxboro, and certainly into Person County,” said Merilyn Newell, mayor of Roxboro. “... We’re concerned that companies wanting to locate here are having sites that would be impacted by the Falls Lake Rules.”
Governments also may have to lay out more money as new limits on wastewater treatment plants kick into gear in 2016. The town of Hillsborough designed its $20 million treatment plant upgrade with the rules in mind, according to its mayor.
Eventually, local governments also would have to find and fund ways to contain runoff from already-developed land.
Karen Rindge, director of WakeUP Wake County, said the bill looked like an unnecessary roadblock for an effective program.
“I think it’s fair to say that that is an attempt to slow down implementation of the Falls Lake Rules, and therefore it's a concern to people who are concerned with our drinking water,” she said. Her group describes itself as a citizen group concerned about growth.
The Upper Neuse River Basin Association, representing most of the affected governments, is still considering the impacts the legislation. That organization already is monitoring water quality and assessing the effectiveness of the Falls Lake Rules; the rules specifically allow for such a reexamination.
“Obviously, the people in the upper part of the watershed, and those folks that might drink water out of the lake – they’ve been interested in seeing if these requirements are necessary,” said Forrest Westall, the organization’s director. “The questions being asked are important questions.”
The measure is headed next to the House committee on environment.