CARY — Local leaders are sounding the alarm as the General Assembly considers sweeping changes to pollution and quality rules for Jordan Lake, a drinking-water supply for Cary, Morrisville and Apex.
Republican legislators, meanwhile, say they’re trying to save the region from a costly and ineffective new burden.
The Jordan Lake Water Quality Act, now under consideration by the N.C. House of Representatives, calls for full repeal and a rewrite of the Jordan Lake Rules. The rules are meant to reduce “nutrient runoff” – nitrogen and phosphorous – that can feed plant and algae blooms, degrading the lake’s waters.
If approved, the bill would roll back rules that called for more forested buffers, wetlands and “stormwater control systems” near new and existing developments. They could be replaced by cleanup efforts in the lake itself, the bill suggests.
The Jordan Lake Rules have been no stranger to controversy, going up for debate time after time since their completion in 2009.Arguments typically have been quiet and technical, but the scale of Senate Bill 515 is drawing bipartisan criticism from elected boards and members of the legislature around Wake County.
“I think it’s a mistake, pure and simple,” said Gale Adcock, mayor pro tem for Cary. “I don’t think it puts us in a good position. It puts us in a place where we think treatment versus prevention is the way to go, and that is never OK.”
At the heart of the debate is a regional split. Jordan Lake is essential to western Wake County, its water supplying suburban development and providing a sprawling aquatic playground.
But the towns that get the most use of the lake, by a trick of geography, have comparatively little physical influence over it.
Across the watershed
Only a sliver of western Wake is in the Jordan watershed – practically no land east of Davis Drive sends runoff down to the water supply.
Instead, the vast majority of runoff to the lake comes from cities north and west – Durham, Chapel Hill, Burlington and Greensboro – that rely far less on the lake.
“It’s upstream versus downstream,” said freshman state Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Cary Republican who crossed party lines to oppose the repeal in a May 15 vote.
The bill passed the Senate 31-16 that day; the only Republicans in opposition represent Wake County.
It’s legislators from the Triad, principally, that are pushing for changes to the rules. The bill’s two sponsors represent Guilford, Alamance and Randolph counties. Those areas are part of the Haw River sub-watershed, which makes up 80 percent of the total watershed and likely will face higher costs to meet the Jordan Lake rules.
Greensboro already has put $100 million into a wastewater treatment plant, partly to reduce its nutrient runoff.
And as the plan’s main components go into effect over the next five years, developers could see rising costs and governments could shell out hundreds of millions more to reduce runoff from already-existing properties across the eight-county watershed.
Sen. Rick Gunn, a commercial real-estate executive who represents Alamance and Randolph counties, sponsored the bill. He said the far-reaching environmental program troubled him even before his election in 2010.
The bill classifies the program, which is years shy of full implementation, as “inadequate and ineffective.”
“Are the costs that are being incurred upstream by the taxpayers, the businesses and the municipalities going to produce results?” Gunn asked in an interview. “... And are they being shared on a basis that is fair to everyone? These rules are really, really tough on these municipalities upstream.”
His bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Trudy Wade of Guilford County, calls for a “completely new approach for water quality management” with a focus on mitigation measures in the lake itself, though runoff management could remain part of the plan, Gunn said.
As for specifics, Gunn named techniques that could change the dynamics of the water, potentially discouraging algal growth, such as channel cross-throughs, aeration and lakeshore augmentation.
He also said algae harvests could improve water quality. Critics argue that new technology could be used under the current plan.
Debate picks up
Under the bill approved by the senate, the Jordan Lake Rules would expire by Oct. 1. House and senate leaders – both bodies have Republican majorities – would nominate senators to research and develop recommendations for replacement rules.
Barringer, who represents much of Cary in the state senate, said she is worried by this approach.
“You don’t get rid of the rules, you don’t repeal the laws, before you have another plan to put in its place,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Josh Stein also has come out against the bill, as has Mayor Dick Sears of Holly Springs, among other local officials.
The bill now awaits review in the N.C. House of Representatives’ committee on the environment, which is chaired by representatives from outside the Jordan Lake watershed.
Molly Diggins, state director for the Sierra Club, expects a rising outcry against the bill in the coming weeks. She discounts some of its early success, attributing it to the overwhelming rush of senate legislation during the recent “crossover” period.
Local elected officials and nonprofits have begun to rally opposition through meetings with voters and legislators alike. Government staffs, meanwhile, await another leg of a debate that seems never-ending.
For his part, Gunn is confident that he can get the bill passed by educating legislators about its goal.
“It is not an intent in any way to not clean the water. As a matter of fact, we want to clean the water,” he said. “We needed a clean slate, so we can have a new vision, a new process.”
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary