Setting the Record Straight

Sabotaging the “Jordan Rules”

How polluters and ideologues are attempting to block the clean-up of a vital water resource

In case the recent deregulation-induced meltdown of much of world capitalism wasn't enough to convince you, here's another reminder of why the myth of the infallible "free market" is just that – a myth: It's a little thing called "the environment."

The guiding premise of the market fundamentalist ideology extolled by the likes of Milton Friedman, cinema icon Gordon Gekko and Raleigh's local conservative think tanks is, in essence, that "greed is good." If humans pursue what's in their own selfish interests, goes the tired old mantra, the "invisible hand" of the market will make it all work out for the overall societal good.

While the flaws in this crude and often evil ideology are plain to see in many areas, the environment is one of the most obvious examples. It is precisely this "what's in it for me?" approach to human behavior that has left modern society on the cusp of ecological catastrophe. Dying oceans, disappearing species, and a rapidly warming planet – all remind us on a daily basis that we humans are in deep trouble if we don't start working together to curb (or at least alter) our individual appetites.

Unfortunately, turning such macro-realizations into practical policy solutions on the ground (or in the air or water) can be incredibly difficult – especially when shortsighted public officials and businesspeople team up with polluters and conservative ideologues to make sure that each and every attempt at incremental regulatory improvement is the equivalent of an administrative law steel-caged death match.

The battle over Jordan Lake

A classic example of just how hard it is to turn even exhaustively researched science into real world policy changes that actually stop or slow environmental degradation is on display these days in the fight over Jordan Lake. Located mostly in Chatham County, the lake is one of the most important bodies of water in North Carolina. Check out the website www.cleanjordanlake.org to learn more.

Several years ago, scientists began to notice that development surrounding the watershed (the area that feeds into the lake) was beginning to have a significant negative effect on the lake's health. Here's how experts at the N.C. Conservation Network describe the situation:

"For several years, water samples from the lake and river have shown high levels of chlorophyll, indicating unhealthy levels of algae in the water. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution feed the algae. Observers on the water have reported watching the lake bubble – like a carbonated soft drink – from the gas given off by dense algal blooms.

In recent years, water samples have also shown high levels of alkalinity, another reflection of algal growth fed by pollution from upstream. At times, the alkalinity has reached a pH of greater than 9, comparable to a weak solution of bleach – enough to chemically burn sensitive skin….Over time, continued high levels of pollution will lead to fish kills and the collapse of Jordan Lake's ecosystems."

Other reports (like this one from an activist group known as the Haw River Assembly and this one from the Division of Water Quality that was approved by the Bush administration's EPA, and this one from the rules proceeding itself), confirm the seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, denials, opposition and buck passing by home builders and other developers (and the local governments over which they exert political control) have slowed and/or stymied necessary action for several years.

The far right piles on

Recently, the naysayers gained another predictable ally – the market fundamentalist advocates at the John Locke Foundation. According to an essay released twice this month by the group under a pair of different headlines (see here and here), any efforts to require upstream communities to reduce their polluted runoff are an attempt to fix a problem in a situation in which "one doesn't exist."

In keeping with the group's familiar assertion that essentially all environmental regulations are the byproduct of a secret conspiracy my officious environmentalists to undermine everyone's "freedom," the Jordan Lake piece makes several silly and/or red herring claims like this one:

"…[O]ne of the "rules" being discussed could have reverberations that affect home development statewide and could cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Of note, all of this could happen without a single vote from an elected official."

And this one:

"The rationale for this particular rule was supposed to be scientific. But both Durham and Greensboro already are dealing with the runoff issue, and there appears to be no scientific basis for the adoption of the rule – other than the desire to inhibit development and create new regulatory red tape."

In short, it is the article's position that communities upstream from Jordan Lake should be exempt from the proposed rules that are designed to protect and restore this vital resource. It's not clear whether the group favors retaining the rest of the proposed rules – which would thereby place all of the responsibility for cleaning up the lake onto new development, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture – or simply doing nothing at all. If the latter, this would be generally consistent with the Locke group's do-nothing approach to environmental protection.   

Setting the record straight

First to the claims that: a) the rules will take effect without "a single vote from an elected official"; b) that they are unscientific and; c) that upstream communities "are already dealing with the runoff issues." 

These claims are simply wrong. As to the first, it simply ignores the way our system for adopting environmental rules was adopted, i.e. through repeated votes of our elected officials. Lawmakers established a system and then delegated the responsibility for crafting complex environmental rules to the scientists and other experts. They even retained a veto right to themselves. As to the latter two claims, one can only say: Read the reports of the various agencies that crafted the new rules! Is it the contention of the author that all their findings and analyses were simply made up?

Here are the central facts on the proposed Jordan Lake rules:

#1 – Our population is booming. We already have huge problems with drinking water – witness last year's drought. We simply cannot fail to protect such a precious resource as Jordan Lake.

#2 – It's illogical and unfair to place all of the responsibility for the Jordan clean-up onto new development, wastewater treatment and agriculture. Everyone in the watershed must do their part. The federal Clean Water Act also makes this clear.

#3 – Much of the pollution emanating from our cities comes from storm water runoff from "gray fields" (shopping centers, office parks, apartment complexes, etc…) that will be redeveloped in the coming decades as our economy and demographics evolve. We must begin the process now of making this redevelopment as green as possible. Successful examples already abound.

#4 – Given the likelihood of future water shortages, it only makes sense to spur urban areas to capture and reuse more storm water for non-drinking water uses like irrigation. It also makes sense to require downstream water users (like Cary) to pay their fair share through slightly higher rates for the drinking water they consume.

The bottom line? Yes, it will cost some money. All of us – developers, home builders, farmers, elected officials and consumers – will have to pay a little more. A safe, clean and healthy environment isn't free. But it's also true that we can make the changes we need much more efficient and affordable if we work together to embrace them rather than burying our heads in the sand and playing the denial game at every turn. In addition to saving one very important water resource, adoption of the Jordan Lake rules would be an excellent place for us to start such a new approach.