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So, Raleigh, now it's *you* caring about what's going on downstream?

Throughout the Falls Lake Rules process, one thing that's been frustrating at times for those of us in upstream Durham -- where a significant majority of our blue county, I suspect, supports tougher environmental measures -- has been the frustration of getting finger-wagged over growth and pollutants by our downstream neighbor.

A neighbor that's grown far faster than Durham, Orange, or Person, taking up a disproportionate share of regional growth. A neighbor whose impervious surface levels soared in the area around Falls Lake much faster than Durham's did. A neighbor whose County Commissioners vetoed a slow-growth provision near a future reservoir site so that Rolesville (who wants to live in Rolesville?) could keep growing.

A neighbor that chews up greenfields for subdivisions like a fat guy eats hot dogs at a July Fourth eating contest on Coney Island.

Well, what do we see today at the (absolutely terrific) site Raleigh Public Record?

Raleigh city officials say a proposed chicken operation in [downstream-from-Wake --BCR] Nash County could cost them big bucks for waste cleanup. [...]

If [the plant and associated Consolidated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs are] built as planned, Raleigh officials say nutrient levels in the Neuse and its estuary will rise. Should that happen, Waldroup predicts “the federal government, through the Clean Water Act, will require additional nutrient reductions from everyone upstream, not just the plant or the CAFOs.”

“Everyone within the basin will be affected, and traditionally point sources, like waste water treatment plants, will feel the brunt before non-point sources like land application operations,” he said.

“Municipalities, rather than the CAFOs, will receive more scrutiny because of how the Clean Water Act is structured.”

Meanwhile, the article tells us, Raleigh's three wastewater treatment plants have spent $25 million (gee!) to meet tighter nitrogen and phosphorus requirements -- and as much as (gasp!) a half-million a year in operating expenses to meet pollution rules.

But let me get this straight. Raleigh's grown at massive rates in the past decade, with the fastest growth countywide in the Brier Creek area, which drains to the Neuse just downstream of Falls Lake...

...and you're concerned that something happening downstream from you could make you have to spend more on pollution clean-up?

Cry me a Neuse over a $25 million cap-ex. We're looking at spending a few times to perhaps dozens of times that amount in Durham, a smaller-population, smaller-geography county already contrained by existing watershed rules from growing. Our taxpayers, and those in places like Hillsborough, could end up getting soaked by cleanup rules over the next couple of decades.

Not that we shouldn't have to clean up the water, mind you. But I've long argued that the right way to do it is through a regional or statewide methodology.

All communities deserve clean water. All communities deserve to be required to meet high standards for wastewater discharge.

But none of us have a say in the happenstance of geography.

A community like Raleigh is lucky to have so few communities near it on the downstream side of things; it can rely on natural processes to clean up its wastewater before any larger urban area drinks it.

Durham, of course, has Raleigh's drinking fountain sitting right at the butt end of its northern municipal toilet. (Pardon the imagery.)

And upstream from us, we have Greensboro and suburban Alamance Co., fighting like the dickens to get out of clean-up rules for Jordan Lake.

In between, Durham gets pinched.

Ultimately, though, I find myself annoyed about the Raleigh whinging over the CAFO and plant in Nash County not because Raleigh's officials are wrong on this.

They aren't. We don't need any more (literally) stinking hog and chicken farms in eastern NC, given the tremendous waste levels they already bring to impoverished communities downstream from us.

Rather, I find it galling to see Raleigh making an argument about downstream activities when their public stance has taken an unrealistic approach to the unmistakeable problems in cleaning up Falls Lake when the powers that be built it in the 1980s just downstream from Durham.

Hey Oak-folks, we know: a chicken plant down near I-95 stinks to high heaven.

On the other hand, try having a county downstream that's Ground Zero for every minivan of suburbanites fleeing the northeast, drawn to southwestern Wake County like it's a gold rush, and sprawling out subdivisions across our state until the living's not easy and the miners move to another Sunbelt destination.

Imagine how that smells when you live upstream from it, and have to spend millions thanks to your neighbor's irresponsible, unsustainable growth.

Come to think of it -- I might just choose the chicken plant.


Samantha E.

Ladies and gentlemen, he's baaacck! And there was much rejoicing.


Nope, you wouldn't choose the chicken plant. Then you wouldn't have something to bitch about once a month on here.

Raleigh, or Durham, or Sanderson/Murphy/Browns/Carrols/etc creating unnecessary pollution isn't an excuse for the next guy to do the same.

Kevin Davis

@Jeff -- My point isn't to side with developers on this or to say Durham shouldn't have to clean up. My long held point has been that clean up in the watershed should be universal, and paid by a regional water management agency that combines water/wastewater functions for the entire Triangle, or more broadly, and which has tax, enterprise fund and capital expenditure capabilities.

Should Durham have to retrofit neighborhoods with BMPs and remove septic systems? Sure. But shouldn't Raleigh have to do the same, to the extent their neighborhoods flow into the Neuse, too? The difference has seemed to be that we end up focusing on Falls because that's where Raleigh has to spend money to clean its drinking water... rather than holding development throughout the watershed to common standards.

And more to the point, I take issue with the idea that upstream automatically pays when pollution is found even when the downstream topography and water features, like Falls, are beyond upstream's control.

Isn't that exactly what Raleigh is arguing here? That it's concerned about something being done downstream that could cause it to face greater expenses for something it didn't do?

Plenty of Durham's clean-up need comes because we haven't managed urban streams well or worked on pollution. But plenty comes because of downstream choices, too.

Let's all share the costs along the watershed, is my goal.

(BTW -- monthly? Ouch! I admit that in '07, '08 the snark here was pretty bad on Wake/Raleigh, but I think it's toned down significantly since then. You know, some of my best friends live in Raleigh....)

Will Wilson

Another point I find interesting: The City of Durham seems to blame the upstream county lands, and the 10,000 horses and cows living there rather than the 270,000 people of the city, for the ills of Falls Lake. [Or has it stopped?] Our farms aren't the problem, and Durham agriculture needs the economic support of urbanites to prevent even nastier developments in important watersheds. Let's not perpetuate the myth that Durham agriculture (and we're not talking factory farms here) causes the problems with Falls Lake.

Rob Gillespie

I'd love to see NC go the way of Florida and institute water management districts, exactly as Kevin suggests.

To learn more about how water management districts work, check out this link:


I've seen several start-ups with interesting ways of addressing the "waste" problem. One in particular, E3 Clean Technologies, turned urine into treated water w/ a smaller environmental footprint. I thought this was interesting idea when I originally heard the pitch at a conference.

There are a couple of others that are trying to convert animal waste into energy. I bring all of this up because sometimes the biggest opportunities are presented by the biggest problems. That's a lot of energy production and JOBS for Eastern NC. Let's start innovating again!

@ Kevin - I agree completely about a water management district. Water is a regional issue. It is exceedingly expensive to think about it in a local mindset especially in a growing region.

Michael Bacon

Will: Sure, it's the people, but the vast majority of Durham's growth since Falls Lake was built has been in the Cape Fear basin, not the Neuse basin. Most of the pollution that gets into Falls Lake from Durham is in the Ellerbe Creek watershed, and most of that was developed before long before anyone ever dreamed up Falls Lake. Durham has gone out of its way repeatedly to protect the other three rivers that feed the lake from the Durham side, but the geographically-challenged folks from Wake like WakeUP seem to want to make Durham out to be the enemy here. Hello? You built a lake on an already polluted stream, and now you're demanding action.

Yes, the creek needs to be cleaned up. (Note that Durham citizens are about to throw a huge annual party for the explicit purpose of raising money for the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, out of their own good will.) But so do the streams that feed the Neuse as they flow out of Raleigh, but when it comes to those, Wake county seems suddenly interested in cost control.

Will Wilson

Michael: Agreed.

Will Wilson

Michael: Agreed, but our understanding of stormwater changed over time. As you say, Durham was developed, and then Falls Lake was made to satisfy several needs including drinking water for Raleigh. There's now a much better understanding of urban stormwater problems and pollutants, and Durham (and everywhere) needs to deal with it. Sorta like all those folks who started smoking when it was thought harmless, then the reality kicks in -- it doesn't really work to say, "I started smoking when it was thought to be harmless, so the facts don't pertain to me." Drinking water reservoirs were created when urban runoff was thought to be clean, and anything dirty would just settle out. Inconvenient truths.

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