On a quiet Sunday at Falls Lake, you can see boaters, jetskiers and fishers.
A woman throws chew toys into the water for her dog, who leaps into the lake near the intake point for Raleigh’s drinking water.
At a glance, the water looks pretty clean. But in some areas of the lake, algae is blooming. And that could be a bad sign.
Falls Lake is listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired water bodies. And that means someone has to clean it up.
So here’s a basic breakdown of the Falls Lake situation:
There’s too much “ick” in the water. Ick is nitrogen and phosphorus, which mean more algae growth and other nasty things such as fish kills or an unpleasant odor or taste to the water.
“Too much” means it does not meet EPA standards for the Clean Water Act, which requires a body of water to be suitable for fishing, swimming and drinking.
How much ick are we talking? That depends on which part of the lake you’re dipping into for measurements. The lower lake, closer to Raleigh, from where drinking water is drawn, meets the EPA standards. The upper lake, north of Interstate 85, does not. The space between sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t.
Falls Lake is listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired water bodies. Photo by Leo Suarez.
So the Department of Environment and Natural Resources says we need to reduce the amount of one ick (nitrogen) by 40 percent and they want a 77 percent reduction of phosphorus — the other ick.
That’s a huge jump. Compare that to reducing levels of those nutrients in other nearby lakes such as Jordan, where the target reduction is under 10 percent.
What’s Causing the Ick
So how did this happen? These nutrients are coming from many sources:
Wastewater treatment plants – Sewage goes through a thorough cleaning process, leaving nothing but water to be dumped into the lake. However, that water still contains a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous from our waste.
Agriculture – The nutrients from agriculture come from both fertilizer runoff from cropland and animal waste getting into streams. There are no large-scale animal feeding operations in the Falls Lake watershed, but there are many small operations. Farmers will be required to add buffers between fields and tributaries and fence cattle out of the water.
Stormwater runoff – Water runs downhill, so any rainwater that sloshes through the streets, roads and parking lots will end up in the lake, along with a healthy dose of nitrogen and phosphorous. Roads also add oil, brake dust, heavy metals and trash.
Why You Care
First things first: your drinking water is safe. Falls Lake’s 12,000 acres of water is the Raleigh-area’s main source of drinking water, serving more than 450,000 people.
Raleigh’s Assistant Public Utilities Director Kenny Waldrop said he is seeing more contaminants in the water, mainly in the form of total organic carbons, which come from algae. The more nitrogen and phosphorous, the more algae. The more algae, the more TOCs. Some total organic compounds are ok and are natural. But too much becomes a problem.
Click for a larger image.
Cleaning the total organic carbons from our drinking water is done daily as part of the treatment process. But with more in the water, it’s harder for the water treatment plant to handle and eventually it won’t be able to handle it anymore. That could lead to expensive upgrades in the way water is treated.
“We are forced to deal with more TOCs at the plant, and eventually the plant’s treatment processes will be maximized,” he said. “We watch very closely the raw water quality and if we feel like our processes are not protective, we will look at changing our processes.”
But the lake, which covers parts of Durham, Wake and Granville counties, is more than just our water source. It’s a place to play.
The lake has seven recreation areas, and activities include swimming, fishing, canoeing, boating, picnicking, camping and mountain biking. According to the Falls Lake recreation office, more than 954,000 people used the lake for some type of recreation in 2009.
“People aren’t inclined to swim and boat in a lake that’s murky from algae growth,” said John Husiman, the senior environmental specialist with DENR. “The drinking water is safe from Falls Lake, but the city of Raleigh does have to spend more money to treat the water. Ultimately it’s about achieving the water quality standards in the lake.”
Grady McCallie, policy director for the non-profit North Carolina Conservation Network, said making these changes is a protective measure, too.
More than 954,000 used Falls Lake for recreation last year, according to the park’s office. Photo by Leo Suarez.
“The drinking water is safe at this point,” he said. “But what happens if the lake continues to get worse or doesn’t get better?” he said.
Neuse Riverkeeper Alissa Bierma said one type of algae has the capability to produce harmful microcystin toxins. Those toxins have been found in the water at times, she said. The toxins can cause rashes, but if ingested, could also cause severe intestinal problems.
“At current levels, we’re probably safe in terms of our treated water, but if it gets worse we’re going to have to watch it,” Bierma said. “If we keep on a downward spiral we’re going to find it in the treated water. It’s not something we can brush off.”
What They’re Doing to Fix It
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has a plan: nine new rules and two amendments to rules for local governments to help make sure we reduce the ick in the lake and prevent more from ending up there.
The new rules are broken up into two stages. Stage One is the first wave of reductions, aimed at returning the lake to levels seen in 2006 and achieving water quality standards in the lower lake by 2021. That means reducing nitrogen by 20 percent and phosphorus by 40 percent.
Stage Two calls for more reductions in upper watershed (area above NC 50) to ultimately achieve the proper standards lake-wide by 2041.
The rules are similar to those in place around Jordan Lake and the Neuse River.
The rules target each area causing problems.
Farmers will have to install buffers around their fields, fence cattle out of creeks and have more strict regulations about fertilizer use.
Wastewater treatment plants will undergo technological upgrades to cut back on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water returned to the lake.
Right now, stormwater runoff from the average residential area adds eight pounds per acre per year to the lake water. The new rules aim to cut that to 2.2 pounds per acre per year.
There are many ways to cut down on the amount of nitrogen from development, including adding retention ponds and rain gardens. Each government would decide how best to meet the requirements and submit those plans for approval by DENR.
The rules also allow trading. For example, instead of farmers and wastewater treatment plants to each cut by 40 percent for nitrogen and 77 percent for phosphorus, it might be easier (or cheaper) for farmers to cut more. So the groups can make a trade – as long as the totals add up.
Making those changes won’t be cheap. DENR estimates the total cost for the entire project, including costs for local governments is $605 million for Stage I and $946 million for Stage II.
DENR officials say that’s probably an overestimate. McCallie agrees.
“It’s a worst-case,” he said. “There are a number of ways to meet these reduction requirements. Some of them are hard to put a price tag on.”
But even if that figure is the worst case, there is some cost, and it’s worse for some than others.
Costs will be cheaper in Granville County, for example, because the South Granville Water and Sewer Authority has already begun upgrading the water treatment plant, part of the Stage I requirements. So that will only cost $26 million. Stage II will be more expensive, at about $77 million.
Same for the city of Durham, which spent $45 million to upgrade Durham’s water reclamation facility in the mid-90s. Upgrades to improve the nutrient removal systems will only take $14 million.
But stormwater runoff will be more expensive; retrofitting to keep stormwater from entering the lake from nearby subdivisions requires tearing up roads and inserting larger pipes, finding land and then creating sediment ponds.
Local governments are facing bills of hundreds of millions of dollars to make the necessary changes. Photo by Leo Suarez.
Durham officials estimate that retrofitting existing development will cost $645 million. That’s one reason why officials there have suggested taking another look at the lake after Stage I, and then deciding whether Stage II is necessary.
“A lot of conservative assumptions were made by the DWQ about the way the lake will behave,” said Ted Voorhees, Durham’s deputy city manager. “Since they’ve layered in so many conservative estimates and since we can’t find any estimates that the lake is trending worse, we would suggest before the local governments commit to spending $3 billion dollars that we monitor over the next few years and use that data to determine whether it’s necessary.”
Raleigh Stormwater Utility Manager Danny Bowden said it isn’t too big an issue for Raleigh, which has a small area draining into the lake. But Durham: “Half their jurisdiction drains into Falls [Lake],” he said.
He said Stage II will be worse, because all existing development will have to cut its nitrogen and phosphorous contributions by half.
“That’s where a lot of potential costs come in. You’re talking everything in Raleigh,” Bowden said.
Raleigh’s wastewater treatment plant would not be affected by these rules, because it dumps water downstream.
But T.J. Lynch, superintendent of the Raleigh Public Utilities Department, said other state rules and mandates are also under reviews that affect Raleigh. Those rules, and the proposed rules for Falls Lake, are pushing wastewater treatment plans to use reverse osmosis, a form of filtering that uses a high-pressure pump to push the water through a very fine membrane to squeeze out even more molecular-level items such as nitrogen.
That high-pressure pump uses a lot of electricity, Lynch said. That combined with the capital costs could mean a 10-fold increase in your water and sewer bills.
“It’s tremendous,” he said. “Are residents of these towns ready to pay 10 times the water and sewer bills they are now? Our water bills would rival our electric bills. It’s important that we take a step back and say what’s the overall benefit to the environment that you get from that increase in cost? Do you get a tenfold benefit?”
DENR also estimates some cost savings, such as between $43 and 266 million saved in avoided drinking water treatment costs. And another $600-800,000 for reduced drinking water treatment costs.
“It’s always more cost effective to treat higher quality water. The more contaminated the water, the more chemicals you have to use,” said Kenny Waldrop, Raleigh’s assistant public utilities director. “So there is a relationship between raw water quality and the amount of chemicals that are used at any one time to render that water into potable water.”
The Blame Game
So how did all this happen?
That’s where it gets murky. There are six county governments and eight municipal governments in the Falls Lake watershed.
The worst ick areas are north of Interstate 85 around Durham and Granville county sections of the lake. Raleigh’s portion is slightly better and it gets clearer as you head downstream. The area around the water intake meets EPA standards.
Many blame Durham for planning decisions they say led to that pollution.
Bierma said you can’t only point fingers at current elected officials, and that these problems have been occurring for decades. But data about Falls Lake came out in 2006 and since then, very few local governments have stepped up to make changes.
“[Durham] hasn’t even adopted a pet waste ordinance and that’s, like, a two-second conversation in a meeting,” she said. “It’s those very basic things. Small decisions like that do make a difference.”
Cummings says blaming Durham is unfair, because Durham did not ask for the lake and did not choose to be upstream from it. Falls Lake was created when a dam was built by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1978 and 1981. (That’s another story.)
In addition, part of the reason for the higher concentrate of pollution in the northern sections is due to the amount of water in those areas of the lake. The lower lake is much deeper compared to the shallow portion north of Interstate 85.
The test point at which samples are taken to determine if the DENR rules are being met is just south of I-85. Durham officials say the test point should be in the middle of the lake – not near the upper end.
“There’s nothing requiring the Division of Water Quality to pick a single compliance point,” Cummings said. “There are different ways of measuring water quality. If they had chosen [a lower] point … we wouldn’t be going through any of this process.”
Bierma said environmental officials used a number of sampling points throughout the lake to determine there is a problem. Yes, they could have chosen a point below I-85 and it would have made cleanup easier because there would be less to do, she said.
“But we also could have chosen one further up the lake and more strict,” she said. “The entire lake does need to be clean.”
Bierma said that in the end, a second set of rules may need to be written to deal with the northern reaches of the lake.
Proposed Rule Changes
McCallie of the Conservation Network said arguing fault is moot. But he is concerned about some of the arguments area officials have made, including an agreement known as the consensus principles. Most area governments involved in the Falls Lake process have agreed that the situation should be reassessed after Stage I changes are complete.
Stage II could be used more effectively if we know how far we have come, said Durham County’s Cummings.
“Check back to see if seven additional years’ worth of modeling were telling us anything new about the status of the lake, and whether we could shape Stage II to be more cost effective,” Cummings said.
Waldrop said with Stage I will stop things from getting worse and take the lake back to chemical levels seen in 2006. He said doing so would be a “victory” for Raleigh’s drinking water.
Stage II would probably require $100-120 million in costs for his department to upgrade the drinking water treatment processes, he said.
But if the 2006 levels can be maintained, “there’s a reasonable expectation that we will not need to add advanced treatment technologies,” he said. “We support our consensus partners in the upper watershed in seeking additional testing over the next six to eight years and then a reevaluation of the social impacts of moving to Stage II.”
McCallie fears that such a pause-button approach might allow governments to halt the process completely, claiming that Stage II would be too expensive and difficult.
“We would fight that,” McCallie said. “We can’t walk away from this.”
McCallie and the Conservation Network also argue that the rules for Stage I should require more. More work now means Stage II won’t be such a huge leap.
“Let’s do the low-hanging fruit. And by the time we get up there, we don’t think we should have a review. By the time we get to that point, it’s not going to be nearly as scary because we will have accomplished a lot.”
McCallie also argues that the deadlines are too lax. Agreed, said Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, director of the Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology at NC State.
“A period of 25 to 30 years is unacceptably too long to wait for the state to achieve its water quality standard to protect this critically important drinking water supply. To me, the main problem with Falls Lake is that the lake has been degraded for some time,” she said, adding that the state of New York has never even allowed development around its water source. “North Carolina should be following suit. When you allow development in a watershed, you have to expect there’s going to be urban runoff and pollution in that runoff.”
Durham City’s Voorhees argues that assessing where we are with cleanup after Stage I simply makes sense.
“We’ve agreed that an adaptive management approach make sense, but it’s not adaptive management if you don’t adapt,” he said.
McCallie hopes it does not prevent them from moving forward.
“There is no proof if you let this go, that the drinking water is going to stay protected,” McCallie said. “This is the lowest water quality standard in the state. We’ve got to meet it.”
So they’ve got these new rules proposed. This summer, DENR collected input from the public and the local governments about tweaks to the rules.
Now, DENR will take those comments and deliberate before making final approval to the rules by November. State law dictates that the rules must be adopted by Jan. 15, 2011.
A temporary version of the rules will take effect immediately. Meanwhile, the rules would undergo legislative review in 2011 or 2012.
Bierma worries about that part of the process. As local governments weigh in on the cost and problems associated with this cleanup, that fear might be used to halt the process or dilute the rules, she said.
“For Falls [Lake] we have a set of rules that would genuinely make a difference and help protect the health and safety of this community, but if we take it through the legislature and play the fear card rather than be honest we’re going to end up with a law that doesn’t protect Falls Lake.”
In the end, both sides are arguing the science, the measurements and the cost. But all agree: No one wants nasty drinking water.
“People are committed to Falls Lake,” Cummings said. “I appreciate that. We’re talking about spending billions of dollars here to clean up a lake, so we’d better know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We’d better be sure we’re targeting that money where it needs to go.”