When we think of the Neuse River, most of us conjure up images of leafy banks, sandy beaches and placid waters ideal for canoeing and kayaking, not thousands of dead fish floating on the surface.
But if a provision in House Bill 44—a regulatory reform measure that would allow developers to bulldoze right up to the edges of rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries, with no requirement to preserve the 50-foot vegetative buffers that currently protect waterways—is approved by a joint conference committee of legislators, fish kills could proliferate, bank erosion will accelerate, natural habitats will be destroyed and drinking water may become compromised.
"This change is probably the most radical destruction of clean water protections in North Carolina in decades," state Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, who offered a failed amendment to maintain protections for the Neuse and Pamlico-Tar river basins, wrote on his Facebook page. "It never got a single committee hearing. What a joke."
Fueled by real estate interests in coastal counties, H.B. 44 passed the Senate last week on a party-line, 32-16 vote. An amendment to the bill from Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, allows clear-cutting right up to the water's edge, with a requirement only to replant up to 30 feet of buffer. The House has passed a version of the bill, though without the Wade amendment, which means a conference committee will decide whether to send it to the governor's desk. (Gov. Pat McCrory's office did not respond to the INDY's request for comment.)
Since 2000, mandatory 50-foot riparian buffers—essentially the banks of rivers and streams—consisting of deep-rooted trees, shrubs and grasses have been effective at filtering nutrient pollution out of storm water runoff and preventing soil erosion along the banks of waterways. Trees also provide shade that keeps water temperatures down and food for the creatures at the bottom of the aquatic-ecosystem food chain, not to mention habitats for many other species of animals.
Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr says that when vegetation is removed from an established buffer, even if plants are eventually replanted, the buffer's effectiveness is lost, and nutrient loading and sedimentation (i.e., too much dirt in the water) occur—the two biggest sources of pollution impacting water quality.
"There's a pretty far-reaching, very negative impact [with Wade's amendment]," says Starr. "Buffers are the easiest, fairest, most effective way to protect water quality. If buffers are nonexistent or able to be impacted, they become a lot less effective, if not totally ineffective, at being able to remove nutrients flowing into [waterways]."
In the late 1990s, the state established water-quality management rules for the Neuse River (including the Falls Lake watershed), the Jordan Lake watershed, the Pamlico-Tar and Catawba rivers, and the Goose Creek and Randleman Lake watersheds. Stakeholders, including the best riparian buffer scientists in the country, local governments, regulators, developers, the agriculture industry and landowners, were all invited to give their input during the rulemaking process.
The rules were constructed so that all parties would share the burden of keeping state waterways clean, as federal law requires states to do, and the 50-foot buffers were considered an equitable, cost-effective means of protecting water from runoff from development sites, hog farms and fertilized land. While the first 30 feet of the buffer must remain undisturbed natural growth, the next 20 feet can be graded and replanted.
The buffer rules have worked well for years, says Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Heather Jacobs Deck. "There really is no need to do this. They couldn't show a real need for this law."
But Senate lawmakers have argued that buffers are ineffective. As evidence, they point to an N.C. State University study that looked at the impact of adding an additional 250-foot buffer to an existing 60-to-100-foot buffer.
One small problem: They didn't quite get what the study was actually saying.
"The point of the article is that 60 to 100 feet up to the waterway needs to be protected, but extremely wide buffers that extend upslope have a point of diminishing returns," says Mike Burchell, an associate professor in biological and agricultural engineering at N.C. State who co-authored the study. "If they are using this article to try to show that buffers are ineffective, they have completely misinterpreted this study."
The researchers found the existing buffer was very important to water quality, while the extra buffer added few benefits beyond habitat and land conservation.
"Buffers have multiple functions," adds Deanna Osmond, a water-quality specialist at N.C. State who worked on the study as well. "They are complex biological systems, and the functionality of buffers changes based on topography. If you have to talk about reducing them to one number, then 50 feet is already a compromise."
Indeed, in many states 100-foot buffers are the rule—and according to Osmond, 150-foot buffers are ideal.
Nevertheless, lawmakers like Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, have made the case that buffers are ineffective at filtering nutrients from runoff. "We don't want to penalize the use of property owners [in] upland areas when there is plenty of marsh to take care of the runoff," Cook wrote to a constituent last week. "This proposed change won't affect one thing in the areas that don't have sufficient marsh for a buffer, they will still have the full 50-foot buffer. In addition, there still will be a 30-foot buffer as well."
Cook is wrong, says Deck. At most, the amendment requires only a 30-foot buffer that could be filled with just grass, which offers little protection from erosion or benefits to water quality.
Deck argues that if lawmakers want to tweak the rules, the proper venue is the state's ongoing review of its environmental regulations, as mandated by the 2013 Regulatory Reform Act. That review will be completed by the end of next year, and has already produced some technical tweaks.
If Wade's amendment becomes law, Deck adds, municipalities and farmers may have to reduce the amount of nutrients they discharge into waterways in order for the state to comply with the Clean Water Act.
"This bill was pretty much designed for the benefit of the development community," Deck says. "If you take the rules away for someone, it shifts the burden to someone else. There's no free lunch."