BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for March 1, 2010
City faces tax increase, pause in new capital projects

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.



Glad that you were able to cover the forum, I think it would be great to see a forum in Durham where the problem and some possible solutions were clearly laid out like what was done in the first panel.

I think one of the biggest things that is being over looked in this discussion is that the clean up is not being done due to Raleigh/Wake County's drinking water but because the lake and its tributaries are polluted- i.e. in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Falls Lake and its tributaries- Ellerbe Creek, Goose Creek, Eno River, etc- are incredibly polluted and damaged and this is pollution in our own yard. We deal with the negative affects when we go swimming in the lake or wade through one of the creeks. But, these could be real resources for us and we can see those glimmers of hope at the heron rookery and beaver marsh on Ellerbe Creek or in Eno River State park or some of the city parks along Goose creek.

This is not about Raleigh- it's about us and what our responsibilities are. We need to clean up these streams for Durham. And if we can convince Raleigh that it is in their interest to help the clean up (i.e pay some of the costs) because it will protect their drinking water- then great! In the end to get the clean up done 'right', it will need to be a joint effort where all the communities are engaged.

(Editorial Note- for pay I am part of the environmental mafia, but more than that I am a Durhamite and this post is my personal, not professional opinion.)

kaferine de nerve

Right on Peter. Our wetlands our dirty! The Durham community is responsible for protecting Durham's natural resources. There is a lot of work to be done to clean the pollution in the wetlands and we can have fun doing it.



Good comments about Raleigh sharing the costs for cleanup. Falls Lake really is nothing more than a dammed-up drainage ditch, as McKissick pointed out. I can't believe he had that much foresight in the 1970s to see what problem the shallow tributaries would present today, but he's absolutely right. Durham doesn't draw from Falls Lake, and for the most part didn't get to decide where the dam, and the most usable part of the lake, was going to be built. It's just a fact that shallow, low-flow coves and rivers hold more pollutants than deeper, faster areas downstream. Just because they show up as redder problem areas doesn't mean the actual flow of pollutants is any greater upstream than downstream. It's a matter of dilution. I'm amazed at the difficulty sometimes getting political leaders to understand simple science.

Kevin Davis


Look, I don't mind one bit Durham paying towards the clean-up of Falls Lake.

But given that we're dealing with a problem of our own creation -- a man-made lake incredulously built right downstream from sewage and sewers from a good-sized city -- I'm not eager to see Durhamites fix the problem with a blank check.

Durham should pay a fair share for the pollution. But the idea that 100% of the cost should be borne by Durham? I'm sorry, I just find that to be a rather silly assertion.

To use McKissick's example, does any one think that Wake Co. wants to foot the bill for future cleanup for Johnston Co.? That we won't see the same arguments raised then?

Look, the real solution we need here to my mind is regional management of water supplies. No more Durham running a water system. No more Raleigh running a water system. Instead, let the water supplies, and rules over SWM and development impact, be governed by an independent enterprise provider to cover the whole region.

As a general rule, I believe you always have to align costs with incentives. Given the debate taking place in Wake Co. today about building a new shopping center practically on the edge of Falls Lake, I'm not prepared to fall in line with some moral obligation that we should pick up the tab for a problem that boiled down to really bad planning.

Todd P

Clearly Durham has to do its share of cleanup, but only what is within the bounds of effectiveness and reasonable cost.

Sen. McKissick is right to point out that Falls Lake was built in a poor location, directly downstream from our urban area. Durham grew for 100 years before Falls Lake was built, pretty much without stormwater controls of any kind beyond curb & gutter.

The separation of the lake into distinct segments by roads like I-85 also does not help, keeping Durham's runoff concentrated in a smaller part of the lake. It's too bad that longer bridges were not built for I-85 and NC-50 so that the lake would not be so segmented and would mix more easily.

In any case, Wake County cannot expect Durham to bear all the cleanup costs while Wake continues its sprawl-binge. That is simply unreasonable.

Tar Heelz

"Look, the real solution we need here to my mind is regional management of water supplies."


kaferine de nerve

How is "shouldn't haves" and "too bads" helpful? Durham's dirty wetlands hurt Durham's plants, Durham's wildlife, Durham's citizens and Durham's resources.

Playing victim--calling foul doesn't negate the personal responsibilty for our backyards.

Kevin Davis


I'm not saying there isn't a responsibility for clean-up, and that would exist whether or not a Falls Lake existed in the first place.

That said, to my mind, there is a legitimate question of "who pays?" There's also a question on what the appropriate clean-up target is.

It's easy to say that pollution hurts our natural resources. But it's a harder question to say, what's the cost burden for clean-up, and how should it be allocated?

For instance, most residential property owners in Durham pay a SWM fee of less than $50 a year. If pollution clean-up required us to double that... triple that... I think that's reasonable.

What if the cost of SWM rose to $1,000 a year per homeowner to meet targets? $2,000? No one's floated either of those numbers, but my point is, there is always some point at which you have to factor in cost-efficiency.

In the Jordan Lake Rules, the groups pushing for strict standards sent out a celebratory email at the process' end, stating that they thought Jordan Lake was the first case *in US history* where existing development was being required to be retrofitted to meet cleanup standards.

I'm thrilled Jordan will get cleaner. I'm also a little nervous about being out on a limb no one else has climbed yet, especially when a small population county will be paying 100% of the clean-up cost itself.

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