A state House committee narrowly voted Thursday to delay a costly environmental cleanup of Jordan Lake in a classic regional water war pitting development interests against environmental concerns.
The House Environment Committee voted 12-9 to delay cleanup of the algae-clogged lake by three years. Spooked by the potential $2 billion cleanup bill, lawmakers are considering a cheaper alternative: technology that will stir the lake’s water and prevent algae from forming.
Jordan Lake is a 22-square-mile drinking water supply for more than 300,000 residents, including Cary, Morrisville and Apex. But most of the nutrient runoff that fertilizes the algae blooms comes from points north and west: Durham, Chapel Hill, Burlington and Greensboro.
The effort to come up with an alternative to reducing pollution is being led by Sen. Rick Gunn, a commercial real-estate executive from Burlington. Gunn’s Senate Bill 515 includes a 2-year test of technologies that circulate and aerate water to keep it from stagnating.
“We’re committed and we need to be committed to fixing this lake,” Gunn told the House committee members before the vote.
The House version of the bill represents a compromise between Gunn’s original Senate bill, which would have terminated cleanup plans. State environmental regulators who oversee water quality had opposed Gunn’s original bill but support the compromise, since the dammed-up 20-year-old lake has long been prone to water quality issues.
“I don’t get why people are so upset about suspending the rules for a couple of years,” said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. “It’s been impaired since the early 1980s, when we put the dam in place.”
Algae can start growing in less than a week in stagnant water that contains high levels of nutrients, Reeder said. In some sections of Jordan Lake, water stagnates for more than a year.
Senate Bill 515 still awaits debate in the House and Senate.
Critics of Gunn’s approach say the best way to prevent algae blooms in Jordan Lake is not to agitate the water, but to get at the source of the problem and reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that enters the lake from upstream waterways.
The nutrient-rich runoff comes from lawns, farms and water treatment plants.
“It’ll just get passed downstream,” said Peter Raabe, N.C. conservation director for American Rivers, a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization. “It’ll flow into the ocean.”
Molly Diggins, N.C. director of the Sierra Club, said water-mixing devices could be useful on a small scale but not on a body of water the size of Jordan Lake. She said that dozens, if not hundreds, of aerators would be required all over the lake, potentially interfering with fishing, boating and other recreational activity.
Filled in 1982, Jordan Lake reservoir was placed on the federal government’s impaired waters list in 2002.
After years of meetings and discussions, a lake cleanup plan was signed by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2009. The plan calls for increasing wetlands, retention ponds and wooded buffers to absorb the runoff before it reaches waterways and tributaries.
The state legislature passed delays in 2011 and 2012 and then finally considered repealing the cleanup rules this year.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote to Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Fayetteville, that bypassing pollution reductions “is generally inconsistent with the Clean Water Act” because such a strategy could increase the lake’s total maximum daily allowance of pollutants.
The EPA letter, from A. Stanley Meiburg, the agency’s acting regional manager in Atlanta, said delaying the lake’s cleanup could make it necessary for the EPA to get involved and tighten runoff limits.