City may seek McCrory's help on Falls Lake rules
Mayor Bill Bell and other city officials hinted on Thursday that they might ask Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration to change the anti-pollution regulations the state has established for the Falls Lake watershed.
Under McCrory, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources “is changing,” Councilman Eugene Brown told Public Works Department staffers. “It will not be your father’s Oldsmobile. And I welcome these changes.”
The Falls Lake issue surfaced on the agenda for a council work session because the city is facing a higher bill for dues to the Upper Neuse River Basin Association, the group that Public Works figures will lead a new attempt to study the quality of Falls’ water.
Public Works wants that study done because it could head off a second round of nutrient-emission restrictions that are due for reconsideration in 2025.
City officials believe DENR overestimated pollution levels in the lake because its analysts drew most of the water samples during a major drought, and that new sampling could undercut the case for placing tight emission controls on existing development.
But the Upper Neuse association believes it’ll cost more than $4 million over four years to implement a monitoring program strong enough to convince DENR to reconsider.
Durham and most other governments in a six-county area share costs for running the association. To support the monitoring plan, the city’s dues are scheduled to rise from about $60,000 this year to almost $150,000 in fiscal 2013-14, and something in the range of $230,000 to $240,000 in fiscal 2014-15.
Public Works is urging the council to bite the bullet and pay.
“It’s really expensive, but we really need it” to make a case for doing away with the second-phase restrictions embedded in the rules package the state approved for the Falls Lake watershed in 2010, said Michelle Woolfolk, assistant water-quality manager.
She added that the monitoring “right now is the only legal avenue we have” to secure the changes.
Brown and Bell were quick to point out, however, that McCrory and his new DENR secretary, John Skvarla, might not be wedded to rules their predecessors developed.
Bell said he participated in a meeting with McCrory earlier in the week in which the governor indicated that he’s “open to looking at this whole issue about regulations.”
“The DENR secretary is who you need to talk to,” he told Woolfolk and other administrators.
Senior Assistant City Attorney Don O’Toole noted that there are political complications to any discussion of the Falls Lake rules, as the regional reservoir is the prime source of drinking water for Raleigh, the state’s capital.
But Bell said that’s the sort of issue the state can handle. “The governor is a smart man,” he said. “Maybe he can figure it out.”
The discussion was striking because Bell and the rest of the City Council’s members are Democrats. McCrory is a Republican.
Durham officials, however, have made it clear they fear both the cost and impact on development of rules intended to protect a reservoir that serves Raleigh, which they see as an economic competitor.
And the issue overcomes the usual pro-environment instincts of members like Councilman Steve Schewel.
He complained Thursday that the funding formula for the Upper Neuse association doesn’t ask more of Raleigh.
“Those who want their water clean should be paying more,” Schewel said, in apparent contradiction of the “polluter pays” philosophy of the weekly newspaper he owned until last year.
A further irony is that the Falls discussion is coming back up after city leaders had already decided to urge the state to stick to the similar regulations its enacted for the Jordan Lake watershed.
The Jordan rules require emission cutbacks in Durham, but the council doesn’t want to tinker heavily with them because it’s counting on that lake someday becoming a source of the city’s drinking water.
But Greensboro officials have objected to the Jordan rules on grounds similar to those their Durham counterparts are voicing about the Falls Lake rules, and are pushing the state to modify them.
Public Works officials estimate that adding pollution controls to existing development in the city to meet the second phase of the Falls Lake rules would cost Durham about $600 million.
But they’ve never publicly explained that cost estimate. The council hammered out its original position on the rules for the two lakes in secret, in closed-door meetings cloaked by the use of attorney-client privilege.
DENR in sizing up the city’s cost claims over the years has argued that they’re highball estimates. It contends Durham and other cities would, under pressure, find less expensive ways to comply.