By Catherine Clabby

Language tucked into the Senate’s budget alarms people who want North Carolina to aggressively reduce pollution in rivers, lakes, and estuaries to protect drinking water and fish.

The budget provision orders the Department of Environmental Quality to review and revise, in unspecified ways, the state’s nutrient-pollution management rules. The same goes for rules requiring natural buffers along waterways to reduce that pollution.

Existing rules would be repealed by 2020.

“This is probably the most significant effort to roll back water quality regulations that I’ve ever seen,” said Robin Smith, who for 12 years, until 2013, was Assistant Secretary of what is now DEQ.

If kept in budget negotiations between the Senate and the House, the language would block activation of nutrient-reduction rules upstream of Jordan and Falls Lake. All current strategies for the four locations with nutrient-management plans would be repealed by 2020 as would be protections planned for the Catawba River basin and the Randleman reservoir.

Regulations requiring riparian buffers to assist nutrient management could go away as well.

NC Watersheds, USGS data retrieval map

Too much nutrition?

Nitrogen and phosphorus are natural food sources for aquatic plants and animals. But human and animal waste, fertilizer runoff from farms and tainted storm water have dumped disruptive amounts of the nutrients into streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries around the world.

Excessive amounts of nutrients can produce large algae blooms, which can alter the taste and scent of water and, more seriously, deplete oxygen in the water. Low oxygen can sicken and kill fish. Some algal blooms can boost production of toxic compounds and bacteria, posing risks to people who consume tainted fish, including shellfish, and water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects states to reduce nutrient pollution of rivers, lakes and estuaries. North Carolina requires likely polluters upstream of impaired estuaries and lakes to reduce nutrient releases into the Neuse River basin, the Tar-Pamlico River basin estuary, the Falls Lake watershed, and Jordan Lake watershed.

Municipalities in North Carolina have spent tens of millions of dollars to upgrade wastewater treatment operations to comply. Builders and farmers have installed stormwater controls and created riparian buffers, natural strips along the edges of streams and river banks that can’t be developed or planted, to slow and clean tainted runoff.

Riparian buffer designs can vary but all use plantings on undeveloped strips of lands along stream and river banks to shield waterways from polluted run off. Photo courtesy USDA

Each step been shown to reduce the amount of nutrient-laced runoff that can reach a waterway. But they don’t always rapidly reduce the amount of nutrients detected in impaired waters. The Senate budget language describes that as failure.

“Existing nutrient management strategies in many cases have shown little to no improvement in water quality, have created an increased regulatory and economic burden in the billions of dollars to the State, its municipalities, and its citizens, and have limited, and in some cases significantly limited, land use options for thousands of public and private properties,” the budget text reads.

Delayed implementation

The General Assembly has already delayed the most stringent provisions of the Jordan Lake rules, passed in 2009, multiple times. That’s been caused in part by opposition by politicians, builders and others from upstream communities such as Greensboro and Burlington that pay the price, but don’t always see the downstream benefits.

During a debate on proposed amendments to the Senate budget last week, Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Jamestown) said change in nutrient management is needed because costly efforts made voluntarily upstream have not reduced algae levels in places such as Jordan Lake.

“People upstream have done their part. Greensboro has already spent $61 million on a treatment plant. Burlington has spent $31 million on a treatment plant. Greensboro plans to spend $55 million more and make other improvements long before these rules come into effect,” Wade said. “They are way ahead of the game. And guess what, it hasn’t made a dent in the algae in Jordan Lake.”

But Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham) said it’s impossible to judge the effects of pollution controls that are not yet in place. They inevitably take time to work, Woodard said.

That said, nutrient-release regulation has improved water quality in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico estuaries, he stressed.

“The current nutrient-manage strategies have reduced nitrogen and phosphorous pollution where they have been implemented,” Woodard argued. “Already conditions are not as bad as they were. While estuaries have stabilized, they are still in a very fragile place.”

Steve Tedder, a retired state environmental water quality section chief and a member of state’s Environmental Management Commission, agreed. It’s quite likely the existing nutrient–management rules could be improved, in part by making them more flexible and less costly for some, he said. Also, previously unaccounted-for sources, possibly polluted groundwater and nutrients emitted by poultry farms, could be better understood.

But discarding an approach to pollution control developed with many participants in and out of government over decades would be a mistake, he said.

“Anytime you take 30 to 40 years of collective work on multiple basins where they’ve had nutrient problems and basically thrown those out the door without being very informed of the facts, I think that is not a good way of doing business,” Tedder said.

This is an example of run off from a farm field, in this case in Iowa, washing what’s called non-point pollution into a waterway. North Carolina’s current nutrient-management rules require controls on this type of pollution, which can also include nutrient-laden water washing from animal farms and developed land. Municipal wastewater plants, easily identified as potential sources of nutrient releases into waterways, are called point sources. Source: USDA

“When people say that the strategies in place are not working, I disagree with them. Remember that in the Neuse we did something in mid-90s, Tar-Pamlico in the 80s. A lot of factors have changed since then, including population. You have a lot of ways nutrients can get into the system. This can be improved,” Tedder said, stressing that existing controls have produced concrete benefits.

“If you look at fish kill records you see substantial changes. That tells you that things are improving. I just hate to see all of that lost,” Tedder said, referring to headline-grabbing kills that contributed to the drive to restrict nutrient pollution.

DEQ records dating back to 1997 show a four-fold decrease in the number of fish kill deaths between 1997 and 2015.

Even more analysis

The Senate move would also commit $2 million to the chancellor’s office of UNC-Chapel Hill to launch a study of nutrient control strategies in North Carolina and elsewhere, including those focused on cleaning impaired waters. It would examine costs and benefits.

In addition, the budget allocates $500,000 to study the feasibility of using freshwater mussels to help clean up nutrient-polluted waters, even though those same mussels are imperiled, due in part to pollution, including excessive nutrients in the water.

The shellfish do dine on algae, which can grow profusely after ingesting nutrients in impaired waters. Researchers in New York, Washington state and Sweden, for example, have launched projects investigating whether they have promise as bio-extractors, or living cleaners. But it remains unknown whether mussels could help clean large bodies of waters such as Jordan Lake, Falls Lake or the state’s estuaries.

A previous effort by state officials to test a novel means of reducing algae in a North Carolina waterway did not fare well. With more than $1 million investment from legislators, DEQ officials installed solar-powered water mixers called SolarBees in Jordan Lake to try to reduce algae growth.

When DEQ staff members produced a report concluding they did not work, department officials yanked it from an Environmental Management Commission website and rewrote it to include a more positive assessment. The EMC water quality committee, which Tedder previously chaired, rejected the revised document and endorsed the first. The committee endorsed a report favoring the use of buffers too, not a DEQ version lacking the endorsement.

The Senate budget language would terminate the SolarBee project too.

North Carolina town and city officials will be watching carefully for what nutrient-management language ends up in the final budget. Municipalities have stakes in both protecting and cleaning up waterways, said Scott Mooneyham, director of Public Affairs for the NC League of Municipalities.

“No one has been held accountable to the extent of municipalities because it is far easier to hold point-source contributors accountable.” Mooneyham said. “Yet municipalities also must pay treatment costs for drinking water when streams are nonetheless impaired by a combination of contributors.”

Making plans to repeal existing rules when what will follow them is not known is what particularly concerns Smith, the former DEQ assistant secretary.

“This would completely roll back the existing nutrient standards to be replaced by some unknown,” she said.

This story was corrected to identify Steve Tedder’s membership on the Environmental Management Commission.

[box style=”2″]This story was made possible by a grant from the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation to examine issues in environmental health in North Carolina. [/box]

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...