The Pulse

NC Policy Collaboratory’s first task: What to do about the ailing Jordan Lake?

By: - January 9, 2017 12:05 pm
A map of the Jordan Lake watershed, which includes parts of nine counties: Forsyth, Guilford, Rockingham, Caswell, Alamance, Orange, Durham, Chatham and Wake.
A map of the Jordan Lake watershed, which includes parts of nine counties; Jordan Lake itself lies within parts of Chatham, Wake and Durham counties. (Map: NC Department of Environmental Quality)

Jordan Lake is too far gone to fully recover from the repeated insults to its shores. Decades of pollution from urban and agricultural development have placed parts of the 46,000-acre lake on the EPA’s ignoble list of impaired waters. But conditions at Jordan could at least improve, according to the NC Policy Collaboratory, and those improvements could help protect a drinking water source for more than 300,000 people in one of the fastest-growing regions of North Carolina.

The NC Policy Collaboratory, an environmental think tank at UNC Chapel Hill, is the state’s latest attempt to solve — or at least offer solutions to — the environmental, political and economic problems of improving water quality in Jordan Lake. Over the past seven years, the Jordan Lake rules have become a punch line. They were intended to reduce pollution in the lake by regulating development and land use in the watershed, which includes parts of nine counties, from upstream in Forsyth to downstream in western Wake.

But since the legislature passed the rules in 2009, politics and economics have stalled their implementation. Instead, the water quality in Jordan Lake has been held hostage to legislative dawdling, funding shortfalls, multiple studies and revisions, and a failed $1 million SolarBees project. All of this has forestalled the inevitable: It will be expensive to even modestly clean up the lake, and we will all pay for it — more so as the water becomes dirtier.

Last month, the collaboratory issued its interim update to the General Assembly, as required by statute. In the document, the scientists outline how the two-year study on Jordan will proceed, with a final report due by Dec. 31, 2018. (Water quality in Falls Lake will be tackled in separate research, with a due date of Dec. 31, 2021.) The legislature appropriated $500,000 for the studies: NC Collaboratory_JordanLake

Steve Wall, outreach liaison for the collaboratory, said the researchers will study what pollutants are entering the lake, how much and where they’re coming from. The study will also focus on “understanding the factors throughout the entire watershed that are contributing nutrients and how best to address them in a cost-effective manner,” Wall said.

Specifically, researchers plan to study the sources of “nutrients and sediment,” aka nitrogen and phosphorus, for example, and dirt. Nitrogen and phosphorus can come from lawn and field fertilizers, stormwater runoff, wastewater, even via the air, from coal-fired plants. Dirt runs into the lake when construction clears or disrupts trees, bushes, wild grasses and other buffers that usually filter it out.

This pollution is not a merely an academic problem. Nutrients feed algae, some of which can be toxic to even touch — a problem for boaters, fishers and swimmers in the lake. When algae proliferates,  treatment plants have to work harder to remove it from drinking water. Even low levels of nutrients in drinking water can be harmful.

Nationwide, water and wastewater treatment plants are already grappling with the potential cost of removing more pollutants, such as “emerging contaminants,” which not yet regulated but could be in the future. Residue from prescription drugs, hormones and over-the-counter medications also enter the wastewater system, and without additional (and expensive) controls, enter drinking water sources.

Besides the regional pollution, these larger trends significantly increase the cost of protecting the lake for cities, utilities and developers; their lobbying power is part of the reason for the rules’ hiatus. For example, Durham City Council has endorsed the new development rule. That rule raise the cost of stormwater controls for new housing and commercial and institutional construction. But the city opposes an existing development rule because it would have to to “pay an estimated $570 million, could require condemnation of private property, and take property out of the city’s tax base.”

It makes financial sense, then, according to the collaboratory documents, to pinpoint the major sources of pollution and where they’re most easily and cheaply reduced. Surprisingly, though, despite the years of angst over the lake, there is still a shortage of data, collaboratory documents say. Existing information is based on infrequent sampling from just a few larger streams. This lack of data, especially of smaller streams, “results in large uncertainty.” Researchers now plan to increase the scope of sampling and in-lake monitoring.

UNC researchers say they’ll study the long-term effectiveness of buffers, one of the ways to keep pollution out of the lake — and waterways in general. Buffers, part of “bioretention” programs, are essentially swaths of vegetation and soils that filter and capture the pollution before it reaches the water. Yet last year, the legislature curtailed buffer requirements, prohibiting local governments from requiring wider buffers except under limited circumstances.

One of many anti-environmental laws passed in the last six years, the weaker buffer rules fly in the face of science. This continual friction point between politics and science is one reason UNC faculty and environmental advocates are closely watching the collaboratory’s work — and lawmakers’ response to their findings.

The collaboratory was created and in part, funded by the legislature, and receives $1 million in state money annually. It could get $3.5 million in non-recurring, matching public funds, as well. When its line item suddenly appeared in the state budget last June, academics and environmentalists questioned lawmakers’ political motivations in funding the group: Would the collaboratory be allowed to bite the hand that feeds it?

“The collaboratory is not intended to be an advocacy organization,” Wall said, in response to a question about the group’s influence over policy. “but rather provide information and assistance to state and local governments on environmental and natural resource issues.”

The group has met twice; the next meeting of the collaboratory is Jan. 20. at 9 a.m. in Room 105 of the South Building at UNC Chapel Hill.


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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.