Falls Lake

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)

Falls Lake online TV mini-series

Falls Lake Cleanup Rules

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.



Algae in Falls Lake

Falls Lake Sediment

Falls Lake rules approved

Falls Lake nutrient strategy website

WakeUP’s Falls Lake cleanup rules public comments

Read WakeUP’s comments to protect public water to state and EPA during EMC Triennal Review on Nov 19, 2013 here.


Falls Lake in the news

More water from Falls Lake could mean long delay for Little River Project – 10/14/12

Whose responsible for the Falls Lake mess?, Independent Weekly – 5/04/11

Raleigh water will be safer, but others feel Falls’ pinch, News & Observer – 11/29/10

Falls Lake pollution rules kick in 2011, The Herald-Sun – 11/21/10

Rules approved for Falls Lake cleanup, News & Observer – 11/19/10

Neighbors on the flow, News & Observer – 10/1/10

Let’s not wait to save Falls Lake News & Observer

Mayor looks for ways to protect Falls Lake WRAL

Raleigh, Durham at odds on lake cleanup WRAL


WakeUP 2014 Water Quality Series: Clean Water, More Valuable than Oil: State Actions Affecting Your Water:

Amy Pickle, Director of State Policy Program, Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, Director of the Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology, NC State University 

Peter Raabe, Southeast Director of Government Relations, American Rivers


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