Raleigh Report

Raleigh, others want Falls Lake cleanup deadlines pushed back

Rob Shelden and his wife, Louise Gaskill, of Raleigh, enjoy paddle boarding on a spectacular late fall afternoon on Falls Lake near the Rollingview Marina in Durham, N.C. Friday.
Rob Shelden and his wife, Louise Gaskill, of Raleigh, enjoy paddle boarding on a spectacular late fall afternoon on Falls Lake near the Rollingview Marina in Durham, N.C. Friday. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Managers of Falls Lake say they need more time than originally expected to reach water quality goals in Raleigh’s main drinking source.

The state in 2011 approved a Falls Lake cleanup plan and authorized the Upper Neuse River Basin Association, which is made up of 15 northern Piedmont municipalities, to help implement it.

Experts say the water quality is improving, especially in the lower part of the lake where Raleigh gets its water. But the association says the state and local governments responsible for cleaning Falls Lake don’t have the resources to significantly reduce water pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus by current deadlines.

Its board members voted on Nov. 18 to support rule changes and extend cleanup deadlines. City Council members in Raleigh, a key player in the association, unanimously endorsed the association’s proposal the previous day.

“We’re close to three years behind on the schedule that’s in the current rules,” said Forrest Westall, executive director of the association.

The water in Falls Lake has had quality problems since the lake began filling in 1981. It is safe to drink but sometimes isn’t safe enough to swim in or fish from, said Ken Waldroup, Raleigh’s assistant public utilities director.

Rules and goals set forth in the cleanup plan would eventually stabilize the lake enough to make those activities possible year-round.

The rules require wastewater treatment plants run by association members to reduce phosphorus levels by 40 percent and nitrogen levels by 20 percent by 2021. Too much of either nutrient can feed algae blooms that pollute the water. The association now seeks to push that deadline to 2026.

After the first deadline is met, association members will be required to reduce phosphorus levels by 77 percent and nitrogen levels by 40 percent by 2036. The association wants 2041 as the new deadline.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is expected to consider the association’s request in January.

The proposal comes after a water quality consultant, Cardno Entrix, reported in 2013 that some of the association’s proposed methods for reaching the targets were not “technically, logistically or financially feasible.”

The state is partially responsible for the need to push back deadlines.

The Department of Environmental Quality has yet to produce guidelines for how association members should curb pollution in accordance with the cleanup rules. The department has drafted a proposal but it hasn’t been approved yet, said John Huisman, Neuse River and Falls Lake nutrient strategy coordinator for the department.

Among other things, the guidelines would provide options – from changing its street-sweeping practices to limiting fertilizer uses – for municipalities to adopt in order to reach the pollutant reduction goals, Huisman said.

Local environmental advocates say state leaders aren’t prioritizing drinking water like they should.

“Cleaning up Falls Lake and our drinking water as soon as possible should be the most important goal,” said Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County.

“Unfortunately, Raleigh faces challenges in getting the lake improved because the state and upstream governments are not doing enough to reduce pollution,” she said.

In the meantime, upstream cities are moving forward with some initiatives for improving the water. Hillsborough recently improved its water treatment processes. Durham is trying out an “algal turf scrubber” as part of a pilot program.

Though they support the deadline extensions and said they’re encouraged by progress, Raleigh leaders say they’re worried about losing momentum.

“I have a concern that when we expand the time limits that we fill them completely, rather than remain aggressive and focused on what we’re trying to accomplish,” Councilman Wayne Maiorano said.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht