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Our lakes at risk: the impact of growth on North Carolina’s water quality

By Christine Wunsche
Posted Wednesday, July 13, 2005

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As North Carolina's population continues to grow, our forests, farmlands, and open spaces are disappearing.As these areas disappear and as people move closer to our rivers, lakes and streams,water quality suffers. Between 1982 and 2002,North Carolina lost 2,568,700 acres of cropland and forestland, while it gained 1,849,800 acres of developed land.

The quality of our lakes depends upon the quality of the waters that flow into it, and on the health of the land around those tributaries. A river basin is defined as “all of the land that water flows across or under on its way to a river.i”This report examines growth and development activity by river basin, and highlights lakes in many of the river basins already showing signs of pollution.

During the period from 1982 to 2002:
The French Broad basin lost 48.4 percent of its total cropland and 8.3 percent of its forestland, higher rates of loss than any other river basin in the state.

The Cape Fear River basin saw 14.1 percent of its cropland and 8 percent of its forestland transformed; losing 171,700 acres of cropland and 281,100 acres of forestland.Meanwhile, Jordan Lake, which serves as an important drinking water supply and favorite recreational area, is severely polluted by nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment plants and polluted runoff from surrounding development.

The Neuse River basin lost a total of 21.2 percent of its cropland and 8.7 percent of its forestland. Recent water quality data shows that Falls Lake, the primary drinking water supply for Raleigh and surrounding communities, is showing signs of pollution and may soon reach impaired status.

Between 1982 and 2002, developed land in North Carolina increased by 1,849,800 million acres.

The Watauga Basin saw a 230 percent increase in developed land, the highest change in developed land in any river basin.

The Neuse River basin added 313,100 acres of development, a 123 percent change, the sixth highest increase.

The Broad River basin added 72,200 acres of developed land, an increase of 174 percent, the second highest in the state.

If we do not act now to prepare for this growth and loss of open spaces in the coming years, the quality of our lakes may continue to decline—imperiling our drinking water and favorite recreation spots.

By the year 2027:
7.4 percent of forestland, equaling 1,157,592 acres will be lost.

25.4 percent of cropland, or 1,341,790 acres,will disappear.

Developed land area in the state will increase 58.3 percent or 2,177,336 acres.

It is important that we plan now so that North Carolinians will continue to have clean water along with growth and development. Our rivers, lakes, and streams are the places we treasure for fishing, boating, and swimming and they provide half of all North Carolinians with drinking water. Preserving water quality is vital to our health, our communities, and North Carolina’s economy—without clean water, our state will be unable to continue to support growth.

Waiting until our lakes are polluted to act can be costly and have damaging effects on water quality. There are several tools our state can use to ensure that costly, time-consuming clean-up of our lakes is not needed. These tools include: 1) preserving open spaces, 2) providing our pristine waters with protection, 3) monitoring our lakes for early signs of pollution, and 4) making sure that the clean up of our already polluted lakes happens quickly.

North Carolina’s leaders should take steps to:
-Establish permanent, dedicated state and local sources of funding to preserve and restore our streams, wetlands, floodplains, greenways, and other important lands, including full funding of $100,000,000 for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

- Protect the tributaries to our lakes before they are degraded.

- Improve monitoring of our lakes and report the information to the public.

- Cap new discharges of wastewater into our major drinking water supply lakes such as Jordan and Falls Lakes; also, quickly clean up polluted lakes.

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