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State Rules May Trump Local Cleanup Plans

Restoration of Ellerbe Creek has to do with more than eco-friendliness. For Durham taxpayers, it potentially has to do with hundreds of millions of dollars. And it has to do with more than Durham; Ellerbe Creek's health affects the drinking water of more than 430,000 people in Wake County. It is also part of a water-quality situation involving Jordan Lake as well, plus 10 counties -- Durham, Orange and Wake among them -- and potentially, billions of taxpayer dollars.

In a nutshell

Federal and state law sets quality standards for reservoirs and their tributary streams. Jordan and Falls lakes are below standard due to pollutants flowing in from the Neuse and Cape Fear river watersheds.

The state Division of Water Quality is under mandate to reduce pollutants to acceptable levels. Part of the proposal for Jordan Lake calls for improving stormwater runoff control in already-developed areas. Durham's public works department estimates that alone would cost the city $334 million, and that the tab for all local governments in the Jordan watershed would total $2 billion.

A similar strategy for Falls Lake is under way; until it is complete, no one can estimate its cost, but, as Durham Planning Commission Chairman George Brine warned a city-county government committee this week -- "It's coming."

What's more

The most polluted section of Jordan Lake is fed by streams running through southern Durham County, which has grown dramatically in the past 25 years.

Major tributaries of Falls Lake flow through eastern Durham County, projected to be the county's fastest-growing area in the next 10 to 15 years. There, Ellerbe Creek, Lick Creek and Little Lick Creek are the major streams, and all are polluted.

City Councilman Mike Woodard calls eastern Durham "ground zero" for a clash of interests for residents, conservationists, developers and city and county governments -- over how to restore and protect streams, manage development pressure and property rights and rewrite regulations, all while waiting to see what comes down from Raleigh.

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