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Jordan Lake protections watered down

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A bill that would delay state-mandated efforts to clean up Jordan Lake until 2017 but preserve much of their pollution-reduction goals cleared the House Environment and Natural Resources committee this week.

"People upstream don't want to do a thing. People downstream want a rule exactly the way it was," said bill sponsor Pryor Gibson, D-Anson, after rubbing his eyes dramatically at the lectern. "As imperfect as it may be ... it's time for this bill to move forward."

The unanimous committee vote sent the compromise version of the bill to the House Judiciary 1 committee, and, presuming it passes there, eventually to a House and Senate vote.

"It's still not there. It's still not going to protect Jordan Lake," said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director for Environment North Carolina.

The bill is a modification to HB 239, "Disapprove Jordan Lake Rules," which would have completely blocked regulations written by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission (EMC) that were intended to bring the polluted reservoir back into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

Jordan Lake has been on the Environmental Protection Agency's Impaired Waters list since 2002, due to excess nutrients such as nitrogen, which causes algal blooms and can render water unfit for drinking. Last year, the EMC adopted a set of 13 rules focused on nutrient reduction measures, including a provision requiring local governments to reduce, or offset, the amount of pollution from existing development that drains into Jordan Lake. Durham and Greensboro lobbied the committee to remove the EMC provisions addressing existing development, arguing that the cost would be too burdensome, and the compromise bill alters this portion of the nutrient-reduction strategy significantly.

The N.C. Rules Review Commission signed off on the EMC's plan, but the General Assembly has the power to overrule commission decisions. House Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lucy Allen, D-Franklin, along with Gibson and Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, introduced the original bill to block the EMC's rules altogether; Sen. Tony Foriest, D-Alamance, introduced an identical Senate version.

The EMC's proposed rules—which would have gone into effect immediately, absent legislation to block them—would require local governments within the Jordan Lake watershed to implement a plan to limit the amount of pollutants from existing development that enter the reservoir within three and a half years. Within 10 years, local governments would be required to achieve half of their state-mandated goals.

By contrast, the substitute bill would put off evaluating whether municipalities are subject to a pollution-control plan until 2017, and would place strict limits on the state's ability to enforce controls on existing development.

The original wording of the compromise bill would have exempted cities and counties from reducing their nutrient loads from existing development indefinitely, if they could show "measurable reductions" in nitrogen and phosphorous pollution by 2017. The new version would now grant an exemption only if "nutrient-related water quality standards" are achieved.

"Ultimately, that's what we want—clean drinking water—so we ought to use [water quality standards] as a factor," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, in an interview.

The cities of Durham and Greensboro had lobbied the committee to remove the existing development requirements, citing high costs for retrofitting—one way that a municipality could achieve its nutrient-reduction goals. The Durham City Council passed a resolution supporting some elements of the EMC's proposed rules, but opposing the existing development provision, arguing that "these costs are unnecessary for protection of the lake, will not achieve expected results, will cause significant hardship to Durham's citizens, and will further hamper economic development."

The new compromise essentially weakens this portion of the EMC's rules, but still requires existing development controls for municipalities that have not achieved nutrient-reduction standards.

Ouzts said she's sympathetic to cost concerns, but maintains the substitute bill does not address exactly what local governments will be responsible for—only that they won't be responsible for any existing development controls for at least another eight years.

"Because the question is left open as to whether or not controls would be required, and because the timeline is so stretched out, the question as to what will be required, and what cities will be put on the hook for, is just delayed," she said in an interview.

The Upper New Hope Creek Arm of Jordan Lake—the most impaired portion, located southwest of Durham—would come up for review again in 2026, even if the cities in that sub-watershed are not required to implement a pollution-reduction plan in 2017. However, the 2026 review would explicitly take into consideration whether nutrient reduction measures are "reasonable and cost effective." That language is stronger than in the original compromise bill, which granted a pass if "the practicality of implementation and cost" were burdensome, without providing examples of what would be impractical.

If the Upper New Hope Creek Arm has not met nutrient standards by 2026, the compromise bill that moved forward would require a 35 percent nutrient load reduction—the same amount EMC had proposed, and which the original compromise had reduced significantly. If passed, the compromise would essentially require the same nutrient reductions to the most impaired section of Jordan Lake, but would delay those reductions by more than 15 years.

"It looks like we're getting close," Harrison said of the new version. "We're in much better shape."

Correction (May 6, 2009): This article has been amended.

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