Cary mayor: ‘We’ll take what we can get’ in lake cleanup

akenney@newsobserver.comJuly 17, 2013 

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A file photo shows a powerboat and its long wake as it moves swiftly across Jordan Lake in Chatham County.

ROBERT WILLETT — News & Observer file photo

— Wake County’s elected officials may have saved the Jordan Lake Rules, but they predict several years’ delay for efforts to keep polluting runoff out of the regional water supply.

To replace the pollution rules, the state may instead test whether floating machines could improve water quality in Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to Cary, Apex and Morrisville.

Water-quality experts warn that the new “technological” approach can’t replace regional stormwater controls. Supporters of the bill say the extra time and research could save money for upstream governments, and they’ve won endorsements from state government staff.

What most everyone agrees: The revised Senate Bill 515 is looking like political reality.

A delay is “much better than trashing all the rules that were in place,” said Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht. “It’s kind of bittersweet, I guess. We’ll take what we can get.”

This would represent the third major hold-up of the Jordan Lake Rules. While earlier delays afforded governments more time to prepare, the proposed delay is an effort to fundamentally change the program.

Currently, the Jordan Lake clean-up effort takes a widely accepted approach: Local governments fight algae by reducing its food supply, the stormwater “runoff” that carries nutrients into lakes.

In the next few years, upstream governments would have begun installation of $1 billion-plus of stormwater ponds and other filters, along with new requirements for developments.

Sen. Rick Gunn, co-sponsor of the bill, argues that there may be a cheaper way. He and other bill advocates want to test “in situ,” or in-lake solutions.

In draft documents, legislative staff propose a $1.6 million pilot of solar-powered water circulators, which may stop the formation of quality-degrading algae.

Supporters of the change argue that the government hasn’t properly explored the “in situ” approach; treating and churning the lake water could be more cost-effective than installing hundreds of upstream stormwater filters and development rules, they say.

This thinking has won the support of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which opposed earlier editions but now favors Senate Bill 515.

“I think that we feel that it’s necessary to make sure that we’re looking at all of our options, and that this delay ... is not going to cause huge changes in the water quality in that period of time,” said spokeswoman Susan Massengale.

Hopes for technology

It’s hard to say just what effect water circulators or other technology would have on the lake, according to Kenneth Reckhow, a professor emeritus at Duke University who has written scores of articles on nutrient management.

The water-mixing technique has been used for decades in smaller bodies of water, and the town of Cary already plans to deploy a similar “aeration system” near its water plant’s intake on Jordan Lake.

Supporters of the delay hope that the new technology will be good enough to change the game, offering a new path to the water-quality levels required by the Clean Water Act.

But Reckhow says there’s no chance that the devices or any other technique would effectively replace the stormwater controls of the current approach. Moreover, he said, the situation could grow worse as more land is paved and more water flows toward the lake.

“The concern I have as a scientist is if the Jordan rules are deferred for three years, there’s three lost years of opportunity to get the phosphorus and nitrogen sources in the watershed reduced,” he said.

Another expert, however, argues that in-lake technology might be crucial to clean-up. Watershed management – or stormwater control – alone “has no prayer of meeting the water quality standards” in most cases, said Ken Wagner, president of Water Resource Services and editor of Lake and Reservoir Management.

But “in-lake solutions aren’t the be-all, end-alls either,” he warned.

The Jordan Lake Water Quality Act awaits approval by the House, Senate and governor.

Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary

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