A Cleaner Lake Jordan Ahead??

Finally, the Jordan Lake nutrient/pollutant rules have passed the legislature. We can now breathe a qualified sigh of relief. Qualified because the old saw about the making of law and sausage applies to this present legislative exercise. Much of what the state Environmental Management Commission (EMC) originally authored has been retained, albeit on a delayed schedule. And the data used to generate the rules is from ’97-2001, and already obsolete.

I sat down with Elaine Chiosso, Executive Director of the Haw River Assembly to review what had been accomplished and how it might address a seriously polluted Jordan Lake. This is what I gleaned from our 90 minute conversation.

The main purpose of this seven year process, and the resulting rules, is to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous from entering the lake from its constituent sources. Pollution from the Upper New Hope Arm, which includes Durham and Chapel Hill must reduce nitrogen by a whopping 35% and the Haw Arm by 8%. Phosphorous must be decreased by 5% by all parties.

By way of review, excess nitrogen and phosphorous become pollutants, causing algae blooms that raise the pH of the lake, making it more alkaline, creating conditions harmful to aquatic organisms and human beings.

Part of the victory of these rules is that they govern existing development, which has never happened in this watershed. This means that pollutants originating from the storm water of existing construction must be reduced to meet the new goals. How?

More intensive application of “best management practices” will be the main way of attaining these goals. Essentially it means using stream buffers, rain gardens, designed ecosystems and other methods to filter out pollutants before polluted water reaches lake tributaries. Golf courses, nursery operations, and public recreation lands will also have to submit fertilizer use plans and their employees undergo training in fertilizer application. Farmers, already experienced in fertilizer management, will be held to the new standards. There is even some noise of banning certain types of fertilizer the way we did phosphorous in laundry detergent. Illicit discharges from farms, broken septic systems, and non-compliant waste water treatment plants are to be ferreted out and corrected. New construction will have to build storm water safeguards into their developments. Some of the new rules will have fairly immediate effects, such as the 5% phosphorus reduction from sewage treatment plants that will take effect a year from now.

“It is a good place to start”, admits Ms. Chiosso. But the compromises in delayed implementation don’t help. The EMC had scheduled the rules to take effect in 2014. Because of intense lobbying by Greensboro, Burlington and Durham, the Assembly pushed it back to 2016. “It’s not the worst that could’ve happened”, admits Chiosso. But she cautions that collapse of some aquatic ecosystems could occur if we have another drought before the rules are enforceable.

Not only is delay a potential problem, monitoring is an even bigger challenge. Self monitoring, a dubious practice, will be bolstered by the chronically understaffed, (some say by design) state Division of Water Quality (DWQ). To me this is the weak link that jeopardizes years of hard work. The state and municipalities simply don’t have enough people to enforce the rules. Case in point: it was volunteers with the Haw River Assembly who alerted the DWQ to elevated pH levels in the lake. So folks, it’s up to the people to participate in the protection of our drinking water so that this won’t have been just a noble exercise.

But my biggest problem with the whole process is that we’ve had to be legally bound to do something that our diminished degree of basic human decency could not. It is criminal that we allowed an irreplaceable water supply to be so degraded. We are 70% water. To the extent that we pollute Jordan Lake, we pollute ourselves and threaten an already tenuous future. This is an action without ethical bearing. It is the profligate attitude of money first. Ouch!

The question is: considering our unwillingness to do what’s right, do we really trust ourselves to make this agreement stick? If not, what does that say about our future on this planet?

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