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Local governments resist Jordan Lake cleanup

by Jordan Green

Local governments in the Haw River watershed threw their clout in with the homebuilding industry, industrial recruiters and a major textile plant last week to oppose new rules proposed by the NC Division of Water Quality to clean up Jordan Lake. A source of drinking water for the growing municipalities of Cary, Apex and Morrisville, along with rural Chatham County, Jordan Lake has been considered impaired because of excessive nitrogen and phosphorous loads since 2005. The upstream culprits along the Haw River in Guilford and Alamance counties include municipal wastewater treatment plants, residential development, farms, industrial plants and – as municipal officials like to point out – forests. Speaker after speaker at a public hearing held by the division at Elon College on July 17 suggested an apocalyptic scenario if the rules go through, forcing municipalities to upgrade their wastewater treatment plants and build detention ponds in existing neighborhoods, farmers and homeowners to reduce fertilizer use, commercial forests to set aside land for buffers around waterways and developers to implement similar measures for new homes. “Our staff has said these new rules would put us out of business,” said Greensboro Mayor Keith Holliday, his voice raised in a rare public display of anger. “If you do go forward with these unwieldy rules then the recipients of Jordan Lake water should reimburse the upstream users. All North Carolina should shoulder the costs.” Ron Wilson, senior vice president of the Greensboro-based Starmount Co., groused, “These rules would certainly put the Triad at a disadvantage as we compete for industry for jobs for our citizens. Our people cannot stand the additional tax burden. They cannot stand the additional cost to housing. Most of all they cannot stand the disadvantage in recruiting industry.” Harold Hill, president of Alamance County-based Glen Raven Technical Fabrics, offered his own testimony about how expensive environmental regulations might put industry on the run. “I’m the largest user of water and sewer in Alamance County,” he said. “We’re four times as big as the city of Burlington. We have four hundred jobs. If this rule passes, it will mean the end of production here. If it comes to that, we will move. The economic developers are right. We won’t go out of business. We will move, whether it’s to Statesville or China.” Deborah Cook, director of real estate for the Graham-based Biscuitville chain, also raised the specter of corporate flight. “Rules like these would make us develop more in Virginia and points west of Winston-Salem,” she said. “The retrofit rules would have the effect of making us shut down many of our restaurants, especially in Greensboro, Guilford County and the Alamance areas.” A state lawmaker from Alamance County in the NC House of Representatives set the tone of the hearing by interrupting Rich Gannon as the state director of water quality outlined the implications of the new rules. “I’ve got to be in Raleigh by three,” he said. “You need to move this on.” Later he introduced himself as “Cary Allred, like the town of Cary, but that’s the only resemblance.” Allred promised to introduce legislation to kill the rules if they’re approved as proposed. The earliest the rules could go into effect would be March 1, 2008. All told, opponents from local government and trade groups represented at the Elon College hearing included the cities of Greensboro, Durham, Burlington, Graham, Mebane, Reidsville, the town of Gibsonville, Guilford County, Alamance County, Durham County, the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, the NC Association of Realtors, the NC Homebuilders Association, the Greensboro Partnership, the Greensboro Regional Realtors Association and the Alamance County Farm Bureau. Much of the opposition has been coordinated by the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments, which has been hosting a series of meetings among local governments in the upper Haw River basin. The governments paid for their own water sampling over a two-year period and submitted their data to the state, contesting the Division of Water Quality’s conclusions about Jordan Lake. A June 12 PowerPoint document entitled “Response Strategies” provides this talking point: “The data does not support the proposed point and non-point source rules.” Government and industry representatives echoed that sentiment at the hearing, with complaints of “faulty science” being a common refrain. “Much of the data is suspect,” Allan Williams, Greensboro’s director of water resources, told his city council later in the day after the state Division of Water Quality hearing. “The data that we have been paying independent consultants to collect indicates that the quality of the Haw River has been improving.” The Greensboro City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the proposed rules on July 17. Gannon from the Division of Water Quality defended the science behind the rules proposed by his agency. “The lake model was developed by a consultant for the Haw River dischargers,” he said. “Our modeling staff has stated that the model is as rigorous or more rigorous than any of the models that we’ve used before.” Local governments have balked at the price tag for cleaning up Jordan Lake, and have accused the state of underestimating the cost. The Division of Water Quality pegs the cost for local governments to upgrade wastewater treatment plants at $256 million – almost a third of which would fall to the city of Greensboro. Still more daunting, the new rules call on local governments to spend $530 million to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from areas already developed. “This rule will require cities like Greensboro to go back and retrofit storm-water ponds,” Williams said. “It’s going to mandate the need to condemn and acquire properties to build best management practice storm-water ponds. Commercial and industrial will require not one storm-water pond, but three storm-water ponds.” Save for a handful of environmental advocates at the Elon College hearing, including a sprinkling of activists dressed in hazmat suits, it was hard to find many people in favor of the rules. But Rachel Winners, a resident of Chatham County, could be counted in that number. “Every two months I get a letter saying my water is not compliant,” she said. “I think what that means is they had to put so many chemicals in it to make it clean. They always say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine,’ but after awhile you start to wonder. I finally just quit drinking my water. There’s a downstream perspective. Water doesn’t run uphill.” What gets lost in the debate is that the cleanup of Lake Jordan is federally mandated, said Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly in Bynum. The Clean Water Act of 1972 requires states to address impaired waters, and North Carolina’s 1997 Clean Water Responsibility Act tightened previous limits on nitrogen and phosphorous loading. Excess amounts of those nutrients have spurred the growth of algae in Jordan Lake. Without chemical treatment, water that hosts flotillas of algae develops a foul odor and taste, environmental advocates say. “Jordan Lake is on the brink of crashing,” said Catherine Deininger, the Haw River Assembly’s stream stewardship coordinator. “It’s just started having fish kills in the last couple years. Certainly the problems that Jordan Lake has, other lakes have, but it’s a lot worse. It certainly has higher chlorophyll-a counts. The visibility through the water is not good at all. The blue-green algae are the algae that can be a problem for water quality, and that’s the algae that you find at Jordan Lake.” Allen and other local government officials suggest that the nutrient levels in Jordan Lake might have more natural causes than the state contends, and that forcing government and business to clean up their acts may not bring about the state’s intended results. “The bulk of nitrogen and phosphorous come from agricultural and forest,” he said. “Chlorophyll-a is in excedance at the Falls of the Neuse, at Lake Brandt and Lake Townsend. No sewage effluent goes into those lakes.” The state’s data tells a somewhat different story about the sources of Jordan Lake’s pollution from the Haw River. The Division of Water Quality found that 35 percent of nitrogen loads in the Haw River comes from point sources – mainly wastewater treatment plants – while 30 percent comes from agricultural land and 10 percent comes from forests. Commercial and industrial, residential and other non-point sources account for the rest. Agriculture is the single largest source of phosphorous in the river, while point sources come in second. One thing on which local government officials and environmental advocates agree is that the state should perhaps shoulder some of the costs of cleaning up Jordan Lake. The estimated cost of mitigating agricultural pollution sources, at $2.6 million, is minimal compared to the sector’s 30-percent share of responsibility for the problem. In contrast, local governments are being asked to ante up $530 million to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous input from residential sources, which are said to account for only 16 percent of the pollution. “It is a fact that farmers are living on an incredibly tight budget,” said Ginger Booker, assistant director of the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments. “If we acknowledge that a major share of the nitrogen loading is coming from agricultural, then money has to be available for technical assistance so people who raise cattle and grow crops aren’t regulated out of existence.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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