‘Tragic Tuesday’ for Durham waterways

Environmental, Neuse River Watershed, Sound Rivers, Stormwater Issues, Stormwater Runoff, Water Quality

Posted on May 23rd, 2024

A clear line of sediment delineates water flowing from Lick Creek past Rolling View Marina into Falls Lake.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Durham’s City Council voted to approve the rezoning of 202 acres in the Lick Creek watershed. Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop calls the decision, and the reasoning behind it, alarming.

“I think some members of the council are functionally misrepresenting science to serve the agendas of corporate developers,” Samantha said. “Water-quality pollution is not natural, and it is not inevitable. Durham is actively contributing to a pollution problem and has a responsibility to be part of a solution.”

For the past two years, Samantha has been tracking sediment pollution in the Lick Creek watershed and how sediment-filled runoff flows from land clear-cut to make way for housing through the watershed’s smaller streams, and into Lick Creek, which then flows into Falls Lake, a major drinking-water source for Wake County. Adding runoff from the 202-acre Virgil Road Assemblage property — currently home to six wetlands, and nine mapped perennial and intermittent creeks, several of which flow into Martin Branch, the most severely sediment-polluted creek in the entire Lick Creek watershed — will likely dramatically impact water quality in an already heavily degraded part of the watershed and in Falls Lake, she said. 

Despite environmental concerns, the Durham City Council has approved several large developments in recent months, but it was the attempts made to blame Falls Lake pollution on sources other than runoff from thousands of acres of clear-cut land that raised red flags for Samantha.

During the Monday night meeting, Councilmember (Carl) Rist suggested that forests are the leading contributors of nutrient pollution in Falls Lake, but did not mention the fact that forests are responsible for filtering out 81%of nutrients that would otherwise make their way into the lake, according to the University of North Carolina’s Falls Lake Study, presented to the North Carolina General Assembly in December 2023. 

“Rist also failed to note that the recent Falls Lake Nutrient Study found that impacts from erosion — like from clear-cut land — were previously grossly underestimated, and ultimately underplayed the role that erosion and sedimentation have in nutrient pollution of Falls Lake. Problematically, this study was done before Durham reached its peak of development, so we can assume this problem has worsened as Durham eats away at its portion of the watershed,” Samantha said. 

The UNC Falls Lake Study additionally states that the Falls Lake watershed is at a tipping point in terms of having the forested area it needs to be healthy: a drinking water reservoir should have at least a 70% forested area; Falls Lake only has 60% forested area remaining, pointing to a need to preserve the forested areas of the watershed in order to protect water quality and drinking-water use of Falls Lake.

“This was another fact that Councilmember Rist failed to note: one of the most low-hanging and effective strategies that we can adopt to protect the water quality of Falls Lake is to protect the remaining forests in the watershed,” Samantha said. “Forests aren’t the problem. Durham’s rampant deforestation is.”

According to Durham Mayor Leonardo Williams, the man-made “Falls Lake has been ‘jacked up’ since its beginning,” suggesting that Durham has no responsibility to help reduce nutrient pollution in Falls Lake.

(A recording of the meeting can be found here)

“Mayor Williams claimed that the pollution is natural and inevitable. This is an alarming admission that Durham leaders are shirking their responsibilities when it comes to protecting water quality for their downstream neighbors,” Samantha said. “Raleigh residents and all users of Falls Lake should be enraged at this misuse of science by Durham’s elected officials.”

If you’re concerned about the water-quality impacts to the Lick Creek watershed and Falls Lake, let the Durham City Council know. Their email addresses can be found here.

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