Jordan Lake Cleanup Rules
How do we know that Jordan Lake (and upstream creeks) are in trouble?
Water quality scientists from the North Carolina Department of Environment & Natural Resources take water samples from several locations in Jordan Lake and upstream along the Haw River and other creeks that flow into it.
For several years, water samples from the lake and river have shown high levels of chlorophyll, indicating unhealthy levels of algae in the water. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution feed the algae. Observers on the water have reported watching the lake bubble – like a carbonated soft drink – from the gas given off by dense algal blooms.
In recent years, water samples have also shown high levels of alkalinity, another reflection of algal growth fed by pollution from upstream. At times, the alkalinity has reached a pH of greater than 9, comparable to a weak solution of bleach – enough to chemically burn sensitive skin. Of course, unlike human visitors to the lake, fish can’t go home and take a shower; they are in the water all the time. Over time, continued high levels of pollution will lead to fish kills and the collapse of Jordan Lake’s ecosystems.
While upstream creeks are not sampled as frequently as Jordan Lake, we do know that virtually every town upstream in the watershed has a damaged creek flowing through it. Most of the towns upstream have areas of dense impervious surface – pavement and roofs – places where any rain that falls washes directly into the streams and rivers, carrying nitrogen, phosphorus, oils, grease, and heavy metals from parking lots, lawns, and roads. The steps needed to clean up Jordan Lake, especially controlling runoff from existing development, will help many of these creeks as well.
For a more detailed overview of problems in Jordan Lake, we recommend the Haw River Assembly’s State of the Lake report, released in 2006. More discussion of the water quality problems in Jordan Lake and the science underpinning the Jordan Lake rules is available in the Jordan Lake final TMDL report, approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in September 2007.
What do federal and state laws require us to do?
The federal Clean Water Act sets water quality standards that creeks, rivers, and lakes must meet. Jordan Lake violates the standards for chlorophyll and alkalinity (pH). Both of these problems are signals that too much nitrogen and phosphorus is entering the lake, and the lake was officially added to the federal list of ‘impaired waters’ in 2002. When a lake is impaired, the Clean Water Act requires the state environmental agency to prepare a plan to restore the lake’s health by cutting pollution from all contributing sources. That’s what the Jordan Lake rules do.
North Carolina’s state law also calls for the protection of Jordan Lake and the creeks upstream. In 1997, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the Clean Water Responsibility Act. Under part VI of that Act, measures should have been in place by 2003 to clean up Jordan Lake. We are now years behind schedule, but the Jordan Lake rules will begin to deliver on the promise made by the state legislature over a decade ago.
What has happened so far?
The process of developing the Jordan Lake rules was long and drawn out, involving more than 30 stakeholder meetings over three years. Documents from the stakeholder meetings are kept on a website maintained by the Triangle J Council of Governments. After repeatedly delaying the rules in an effort to consider all stakeholders' concerns, the NC Environmental Management Commission (EMC) voted in March 2007 to send the current package of rules to public comment. The EMC spent the rest of 2007 and early 2008 reviewing public comments and making adjustments to the rules, and gave final approval to the rules in May 2008. The Rules Review Commission reviewed the package for clarity and consistency with existing state law and approved them in November 2008.
Update as of June 1, 2009. Several bills were introduced in the 2009 legislative session to overturn the rules. Following several weeks of negotiation, upstream and downstream cities, state agencies, and environmental advocates reached a compromise on changes to the rules. The revisions would give wastewater plants until 2016 to upgrade and reduce their nitrogen discharges, and would delay the start of retrofits until 2014 in the New Hope arms of the lake, and 2017 in the Haw, where local governments believe they can achieve the required pollution reductions through extra controls on wastewater treatment plants. The compromise, which the NC Conservation Network supports, was passed by the NC House as H239 on May 12 and is currently before the Senate.
What do the proposed rules require?
The single best overview of the rules we have seen is the EMC Hearing Officer’s report that was the basis for the EMC’s final vote to approve the rules in May 2008. The final and current version of the rules is that approved by the Rules Review Commission in November 2008; it makes only minor, technical changes from the package described in the May memo.
To develop the rules, state regulators estimated the total nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that Jordan Lake can absorb and still be healthy. The state then calculated how much pollution is currently flowing into the lake – and it's much more than the lake can take. The difference is how much we need to cut back to clean up Jordan Lake. The rules spread the needed reductions among all the sources of pollution: wastewater treatment plants, new development, existing development, and agriculture.
Here’s what the rules require from each source of pollution:
Wastewater treatment plants. The rules require wastewater treatment plants to reduce phosphorus one year after the rules take effect, and reduce nitrogen by 2014. In practice, this rule will affect Greensboro, Burlington, and Durham, but not the smaller communities in the watershed. In our view, the science clearly shows that the lake needs prompt reductions in nitrogen and well as phosphorus. In the absence of the rules, the final TMDL report approved by EPA in 2007 would require these upgrades to start in 2011, so the state rule actually delays expenditures on the wastewater treatment plant upgrades.
Existing development. This is one of the most controversial and misunderstood parts of the rules. Jordan Lake cannot become healthy again unless local governments take steps to control polluted runoff from existing development. The rules give local governments 3½ years to develop a plan; the target for the plan is to control half of the required pollution reductions within 10 years. However, if that’s not practicable, the local governments can propose what they think they can do. The local governments have another year to begin to implement their plan. There is no timeline to finish it. Local governments can receive credits for measures they’ve taken to control runoff since 2001.
New development. The rules require new development to limit pollution released upstream from the lake by controlling stormwater runoff and leaving buffers along creeks and streams. Similar rules have worked successfully – without significantly hampering development – in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins.
Agriculture. The rules require farmers in the Jordan Lake watershed to work together to adopt best management practices to keep nitrogen and phosphorus out of rivers and creeks upstream from the lake. Similar rules have worked successfully in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins without placing a noticeable burden on farmers.
NC Department of Transportation. Although its contribution is relatively small, the network of state roads does account for a share of pollution flowing into Jordan Lake. The rules require the state Department of Transportation and other state and federal entities to take very modest steps to control polluted runoff from roads and other projects.
To improve flexibility and lower costs, the rules also allow the various contributors to ‘trade’ pollution reductions – so, if a farmer can cheaply reduce nitrogen, even beyond their required reduction, they can sell that reduction to a wastewater treatment plant or local government.
What will the rules cost?
The rules will have a cost, and most of the opposition expressed to the rules so far is directly tied to the costs. Overall, the rule will impose few new costs on farmers or developers.
Upgrades at wastewater treatment plants will be expensive, and will be passed on to ratepayers. One aspect of this that has been poorly understood is that these upgrades are already required under a federal plan adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. In fact, in the absence of the rules, those upgrades would need to begin in 2011, not 2014. So it is incorrect to attribute the cost of wastewater treatment plant upgrades to these state rules. The major costs of upgrades will fall on Greensboro, Burlington, and Durham. There are many smaller plants in the watershed, but their discharges are well below a level that will require them to install new technology.
The most controversial cost estimates have been for the control of runoff from existing development. Some local governments have offered estimates in the billions of dollars. In creating them, staff assumed that local governments would have to pay for all pollution reductions, and would use very expensive techniques. That’s not what the rules require; the rules only demand a feasible plan, and do not even set an end date by which time reductions must be achieved. There are various federal and state programs that pay for stormwater retrofits; these programs can further help to reduce costs to local governments.
Some facts about Jordan Lake
Jordan Lake is a 14,000 acre reservoir in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin. It lies almost entirely within Chatham County –with a small portion in Durham County.
Jordan Lake was created in 1981, by the US Army Corps of Engineers, by damming the Haw River, New Hope Creek, and Morgan Creek; other tributaries include Northeast and White Oak Creeks. It was created for flood control, wildlife habitat, recreation, and water supply.
Jordan Lake is the main drinking water source for Cary, Apex, Morrisville, Northern Chatham, and the Wake County portion of Research Triangle Park.
Data show that the entire lake is now polluted by excessive nitrogen and phosphorus. 68% of the nitrogen and 84% of the phosphorus in the lake comes from polluted runoff from roads, rooftops, and farms.
More than 65 permitted wastewater treatment operations release more than 75 million gallons of waste per day into the watershed (the area that flows into the lake).
The upper ends of the lake routinely violate state and federal standards for chlorophyll a, a pigment in algae which is a sign of too much nitrogen and phosphorus. While algae is a food source for fish, too much of it kills off aquatic life.
Jordan Lake has become one of the largest summer homes of the bald eagle, our national symbol of freedom.
Jordan Lake's watershed is now home to more than 800,000 people—a 37% increase in 10 years. Growth is exploding in Chatham County, the second-fastest growing county in the state.
More than a million people visit the lake each year.
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