RALEIGH — Rules developed over several years to help clean up Jordan Lake would be repealed under legislation approved in a Senate committee on Tuesday.
In their place, new rules would take the emphasis off the upstream causes of pollution – development, agricultural pesticides and wastewater from cities – and focus on treating the lake itself.
The bill’s sponsors say efforts to improve water quality in the lake, which have been in effect since 2009, have not worked. Unspecified new technologies are more promising than continuing to try to clean up the lake by placing restrictions on the entire watershed.
“There’s not one single person in this room that is happy with the quality of the water in Jordan Lake,” Sen. Rick Gunn, a Republican from Burlington, said in the meeting. “… Clearly, the state legislature’s current strategies are not working.”
The proposal puts the state’s environmental agency in an awkward position, politically. The Division of Water Quality in the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has worked for a long time on Jordan Lake, drafting the original rules after a year and a half of stakeholder meetings. Yet the state regulators are now part of a new Republican administration, with a department run by an appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory.
Asked for its position on the bill Tuesday, DENR released a statement saying it would be “disappointed to see the existing Jordan Lake rules repealed entirely before their full effect is realized.” On the other hand, the statement says, “the department notes that a fresh approach may produce a new set of rules, regulations that will protect the future uses of Jordan Lake with less controversy and cost than the existing rules package.”
DENR said in its statement that if all of the rules are eliminated, then it would have to reduce the amount of discharge permitted into the Jordan basin so that the state wouldn’t be in violation of federal law. The agency said its first priority is to make sure drinking water remains safe, and it also wants to ensure the lake meets federal recreation and fishing standards.
Bill rewritten suddenly
The original version of the bill, filed in March, was much less far-reaching than the bill introduced in the Senate Agriculture, Environment, Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday. It was rewritten Monday night and Tuesday morning, and took environmental advocates by surprise.
“This is the first time that the legislature has proposed repealing measures to clean up a troubled major drinking water source, with nothing to put in its place other than a commission of legislators to come up with a new plan,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club. “There seems to be some magical thinking that legislators will find a technology that will clean up the lake without responsible parties upstream having to control their pollution into the lake.”
Normally, once environmental laws are passed the state Environmental Management Commission develops rules to implement them. Under this bill, a subcommittee of lawmakers – five from each chamber – would oversee a study with input from all interests, Gunn said. Recommended rules would be presented to the General Assembly next year.
Drinking from the lake
The lake provides drinking water to more than 300,000 people in the Triangle. It was created in 1983 by damming the Haw River near Deep River.
It has always been plagued by polluted water from upstream activities. That hasn’t made the lake unfit for fishing, drinking or swimming, according to a legislative staff report, but it does make the water taste bad and causes some harm to aquatic life.
The legislature began dealing with the issue more than a decade ago. The Environmental Management Commission held extensive meetings, hearings and negotiations to develop rules that would reduce pollution in the lake’s watershed, allowing for the restrictions to be put into place over several years to allow upstream polluters to comply.