May 15, 2013: Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee approved a new version of Senate Bill 515 (the ironically named Jordan Lake Water Quality Act) to repeal state rules adopted to address water quality problems in Jordan Lake. The problems come from excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) that can cause algal blooms affecting the smell and taste of the water. (Smell and taste are important to Triangle communities taking water from the lake for drinking water supply.) In hot summer conditions, algal blooms also contribute to fish kills. Reducing nutrient pollution can be a real environmental policy challenge because of the number of different nutrient sources — wastewater discharges, stormwater runoff from developed areas, agricultural activities — and the need to ask upstream communities to spend money for water quality improvements that do not directly benefit their citizens. The Jordan Lake rules came out of years of work by the state’s Division of Water Quality to understand how much nitrogen and phosphorus reaches the lake from different sources and identify the reductions needed to improve the lake’s water quality. Development of the rules involved nearly two years of meetings with a stakeholder group that included local government officials, the N.C. Farm Bureau, wastewater system operators, the N.C. Homebuilders Association, the N.C. Realtors Association and others. After the Environmental Management Commission adopted final rules for the Jordan Lake watershed in 2008, the General Assembly modified the rules through session laws adopted in 2009. (See S.L. 2009-216 and S.L. 2009-484.) The revised Jordan Lake rules finally went into effect in August of 2009, but the rules allowed several years for local governments in the watershed to improve wastewater treatment and create stormwater programs needed to reduce nutrient loading to the lake.
Although most local governments in the Jordan Lake watershed began moving to meet nutrient reduction targets set in the rules, local governments in the Haw River arm of the watershed (including Greensboro and Burlington) continued to push back. Objections from those local governments led to legislation in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to extend the time allowed for upgrading wastewater treatment and creating (or modifying) local stormwater programs. The current dates for compliance with the wastewater and stormwater requirements of the Jordan Lake rules come from legislation adopted by the General Assembly in 2011 and 2012. Section 14 of Session Law 2011-394 extended the time for completion of wastewater treatment plant improvements to December 31, 2016. (The actual completion date could be as late as December 31, 2018 if the wastewater system receives state approval of the improvement plan by the end of 2016). In 2012, the General Assembly pushed back the deadline for creation of local stormwater programs in the Jordan Lake watershed to August 10, 2014 at the earliest. The actual date could be later depending on the schedule for renewal of a city’s existing Clean Water Act stormwater permit. For reasons too convoluted to go into here, identical provisions delaying development of local stormwater programs appeared in Section 9 of Session Law 2012-200 and Section 11 of Session Law 2012-201.
The latest repeal effort again comes from communities in Guilford and Alamance counties that want to avoid the cost of wastewater treatment improvements and stormwater controls needed to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus reaching Jordan Lake from the Haw River. The primary bill sponsors are Sen. Rick Gunn ( who represents Alamance and Randolph counties) and Sen.Trudi Wade (Guilford County). The bill would immediately repeal the entire set of Jordan Lake nutrient management rules and provide no replacement other than a legislative study to develop new rules. One of the reasons offered by Sen. Gunn in committee was the failure of the 2009 Jordan Lake rules to improve water quality in the lake. There was no mention of the fact that the General Assembly had extended the compliance timelines in the rules. Given that many measures required under the Jordan Lake rules may not be in place for another three or more years, the lack of water quality improvement to date should not be a surprise.
The bill aims for a technological solution based on mitigation of pollution at the lake — and without the need for pollution reductions upstream. In response to a question in committee, Sen. Gunn could not say whether effective technologies exist or at what cost. It is difficult to imagine technologies so effective that no upstream nutrient reductions would be needed, although it may be possible to shift the balance between treatment technology at the lake and upstream pollution reductions. If new mitigation and treatment technologies exist, one difficult environmental policy question will remain — who pays for water quality improvement in Jordan Lake? The Triangle communities that take water from Jordan Lake and rely on the lake as a recreation area may resist an effort to put the entire cost of upstream pollution on their citizens.
One last wrinkle. The Jordan Lake rules exist in part to meet a federal Clean Water Act requirement. Under federal law, North Carolina’s water quality program must have a plan to reduce the discharge of excess nutrients that hurt water quality in Jordan Lake. The plan currently approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been based on the 2009 Jordan Lake nutrient rules. Those rules share the cost and regulatory burden among all of the sources that contribute to the lake’s water quality problem — wastewater discharges, stormwater runoff (both near the lake and upstream), and agricultural activities. Without an alternative plan approved by EPA, the Clean Water Act would force the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions to come entirely from sources that require Clean Water Act permits — largely the wastewater treatment plants in the Jordan Lake watershed. That could actually increase reductions required from Greensboro and Burlington wastewater treatment plants, since sources that fall outside Clean Water Act permitting requirements would not contribute to overall nutrient reductions.
Senate Bill 515 is on the Senate calendar today.