City chafes at downstream efforts to clean up

by Amy Kingsley

Last March an unusual number of catfish and crappie turned belly-up in Jordan Lake’s New Hope arm. Fishermen counted more than 60 dead catfish off the Farrington Point boat ramp and spotted several crappie piping for air.

Investigators from the NC Division of Water Quality fingered the culprit: filamentous blue green Pseudanabaena. Algae, in other words, had bloomed in the lake so extensively that it began to monopolize the lake’s oxygen, effectively smothering the aquatic animals that called the reservoir home.

Algal blooms in Jordan Lake no longer shock environmentalists or water quality monitors who first designated the lake as nutrient polluted almost a decade ago. Wastewater treatment plants and housing development on the banks of the New Hope Creek have been discharging nitrogen and phosphorous into the reservoir’s waters for decades. Wastewater departments in Durham and Chapel Hill have moved – sometimes grudgingly – to clean up their act for the sake of neighbors in Cary, Apex and Morrisville, who draw their drinking water from the lake.

But the algae problem persists, and as the state moves closer to adopting water quality rules to address the problem, its list of troubled watersheds has grown.

The Haw River, with headwaters near the Guilford/Forsyth border, also dumps into Jordan Lake on its way to the Atlantic and has been targeted by state officials for mandatory reductions in nitrogen and phosphorous. Officials from the Greensboro Water Resources Department have argued that no conclusive proof exists to support rules that may end up costing taxpayers upwards of $75 million.

“We want to do the right thing,” said David Phlegar, the water quality supervisor. “But most of us have a job to do to protect our ratepayers in addition to protecting the lake.”

At issue is a draft list of water quality rules set to go before the state’s Environmental Management Commission in January. The rules set limits on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that wastewater treatment plants, farms and housing developments can discharge into the Haw River. The city of Greensboro and environmental groups like the Haw River Assembly have been on opposite sides of the issue since 2002, but both groups agree the draft rules lack accountability.

“The proposed rules are so weak they will probably do nothing at all to solve the problem,” said Elaine Chiosso, director of the Haw River Assembly.

Although restrictions on phosphorous will go into effect a year after the rules pass, the deadline for reducing nitrogen loads has been extended until 2016. Jordan Lake was first designated nutrient impaired in 1997.

Greensboro is the largest municipality in the Haw River watershed, and phosphorous and nitrogen from the TZ Osborne and North Buffalo Creek Wastewater Treatment Plants flow into the Haw River via Reedy Fork Creek. But the nutrients also come from housing developments, golf courses and farms.

Phlegar said wastewater treatment plants have been unfairly targeted with stringent requirements, despite the fact that they account for only 20 percent of the nutrient discharge. The greater share of pollution comes from development, and the rules as they are written leave a lot more wiggle room for developers.

Earlier versions would have restricted the amount of built-upon land, going so far as to require the demolition of some concrete surfaces. Stormwater runs off concrete in housing developments and industrial parks into the water supply. Undeveloped land filters nutrients and sends fewer to creeks and rivers.

The latest version of the rules gives cities and developers the option of increasing street sweeping to satisfy Jordan Lake rules.

“The rules as they are written right now leave a lot of options that might not cost cities that much money,” said Christine Wunsche, a water quality lawyer at Environment North Carolina.

Phlegar said the state targeted wastewater treatment plants because they are easier to regulate through permitting. Although farms account for a large portion of nutrient pollution, the version of the rules with the strictest regulations for wastewater treatment facilities would have made agricultural adjustments voluntary, Phlegar said.

“We felt like we were the low-hanging fruit,” Phlegar said.

He said the city is willing to live with the new rules as written, but he’s worried about how lawmakers might interpret the vague mandates.

“If they follow it to the letter of the law it’s going to be pretty strict and expensive,” he said.

Phlegar’s concerns extend beyond the cost of making structural changes. Most of Jordan Lake is fed by slow-moving New Hope Creek. The Haw River enters the lake near its southern tip and its waters flow over the dam much quicker than the creek’s.

“The main problems are with the New Hope side of things,” Phlegar said.

The Water Quality Commission declared New Hope Creek polluted two years before the Haw River. Commission scientists modeled nutrient pollution from the river and concluded it contributed to pollution in Jordan Lake.

Sydney Miller, the water resources program manager at the Triangle J Council of Governments in Durham, said the available evidence indicates the Haw River contributes to pollution in Jordan Lake. The city of Greensboro already lobbied to postpone the process for further study.

Chiosso said the process of drafting rules for Jordan Lake is already too far behind to postpone it again.

“A lot of cities, including Greensboro, have been fighting this,” Chiosso said. “There’s been a lot of contention in this process.”

And there’s likely to be more. Although Phlegar said the city could live with the draft rules, Chiosso is less certain the lake can. If they cannot reach an agreement, the rules will go back to the drawing board. If the Environmental Management Commission approves the rules, they will submit them for public comment, then to the General Assembly for approval. The earliest the Jordan Lake rules will take affect is 2008 if neither side launches a lawsuit.

“It is possible the environmental community won’t think they are strong enough,” Miller said. “And it’s possible the municipalities will say it’s just not feasible.”

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