We can’t go about our business as a society without messing up the environment to some degree. The challenge is to keep that damage to a minimum, ideally through steps that limit it at the outset.
North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission has had the task of crafting rules meant to safeguard the state’s water and air from pollution. The commission traditionally has been sensitive to the economic consequences of its rules, and appropriately so. But careful environmental protections have their own economic benefits in terms of public health and quality of life.
One of the EMC’s foremost responsibilities is to help uphold water quality in watersheds that stretch over large areas and include many communities, upstream and down. Those watersheds often are crucial to drinking water supplies. An example is the watershed feeding Jordan Lake in the western Triangle – a reservoir that provides drinking water to many thousands of residents in Cary, Apex and elsewhere nearby. Because so many people also live in the watershed’s upper reaches, the lake is at unusual risk of pollution.
The EMC’s Jordan Lake strategy, developed during years of study and with wide-reaching public input, is described in “The fantasy of the clean-water fairy” by chairman Stephen T. Smith. (The op-ed article appeared earlier this month in The News & Observer of Raleigh, from which I retired in December.) Smith goes on to explain why the state Senate’s push to overturn that strategy is terribly misguided.
Senate Bill 515, which cleared the Senate on May 15, would shift the focus from keeping pollutants out of the lake to trying to clean up the water after it’s been exposed to contaminated runoff, much of it carried down the Haw River from as far away as Greensboro. That approach would suit some developers and perhaps ease the burden on taxpayers in localities upstream. But it would mean even worse conditions in a lake already impaired by excess nutrients that spur noxious algae blooms.
Communities that drink from the lake would have an even harder (meaning more expensive) time treating their water supplies, and recreation also would take a hit. Who wants to go boating or swimming in a lake that reeks of algae or that’s tainted with runoff from roads and parking lots?
The responsibility to protect natural resources, including water supplies, falls under what the Council of Churches sees as people’s duty to exercise good stewardship over the creation with which we’ve been entrusted. There may be different ways to carry out that duty. But settling for trying to clean up messes that could be avoided or at least minimized in the first place doesn’t make a lot of sense. Steve Smith didn’t mention it in his piece, but the Raleigh attorney – who has served as the Council of Churches’ interim executive director – certainly is no stranger to the stewardship principle.
It’s a shame that many legislators are intent on weakening the EMC’s role in watershed protection. Further, commission members who have done their best to come up with a thorough, fair approach to keeping Jordan Lake as clean as possible could soon find themselves out of office. That’s because House Bill 1011, approved on May 9, would dismiss the current membership of several state regulatory boards, including the EMC, and have new members appointed. The idea is to give Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders more immediate sway over the boards’ policies.
Steve Smith thus may see his EMC tenure end on June 30. His stinging rebuke of SB 515 won’t help him smooth things over with the legislative chiefs. But he won’t be replaced without having boldly argued for effective protection of one of North Carolina’s most important and most vulnerable reservoirs.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate