The Legislative Game of Jenga

Jenga: A game of skill played with a stack of wooden blocks. Each player removes a block from the stack and balances it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable  tower  as the game progresses. (Hat tip to the  Wikipedia  entry for a simple explanation.)  As you may have guessed, the goal  is to not be the player who causes the tower to collapse.

Since the  1990s, the state has adopted several very complex sets of  water quality rules in response to  excess nutrients  in the Neuse  River, the Tar-Pamlico River and  the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake reservoirs. Excess nutrients  in the water (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) can  cause algal blooms and — particularly in hot weather — lead to large fish kills. In a reservoir, algal blooms may also  affect drinking water quality and increase water treatment costs.

Section 5 of Senate Bill 612 (Regulatory Reform Act of 2013)   would pull one block out of the   carefully  balanced  tower of  nutrient management rules in  the Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River basins by  effectively  eliminating  stream buffer requirements.   Stream  buffer rules  have been  part of the Neuse River nutrient management strategy from the beginning.  Every  set of state nutrient  rules since 1997  builds on the foundation of the Neuse strategy and all include stream buffers as a  critical block.  Before pulling a block out of the tower, it  is worth looking back at how the tower was built.

The history of the stream buffer rules begins with development of a nutrient management strategy for the Neuse river basin in the late 1990s.  In 1995,   the  N.C. General Assembly responded to a series of large fish kills in the Neuse River estuary and a toxic algae scare by directing the state’s  Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to adopt rules to reduce nitrogen loading in the Neuse by at least 30% (Session Law 1995-572).   To reach the reduction goal, the EMC  allocated the reduction (in pounds of nitrogen)  among  the  largest  nitrogen sources in the river basin. The allocation was done by source category (wastewater dischargers, agricultural operations and developed areas)  based on the  nitrogen contribution from each type of source.

The final Neuse rules required  large  wastewater  treatment plants  to  reduce  the amount of nitrogen being discharged to rivers and streams;  set up a nutrient trading system to allow  wastewater dischargers to generate and trade credits for additional nitrogen reductions; required farmers to develop best management practices to reduce nutrient runoff from row crop agriculture and  animal operations; and required  maintenance of  vegetated buffers along streams in the river basin.  Just as  tighter wastewater discharge standards and agricultural best management practices reduce nutrient  loading from those sources,  stream buffers  reduce nutrient loading from developed areas by allowing  trees and shrubs  to  absorb nitrogen  in runoff from developed areas. The  EMC then modified  an  earlier  nutrient management strategy  for the Tar-Pamlico River  to add stormwater and stream buffer  requirements  similar to those adopted for the Neuse. By August 1, 2000, stream buffer rules were in effect in both the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico river basins.

Section 5 of Senate Bill 612 appears to be identical to language supported by the N.C. Homebuilders Association and the N.C. Association of Realtors in 2012.  The proposed exemption is very broad.  It  would exempt   all private property from the buffer rules as long as there was a plat  of the property on record with the Register of Deeds before August 1, 2000.  (The language does not limit the exemption to  residential lots or to lots shown on an approved subdivision plat; it appears that any type of  recorded map  could  qualify a property for the exemption.)  In 2012, concern about this same language led to  compromise legislation.  Session Law 2012-200   extended a stream buffer  exemption that already existed  in the coastal  area to all waterfront lots in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins.  The exemption (which applies to residential lots platted before August 1, 2000)  allows development activity in the stream buffer if  the lot is too small for construction of a single-family home (and  onsite wastewater system if needed) entirely outside the buffer.

The risk in pulling the buffer rules out of the nutrient management strategy entirely  is that the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions provided by the stream buffers would be lost. Since both rivers have been listed as having  impaired water quality because of excess nutrients,  the  federal  Clean Water Act requires the state to reduce nutrient loading to the rivers.  Loss of the nutrient reductions provided by stream buffers will simply shift more of the burden (and cost) of nutrient reduction to  other sources — local government wastewater treatment plants, industrial wastewater dischargers,  and agricultural operations.

Not to abuse the Jenga metaphor,  but the  General Assembly  has again been asked to  pull a block from  the center of the tower  blindfolded — that is, without being able to see the relationship of one block to the others.  The state’s nutrient management rules are not sacred and untouchable; they were not handed down on stone tablets.  But in developing nutrient management strategies for the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico river basins,  state environmental programs  began  moving toward something like negotiated  rulemaking — trying to  find the right balance with all of the parties (public and private) at the table. Those other parties also need  a seat at the table before a decision is made to significantly change the rules.

Senate Bill 612 raises two questions. The first:  Can the state solve nutrient problems in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers without using stream buffers to reduce reduce runoff from developed areas? The second  has implications well beyond the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers: How will the General Assembly  respond to political pressure to change  a rule  in a way that benefits  just one of the many businesses, industries, local governments, and nonprofit organizations who compromised to solve a complicated environmental problem?

The answer to the second question will affect  the state’s ability to   deal with other difficult environmental issues in the future. (Competition for water supply comes to mind.)