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Town of Hillsborough gets approval for new strategy to improve water source regulation

A water tower located in Hillsborough, pictured on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

The Town of Hillsborough and other members of the Upper Neuse River Basin Association recently received approval for a new approach to water quality management, according to an Oct. 7 press release from the Town.

The new approach will improve the regulation of water sources, such as the Eno River, in a more "innovative, cost-effective" manner, per the release.

The N.C. Environmental Management Commission unanimously approved the Interim Alternative Implementation Approach in September. 

It will help supplement compliance with the Stage I Falls Lake Rules for Existing Development, a nutrient management strategy to limit and reduce nutrient contributions to the watershed over time.

According to a press release issued by the UNRBA, the IAIA will aid local governments in compliance with the Falls Lake Rules by expanding the methods being used to reduce nutrient pollution.

Terry Hackett, stormwater and environmental services manager for the Town of Hillsborough, said the removal of regulatory silos, as emphasized in the IAIA, will allow for collaboration or "joint compliance" between members of the UNRBA to invest in projects and leverage funding more effectively.

“Watershed boundaries do not typically equate to municipal and county boundaries,” Hackett said. “(Joint compliance) creates a partnership where we can do things locally, but we can also work. We’re working with Orange County on several things.”

The IAIA outlines eligible projects that may be used to help reduce the occurrence of non-point source nutrient pollution. Green infrastructure, riparian buffer restoration and enhancement and land conservation are a few potential methods that may be used to improve water quality by reducing nutrient runoff. 

In Hillsborough, there have already been several small projects to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations. Hackett was responsible for projects like floating islands and compost blankets, which function in ways that remove and prevent excess nutrients that may exacerbate water quality issues. 

“The job is not just to clean up the quality of the water that exists in the watershed of Falls Lake,” Sally Greene, an Orange County Board of County Commissioner and member of the UNRBA Board of Directors, said. “The job also includes looking toward the future and doing what we can responsibly to keep more pollutants from entering the watershed.”

The development of the IAIA was partly aided by studies conducted by the North Carolina Collaboratory. 

Nathan Hall, a research assistant professor at UNC, was a part of nutrient management studies at Falls Lake and Jordan Lake.

Hall said his studies at Falls Lake examined how much nitrogen was getting fixed by cyanobacteria because it determines “an ultimate management question" – if phosphorus or nitrogen is the limiting nutrient for phytoplankton growth. In other words, the study looked at which nutrients must be controlled to limit algae growth.

“Yeah, there's a lot of algae there,” Hall said. “Just because there's a lot of algae there doesn't mean that it's a completely degraded water body. The impairments of use seem to be fairly minimal.”

Hall also added that to his recollection, phytoplankton levels in the lake now are actually lower than ten years ago.

“These are naturally occurring compounds in the organisms that live in the reservoir that need nitrogen and phosphorus,” Hackett said. “There are things that feed on the algae and then those things are fed on by small fish and the bigger fish feed on those. So a balancing act is what it really is.”

While the nutrients found in these lakes can be naturally occurring from sediments that accumulate over time, Hall pointed out there are streams flowing into Falls Lake from surrounding communities that have higher nutrient concentrations than normal.

These nutrient contributions are what the IAIA intends to continue to manage and lower in an adaptive model that addresses the watershed’s needs as time goes on.

“The way this plan works, going forward, should strengthen our resolve to continue along the line of the conservation work that we do,” Greene said. 


@DTHCityState | 

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