Triangle residents have generally expressed strong environmental sensibilities. They elect green officials, support clean air and water initiatives, lobby against polluting industry and the weakening of environmental standards, ante up for parks and green space. In response, local governments have enacted a host of zoning and other development ordinances designed to protect the region’s air and water from competing interests. Such an orientation isn’t the sole province of tree-hugging elites. Stories of polluted public waters have become routine media fare–witness the current battle over federal standards for perchlorate, a toxic ingredient in rocket fuel and other industrial applications that has infiltrated water supplies across the country, including Nash County’s. North Carolina has a huge, underreported problem with contaminated wells in every county in the state. Forty-seven states have issued fresh-water fish consumption advisories because of high mercury levels, up from 25 a few years ago. Bottled water has become a staple for millions of Americans who don’t trust what comes out of their faucets.

So it’s no wonder that area residents consistently choose in favor of preserving water quality when the alternative might compromise it. But local wishes don’t always translate into local control–these days, local control is only a good idea to power brokers at the state and federal levels if it conforms with their agenda.

Those who live in Raleigh and Wake County have been consistent in their desire to protect the Falls Lake watershed, which supplies drinking water to more than 340,000 residents. The county adopted a comprehensive watershed management plan in 2003 after several years of study that tightened guidelines for development. Locals also supported state rules designed to reduce nitrogen loading in the Neuse River basin, of which Falls Lake is a part. Public pressure helped force Raleigh to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant after a series of high-profile dumping violations.

Over the past year, however, the watershed has been threatened by a series of local, state and federal challenges that show no signs of abating. While most have been successfully parried to date, the ability of clean-water advocates to maintain their footing in the face of continued assault is in question. Many state and local officials have resisted calls to weaken watershed protections, but others have been swayed by economic arguments to relax water-quality standards, resulting in government agencies working at cross-purposes.

On Jan. 6, the state Department of Health and Human Services withdrew its proposal to expand Butner’s wastewater treatment plant after citizens objected en masse. Butner (which is run by DHHS), Granville County and other neighboring towns want the expansion in order to facilitate development, which would be otherwise limited by a lack of treatment capacity. The plan called for a 38 percent increase in the amount of nitrogen dumped into the Upper Neuse Basin, which is already showing signs of stress from the pollutant. The increase doesn’t include other impacts from the development that would follow the expansion, including stormwater runoff.

DHHS Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom contended that the expansion wouldn’t have caused harm to Falls Lake. “Butner does not believe the cumulative impacts of its proposed upgrade will be detrimental to the drinking water supplies of Raleigh and the Neuse River as a whole,” Odom wrote in a letter to Senate leader Marc Basnight, who questioned the project.

But in announcing the withdrawal pending further study, Odom admitted she really didn’t know. “[T]here is very little real data about what the nutrient situation really is in the basin,” she wrote. “For that reason, we are withdrawing our application until more information is available about its potential impact.”

The Division of Water Quality will conduct the study, which Raleigh has offered to help fund. Division spokeswoman Susan Massengale says that just what will be studied, who will do the work and who will pay for it has not yet been determined. All those decisions will have an impact on the final result, and politics will invariably worm its way into the deliberations. Barring dramatic findings against the expansion, count on Odom to refloat the proposal once the study is complete. If that happens, stopping the plan will be a much more difficult proposition.

The most disturbing aspect of the Butner conflict is that a solution exists to satisfy both sides. Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities has designed an upgrade to the aging plant that serves the northern part of that county. The expansion, similar in scope to the Butner proposal, would double the plant’s capacity–but add not an ounce of nitrogen or other pollutants to its discharge, a result made possible by employing advanced technologies. The fact that the plant discharges into Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s water supply, according to utilities spokesman Cam Coley, made the decision to invest in a cleaner plant an easy one.

No one from DHHS was available to answer why Butner couldn’t do the same thing, but such an option is apparently not on the table. “They had the opportunity to come forward with a plan that would allow for plant expansion, achieve their growth needs and not increase pollution in Falls Lake, and they didn’t do it,” says Upper Neuse River keeper Dean Naujoks, who fought the project.

Letting downstream communities worry about the effects of upstream development is a North Carolina tradition. Folks on the Neuse River near the coast have long grappled with pollution problems caused by runoff from Raleigh and other municipalities as well as hog farms. Greensboro is under a consent order from the Division of Water Quality to upgrade its two wastewater plants, which have been cited and fined 26 times since 2000 for exceeding their discharge permit limits and other violations. The effluent from Greensboro’s plants ultimately reaches Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water for Cary.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to allow municipal wastewater treatment plants to bypass a key phase in the treatment process that rids wastewater of parasites, viruses and other disease pathogens. Known as “sewage blending,” such bypasses are currently banned by state law, as well as the federal Clean Water Act, except in extreme circumstances. Supporters say the change is needed because many treatment plants can’t handle current wastewater volumes in wet weather and must therefore dump raw sewage directly into rivers and streams. They also argue that many plants are already blending, the law be damned. They’re probably right–a Greensboro water and sewer official, for example, recently told The News & Observer that “we’ve been doing this for years.”

Critics say that blending poses a public health hazard, and that the solution is to repair and upgrade plants, not weaken the regulations. Raleigh, which is spending about $35 million to upgrade its plant and has the capacity to avoid blending, has joined the state in opposing the EPA change. Perhaps not surprisingly, Greensboro favors it, as does Durham, which has an aging sewage infrastructure in need of repair. So, alas, does the town of Cary, whose utilities director, Robert Bonne, wrote a letter to the EPA to that effect.

Cary Mayor Ernie McAlister says Bonne was simply expressing his professional views on the technical merits, and that the town is absolutely committed to preserving and protecting water quality in Wake County. The EPA, he says, would not likely confuse the opinion of the plant operator with the town’s official imprimatur. Bonne’s letter, however, makes no such distinctions: “The Town of Cary, North Carolina, generally supports the EPA Blending Policy,” he wrote.

Butner and blending are but two of the unresolved issues that could affect Falls Lake. The Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County has been furiously lobbying the county to relax its limit of 15 percent impervious surfaces for residential construction; to appease them, the county has formed a work group to study stormwater policy. Last year, the state Commerce Department exempted Merck from an environmental study requirement before starting construction of a vaccine plant in Treyburn even though the company had no firm plan for the 150,000 gallons of wastewater the plant would produce each day. We trust Merck to build a nice, clean plant, commerce officials said. And who wouldn’t trust Merck, makers of Vioxx, with its history of environmental problems at other plants?

At least the Wake County Commissioners had the presence of mind last November to heed citizen input and reject a new ABC store in the Falls Lake watershed–against the recommendation of the shortsighted county planning board.

Each effort to weaken the rules that protect the watershed is treated by its boosters as though it exists in a vacuum. DHHS Secretary Odom pushes the Butner plant expansion without considering the blending rule change, which is disconnected to the Home Builders’ plans, which has nothing to do with Merck. But Falls Lake absorbs every incremental degradation, and the cumulative effects are far more troublesome than the hazards of one proposal or another. Wake County residents understand this every time they turn on the tap, even if politicians don’t.