WakeUp Wake County sounds alarm on Falls Lake clean-up, while McKissick turns clock back for Falls history lesson
If there was a message to the couple of hundred Wake'rs who showed up for the WakeUp Wake County forum Saturday on the Falls Lake pollution problem and proposed clean-up, it was a call to action. Well, a call to action in the cerebral, measured way one might expect with a dais of expert presenters, and an audience that looked like a cross between an NC State faculty senate meeting and a Kiwanis confab.
But make no mistake: the agenda was geared towards action.
A first-half set of presenters focused on the problems nitrogen and phosphorus present towards lake health (with their algae blooms and the carcinogenic risk from dangerous cyanobacteria), and talking about the problems that development presents in adding impervious surface and reducing the ground's ability to absorb stormwater, instead speeding its flows down sidewalks, streets and storm sewers towards creeks and ultimately Falls Lake, carrying nutrients and sediment with it.
And while the ubiquitous PowerPoints lacked any slides turning our signature bull's horns into devil-horns, as a slide early in the morning event showed, the Falls Lake watershed is threatened by all this pesky growth, seen in the Falls watershed as a red-and-pink rash creeping towards Falls. Oh, and by agriculture in the Falls watershed throughout northern Durham County and Orange County; that's a problem too.
Of course, as JoAnn Burkholder (a distinguished faculty member at NC State, and one of the key voices opposed to Durham's assertions in the Falls Lake process) noted, that red-and-pink area's grown by 20% in the last decade -- versus 40% growth in Raleigh. No matter, though: in the politics of water, the burden for clean-up usually rests with the polluters, not the users, and Durham just happens to be upstream from the 1970s/80s man-made Falls Lake.
While the crowd seemed galvanized to care about this important issue -- in order, we'd expect, to stand with environmental groups preparing to oppose the Durham-Raleigh compromise on Falls Lake -- it was that history and perspective that stood out in Durham state Sen. Floyd McKissick, Jr.'s comments near the morning's end.
McKissick provided a historical background, arguing that Falls' very design and location was poorly-chosen from the get go, and warning Raleighites that the precedent here will matter to them when fast-growing Johnston County starts asking Wake to clean up its runoff.
Even as McKissick made a dispassionate but firm case for a state-wide approach to solving the problems of funding such clean-up activities as are proposed here, though, Wake County state Sen. Josh Stein warned in his follow-up comments that he doesn't consider the recent Durham-Raleigh compromise to be more than one small part of the final decision on Falls.
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While the three-hour event was interesting and compelling through much of its run -- the full program is available via a BCR recording, posted to the Internet Archive -- the final three speakers presented much of the headlines out of the event.
McKissick and Stein were preceded by Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina.
She stressed the importance that her organization was placing on seeing immediate progress towards improving the quality of all of Falls -- as opposed to a staged plan agreed to by Durham and Raleigh leaders.
That staged plan would prioritize immediate improvements to the lower end of Falls near Raleigh's drinking water intake, thus postponing expensive improvements to the E.M. Johnson water treatment plant in the City of Oaks, while giving Durham and other upstream communities longer to impact the upper end of Falls, and to re-study pollution in the coming years.
Ouzts did praise Durham and Raleigh leaders, calling the mutual acceptance of these 'consensus principles' "an excellent move by both local governments." But Ouzts' opposition to the rules as drafted was clear, calling the quarter-century timeframe for clean-up too long, and claiming that the consensus principles would turn the upper end of Falls from a supporting water body for the entire lake to one that is instead "essentially an urban drainage ditch."
"We very much need public support in order to get as strong rules as possible to protect the health of the lake," Ouzts said. "We'd like to see a quicker timeline, and we'd like assurances that all of the lake is cleaned up."
Ouzts noted audience members could read the entirety of the draft rules, or lend their support to groups like hers that would be lobbying for stricter rules.
That point lingered over the next two speakers, as Durham and Wake state Senators spoke with the Environment North Carolina call to action slide looming over their shoulders.
McKissick -- whose Duke, Harvard, UNC and Clark academic credentials elicited murmurs of awe from the audience (remember, we said it resembled an NC State faculty senate meeting) -- spoke first, and spoke in positive terms about the compromise, calling the compromise deal points "good principles to use as a kind of springboard for where we go from here."
"I remember seeing Falls Lake built," McKissick said, noting his time living in Warren Co. near Kerr Lake (home to his father's Soul City project), and watching the creation of Falls Lake as he commuted between Durham and Warren. "It was very interesting to me that they really didn't do any excavation," he continued, calling Falls an unnecessarily shallow structure.
"[My] intuitive judgement just driving across 85, looking at the construction in that period, was that you were going to have some issues and problems in the years to come with contamination and runoff and everything else that's related to it," he continued.
And McKissick touched on other points -- from the assertion that Falls is really three lakes, not one body of water, to the fact that Durham gets no drinking water from Falls but is burdened by most of the clean-up costs -- that have been front and center in Durham officials' arguments.
"We do have reasonably good restrictions on development over in Durham County that safeguard water quality in the lake," McKissick said, noting that development restrictions developed in the 1980s, and that North Durham's wastewater treatment plant -- which, with its predecessors, sent effluent off towards the Neuse for decades before Falls was built -- got upgrades soon after Falls' completion to proactively reduce impact.
McKissick asserted that Raleigh's much-jawed $240 million investment in additional treatment capabilities at its water treatment plant would be avoided even under the consensus principles, saying that they'd lead to a reduction in pollution to 2006 levels, by which to his argument Raleigh was already able to provide safe drinking water. (McKissick added Durham could still under the draft rules be incurring another $20m -- and maybe, as capacity at North Durham's plant increases, a further nine-figure investment more -- in improvements on its own to pay for Falls Lake's clean-up.)
"I think what it causes us to really think about is a greater conversation about what we should have as public policies dealing with these reservoirs," McKissick noted, calling for the state to take a look at regional or state-wide solutions to avoid issues like Chatham County's loss of $1 billion in developable tax base due to Jordan Lake's construction. "Who pays, and who benefits, when it comes to reservoirs? We should really have a good conversation about this at the state," McKissick said.
"It's not a conversation that's occurred in the past," McKissick said.
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If McKissick was fishing for support for regional approaches that would share the clean-up cost burden with the beneficiary community, Wake County freshman state Sen. Josh Stein wasn't exactly biting at that hook.
"Our drinking water is polluted, and we must clean it up. It's that simple," Stein said, noting that the cost of cleaning water "gets passed on to Wake County's taxpayers," and adding that economic growth in the region depended on having always-clean, dependable water.
"We have to take steps today to ensure that we remain a vibrant and healthy community," Stein said.
He went on to agree that policy issues existed on Falls, but sidestepped McKissick's call for regional or state-wide approaches, focusing in instead on what he described as a drawn-out rulemaking process that threatened Raleigh's desire for strong clean-up rules on its drinking water.
Stein praised McKissick along with other legislators, "all of whom represent constituencies above the lake," for supporting clean-up. "It's a lot easier to advocate when it's your folks who are taking the harm, and it's a lot harder when you have to bear the cost and you don't get the immediate benefit of that cleaner water."
But Stein said that even "above the dam" legislators like McKissick and other Orange-Durham reps "recognize that we as a region have a stake in this resource, and they work to come up with good ideas" -- a seeming way of addressing the rationale of mutual economic growth that Stein implied drove the western Triangle's interest in Falls clean-up. (From BCR's biased perspective, we're not sure we bite on that one -- but, hey, what else can you say on something like this?)
Stein added that the new charge from the General Assembly gave DENR a bit of an extension on the rule-making, but that it also added in additional things that environmental groups wanted, like the inclusion of sedimentation as being within the authorization, and the temporary enforcement of the Falls rules even while final rulemaking in the Environmental Management Commission and legislature occurs.
"The word 'rival' means people who share the very same river," Stein noted, and called it "encouraging" that "we weren't rivals, we were collaborators, we were problem-solvers" in coming up with consensus principles.
But while Stein called them "encouraging," like Ouzts, he didn't seem satisfied that they would go far enough.
"That said, the municipalities are only one stakeholder. Granted, they're very important stakeholders," Stein warned. "But the charge to the EMC is to hear from all perspectives, and to come up with the rules that make the most sense for cleaning the lake."
"Well, the munis are important, but you are important. Your perspective matters," Stein said.
Ah, back to the forum and the call to action in Wake. There's that lobbying call again, with Stein encouraging residents to "let [their] voice be heard" during the process of review of the draft rules.