Lake Jordan, polluted and sediment-laden, is looking downright gorgeous these days to cities desperate to install new pipes that can suck its impaired waters into treatment plants and then through a half-million faucets and sprinklers across the region.

“Drought-resistant” and “under-allocated,” say state and city officials, pointing to the fact that Jordan Lake is a foot over full right now. “A pretty pool,” says The News & Observer‘s lead editorial suggesting that Raleigh “explore sharing” Jordan Lake. “We’d be drought-proof,” says one Raleigh water official, somewhat enviously, referring to Jordan’s ample watershed.

Often when you speak of a “body of water,” the unfortunate gendered metaphors multiply. So in this case, let’s de-gender Jordan. Just view it neutrally, like a Big Gulp, surrounded by a team of rowdy football players who all want to stick their straws into what several environmentalists and water experts say is actually a vulnerable water system; Jordan Lake is not as “drought proof” as everyone would like to think.

“That’s the great thing about Jordan. Everybody thinks they deserve more of it,” says Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina.

Everybody deserves more, even though some of those municipalities eyeing Jordan haven’t been responsible stewards of their existing water supplies. It’s the tragedy of the common waters, and it’s creating regional tension.

Of course, everybody also has been contributing generously to Jordan Lake. And like a United Way campaign, not in equal amounts. More than 75 million gallons of treated waste flow into it daily from 65 sewage treatment plants. Its lovely teal color is thanks to the algae growth nurtured by the nitrogen and phosphorous from the treatment plants and storm water run-off from Durham, Chapel Hill, Burlington and Greensboro. Euglena algae blooms light up the lake with the colors of anti-freeze, or, if you prefer, Chartreuse liquor. High pH and low oxygen levels contribute to summer fish kills. Reddish-brown plumes of mud drift down from the huge Amberly development in Cary. And tributaries from Chatham developments contribute some distinctly orange sediment to the mix. The state listed part of Jordan’s upper region as impaired in 2002.

But now that we live in drought country, that rainbow of pollutants apparently helps lead cities to the pot of water at the end. So what if the water needs some work to be potable? A few pipes. A new treatment plant on the western end of the lake. Many tens of millions of dollars.

And nobody seems to remember that during the 2002 drought, instead of water, Jordan Lake had acres of grass as far as the eye could see. City and state officials seem to assume that lake levels will stay steady even when everyone’s pulling water out of itup to 100 million gallons a day.

Ironically, the very communities that have fought tooth and nail about the costs of cleaning up Jordan Lake are now discussing how many millions they’re willing to spend to treat that water to make it drinkable.

Durham, Chatham and Orange county governmentsand the Orange Water and Sewer Authorityare discussing a new water intake and treatment plant at the western end of Jordan, where OWASA owns property. But there’s trouble in pipeline paradise.

Durham has already received permission from the state to withdraw up to 10 million gallons a day from Jordan. But the city would ultimately like more. Currently, it’s buying 2 million gallons daily through Cary, which is treating that water. Nonetheless, Durham officials, in an enthusiastic draft resolution, said the city “does hereby commit to taking a leadership role in a partnership for regional water supply planning.”

Several OWASA board members, Carrboro officials and Chapel Hill council members are expressing serious concern. The cost of new pipes and a treatment plant, said several officials, must be weighed against using that money for conservation, storm water reuse projects, and watershed protection. While those pushing for more pipes and treatment plants are calling that approach “regional planning,” some opponents are viewing it more as regional folly.

“What is it going to cost? What could we do with that many dollars with reuse and conservation in town here?” asks former OWASA board member and current Chapel Hill town council member Bill Strom. “We have made extraordinary decisions about protection and watershed. We’ve also made a huge commitment to conservation, and we’ve kept our eye on the ball, and been much more conservative than our neighbors during the drought.”

“We’re dependent on the actions of other local governments,” says Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton. “These Triangle local governments are not on the same page with us. The middle of a drought is a terrible, terrible time to be making decisions about the allocation of Jordan Lake. I hate the notion of deciding the future of Jordan Lake when we’re all in a panic.”

OWASA board member Alan Rimer, an international water expert, agrees with Chilton and Strom. “I personally will not vote that we immediately go build that western intake,” he said. “We’ve got a serious situation, but we haven’t done the homework and planning.”

Rimer, though, with the entire OWASA board, agreed to start discussions with other communities about Jordan Lake at the board’s Feb. 28 meeting, with some clear provisos. Noted OWASA Director Ed Kerwin in an e-mail about the meeting: “Although our primary goal is to maximize the use of our local water resources through additional conservation measures and use of reclaimed water, the Board recognizes that participation in a regional approach to Jordan Lake may provide very important strategic benefits to OWASA ….Our actual participation in the development of future facilities at Jordan Lake will depend on the results of that comprehensive evaluation, and consideration of the public input we receive in response to that work.”

But caution, conservation and environmental sustainability may not be rewarded or even acknowledged during a drought crisis. Environmentalists have pointed out that a number of cities, including Durham and Raleigh, have partly cornered themselves by waiting to institute serious conservation measures. In Raleigh, the Neuse River ecosystem is suffering because of decreased water flow out of Falls Lake. Durham’s putative solution to its water woes seems to be Jordan Lake.

Even Durham Council member Eugene Brown, who led the charge on conservation in the city, supports the western intake project. He asked with some frustration, “What do they want us to do? Not build this? Does Durham need to do a better job with both conservation and transparency? Obviously. But we’re looking at a regional challenge. There are no panaceas. But Jordan is there.”

And the power of elected or appointed officials in Chapel Hill and Carrboro to stand in the way of large technological fixes, intakes and interconnections may be limited. The state, including Gov. Mike Easley, is lobbying for such interconnections to make communities “safe” from future drought.

Some municipalities conserve water year- round, have tiered rate structures already in place that encourage consumers to use less by charging more for higher volumes, and are relatively careful with protecting their watersheds. Others, perhaps not so much. And some areas do some things right, but fail on others. This inequity is starting to create some mutual resentments and finger-pointing about who is developing too fast and too irresponsibly.

Durham County Commission Chair Ellen Reckhow points out that Durham is doing a number of progressive initiatives with watershed regulation and protection around Jordan Lake.

Durham also has a long history of resisting environmental rules that would reduce Jordan Lake pollution, according to Haw River Assembly Executive Director Elaine Chiosso. Durham, along with Chapel Hill, has been a major polluter of the upper New Hope Creek arm of Jordan Lake, the first part of the lake to be placed on the federal impaired waters list due to nutrients in storm water runoff and wastewater.

And while Chatham has had a bad reputation, says Chiosso, it is now adopting some of the most protective environmental regulations in the state. Chatham’s Board of Commission-ers implemented a development moratorium while these ordinances are put in place.

It’s probably too early to talk about Triangle Water Wars, along the lines of Georgia’s recent drought-inspired aggression to claim a piece of the Tennessee River by redrawing state lines. But the Tennessee legislatureafter it picked itself up off the floor where it had fallen amid gales of laughterjust introduced a bill stating that the border should not be changed because it has “served both states well for nearly 200 years.”

Levels of frustration, however, are clearly rising just as quickly as the pace of water projects. Environmental groups and river keepers are watching with dismay. Dust storms were kicking up on Falls Lake a couple of weeks ago. Invasive Japanese stilt grass is getting an extra toehold on the Eno River, as Durham has pumped 98 million gallons of water out of that river since late December. The Neuse River environment, including its striped bass population, is suffering from the reduced flows. Bad drought? Of course. Bad decisions about conservation?

“The drought has been deeply exacerbated by cities not taking timely action on consumption,” says Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks. “You have less water to play with, and you have to make drastic decisions.”

Some of those decisions won’t be easily undone.

“The potential danger of the drought is that we’re putting in place pipelines to communities that haven’t shown they are responsible,” says Amy Pickle, staff attorney at the Southern Enviornmental Law Center. “Once that pipe is there, no one is going to cut it off. “

While rumor and editorializing have run rampant, it appears unlikely that either Greensboro or Raleigh will vie for a big piece of Jordan in the near future. Greensboro Water Resources Director Allan William says the city doesn’t need Jordan’s water now that it has Randleman Dam on line. Raleigh water experts, while hoping to get a temporary emergency boost through an old Cary pipeline, and clearly envious of what lies just to the west of them, say it will probably simply be too difficult and time-consuming to figure out how to get the permits required, to say nothing of returning treated water back to the Cape Fear River basin from whence it came. And if Durham does pull more water out of Jordan instead of Lake Michie and Little River Reservoir, it will probably provide some relief to the Falls Lake levels.

But because desire and prudence should be measured in equal amounts in any discussion of the drought, perhaps it’s time to talk about creating a regional project to tap into the largest lake of all. It’s sitting out there somewhere in the distance, and lies within every municipality’s watershed. The water isn’t necessarily cheap. It will cost real money, and involve changing local and state regulations. But it won’t cost the environment. States and municipalities wouldn’t have to fight over it. You can’t boat on it, but you can’t pollute it either. Its beauty is utterly unspoiled.

I’m no Carl Sagan. But this particular body of water potentially holds “billions and billions” of gallons: Big ol’ Lake Conservation.