Falls Lake, located in the Neuse River Basin, provides the drinking water for a half million people in Raleigh and six other municipalities in eastern Wake County: Garner, Knightdale, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon. The Neuse River Basin is one of the fastest growing river basins in the country. Increasing demands for drinking water from Falls Lake could have detrimental economic and public health consequences if sustainable policies are not proactively enacted, especially as the region grows and sess much more development.
Falls Lake has been declared “impaired” (i.e., polluted) by the State of North Carolina, due to polluted stormwater runoff and wastewater discharged upstream. Findings by the NC Division of Water Quality (DWQ) in 2009 indicated the lake is more polluted than previously thought, as high levels of pollution and an overabundance of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) have resulted in toxic algal blooms and chemical conditions in the lake. The western portion of Falls Lake, located in Durham County, is particularly bad off, with the majority of water samples there exceeding chlorophyll A levels allowed by federal clean water standards. Click here for a map to see where chlorophyll A exceeds federal standard. High levels of chlorophyll A lead to reduced light penetration and low oxygen levels, both of which negatively impact water quality. This has necessitated the use of increasing amounts of chemicals and expensive filtration by Raleigh Public Utilities to maintain safe water quality.
For more details about the conditions and factors contributing to the Falls Lake water quality problem, view Falls Lake PowerPoint presentations below from WakeUP’s 2010 forum, or see slides and notes from WakeUP Executive Director Karen Rindge’s presentation to local health advocates in September 2009.
WakeUP’s Falls Lake fact sheet (printable pdf)
Without improvements to current wastewater treatment and stormwater practices, Falls Lake will remain impaired. Following 18 months of negotiations and input from local stakeholders, the NC Environmental Management Commission adopted rules taking effect January 15, 2011 which aim to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus significantly. DWQ developed the rules which break the cleanup process into two components, focusing first on the lower, less-polluted portion of the lake, and then moving upward to the poorest water quality in the upper basin. These rules address needed actions to be taken by local governments, new development, existing development, agriculture, and wastewater treatment in Durham, Orange, Granville, and Wake Counties until 2035. Because developing the rules was somewhat contentious and the clean-up was given a $1.5 billion price-tag, future attacks to weaken these important rules may occur. WakeUP Wake County continues to monitor this process.
Falls Lake in the news
Neighbors on the flow, News & Observer – 10/1/10
WakeUP 2014 Water Quality Series: Clean Water, More Valuable than Oil: State Actions Affecting Your Water:
WakeUP 2010 Falls Lake Forum:
State of Falls Lake
Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, Director of the Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology, NC State University
Impact of Development and Stormwater Runoff
Kimberly Brewer, A.I.C.P., Associate Director, Tetra Tech
Solutions to Polluted Runoff: Low Impact Development
Kathy DeBusk, Extension Engineer, NC State University
Costs of Lake Pollution
Kenneth Waldroup, Assistant Public Utilities Director, City of Raleigh Public Utilities Department
Falls Lake Rulemaking Process: What’s at Stake
Elizabeth Ouzts, State Director, Environment NC