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Climate & Energy
The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative
Lisa Creasman

Charles Meeker knew in 2005 that he had a special dilemma on his hands if he was going to protect the City of Raleigh’s drinking water supply. Meeker had been mayor since 2001 of North Carolina’s capitol city, watching from the front line as the city and communities around it developed at a breakneck pace. Land that once held small farms was being swallowed up by housing, shopping centers, business parks and other buildings to serve the increasing population.

The growth was good in many ways, but it posed problems for one of the essential elements of any community—a clean, reliable water supply. Raleigh’s water comes from Falls Lake, which lies in the Upper Neuse River Basin, and land within that basin was becoming increasingly attractive to developers. But most of the basin was outside the city limits—and the city’s jurisdiction.

“We knew that we had to protect the land in order to protect our water supply,” Meeker says. “Healthy forests, wetlands, floodplains and undeveloped stream banks absorb pollutants, trap sediment and help control stormwater runoff.”

Raleigh’s water supply comes from rivers and streams that drain though six counties and numerous towns to feed nine drinking water reservoirs—all upstream from Falls Lake. Meeker couldn’t protect Raleigh’s water in this increasingly urbanized region unless those upstream supplies were protected as well. He needed help.

In 2005, Meeker convened a meeting of conservation groups in the region that had been protecting water quality in the Upper Neuse River Basin for decades—like land trusts statewide, which have protected hundreds of forested stream buffers along high quality streams to prevent polluted runoff and sedimentation.

With the City Council’s support, Meeker established the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative (UNCWI), a formal partnership with the conservation groups. Conservation Trust for North Carolina (CTNC) manages the program in conjunction with the land trusts and participating local governments. Instead of relying solely on water treatment plants, UNCWI works with landowners, local governments and other partners to target conservation of priority forests, wetlands, floodplains and other vegetated areas that serve as natural “water treatment facilities.” Since its inception, partners in the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative have helped protect over 6,000 acres along 61 miles of priority streams.

“Water is gold,” says Nancy McFarlane, who succeeded Meeker as mayor in 2011. “(UNCWI) is an incredibly important program and it’s great for Raleigh to be able to partner with seven nonprofits that have come together with the foresight to protect our drinking water. We really understand the importance of water quality.”

In North Carolina, leaders in Asheville and Waynesville also worked with land trusts to surround their reservoirs with protected, undeveloped land that would be off-limits not only to development, but to most human traffic. But in those less populous, mountainous areas, the problem is easier to solve because the watersheds are much smaller and had little to no development in place when protection efforts began.

At the point Meeker began his efforts, only about 50 percent of the Upper Neuse River Basin was still forested, and even that landscape was fragmented by agriculture and urban and suburban development. Protecting that land would have tangible economic benefits—studies have shown that a municipality’s water treatment costs increase 20 percent for every 10 percent of forested land that is lost upstream.

Natural areas also moderate changes in water quantity as rain water sinks slowly through the ground, reducing flooding and providing “recharge” during droughts. Then there are the extra benefits of safeguarding wildlife habitat and air quality, and creating recreational opportunities for families to enjoy.

“Clean water is essential to every community, but it’s impossible for a government to protect drinking water sources by working only within its political borders,” says Orange County Commissioner Pam Hemminger. “It’s logical, natural and effective for leaders to work across jurisdictional boundaries and be willing to help preserve stream corridors in another jurisdiction so that we all benefit.”

City leaders began to view drinking water protection in much broader terms—not “outside the box” but “outside the borders.” The Raleigh City Council started by making significant annual budget allocations to support land conservation projects, and in 2011 established a “watershed protection fee” to be included in customers’ monthly water bills. The fee, which costs homeowners an average of only 40 cents per month, is expected to bring in $1.8 million per year for land conservation to protect drinking water quality.

“That money is taken by (UNCWI) and leveraged 12 times over to come up with the resources to buy land to protect the water supply as it flows into Falls Lake,” McFarlane says. “We know the level of pollution in that lake already and we know how much it would cost us to have to clean it up. We’ve had estimates of around $150 million to install a new system of filtration if the impairment gets above a certain level.”

At the same time, the City of Durham instituted a similar watershed protection fee that will fund protecting land around its reservoirs. Orange County’s Lands Legacy Program and Durham County’s Open Space Program have invested in land conservation and water supply protection for decades and continue to play a critical role in this effort.

Durham County’s 158-acre Little River Lee project is a great example of how these projects work. Jane Korest, who staffs the program, knew this was a priority acquisition project based on its ranking in Durham’s Little River Open Space Plan and the UNCWI Conservation Plan (created by partners to target the highest priority properties). Working closely with the landowner, who was interested in selling the site but wanted to see it conserved, Jane pulled together a deal that worked for all involved.

In addition to funding from Durham County, the Cities of Durham and Raleigh, the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the Eno River Association and the Triangle Land Conservancy invested in the project. The project will provide permanent open space and water quality protection benefits for the Little River Reservoir and Falls Lake, and includes natural habitat identified as significant by the State of North Carolina.

Another example is the Beaver Marsh, a 32-acre preserve off Interstate 85 created by the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association (ECWA). If you visit Beaver Marsh and stand facing west, you see nothing but dumpsters, asphalt and the backs of several big box stores. But turn 180 degrees and you’re facing a panoramic view of a freshwater pond set in a floodplain and wetland area—the only visible construction is a beaver lodge.

The Beaver Marsh Preserve does more than provide wildlife habitat. It helps trap and treat polluted runoff before it enters Ellerbe Creek. And it’s become a beloved part of the community, with an educational kiosk, benches, a foot trail and signs for the site’s perimeter, supplied by neighbors: “No Dumping,” “Preserve” and “Nature Lives Here,” they read.

“The new signs are just one sign of community support for the preserve. Other examples include local citizens photographing and reporting illegal dumping, nearby store employees alerting the association about suspicious activities, and a Boy Scout campout at the site,” said Diana Tetens, ECWA’s director of land conservation and special projects. “This new level of community stewardship proves that protecting this special place has not only helped protect water quality, but has also changed minds, raised environmental awareness, and increased local commitment to resource protection and stewardship.”

The State of North Carolina has been a critically important partner through its conservation trust funds. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund has played a significant role, putting more than $11 million in grants into UNCWI projects to help purchase land and conservation easements (legal agreements placed on properties that restrict future development) worth more than $59 million. The Natural Heritage Trust Fund and Parks and Recreation Trust Fund have helped support 17 projects that not only safeguard water supplies, but protected important cultural and recreational features.

“Water is essential. Water spurs our economy, it protects the health of our citizens, it provides great recreational opportunities for all those who live in the state and that come to visit the state,” says Richard Rogers, executive director of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. “UNCWI has provided a focused, collaborative approach to water supply protection that brings multiple interests into the process to ensure good stewardship of public funds for maximum water supply protection.”

People who own land within the basin have been essential to its success, collectively donating more than $23 million worth of property to remain undeveloped.

UNCWI land trusts are now using the support of a new partner to highlight the importance of protecting the basin’s forestland. A $1.7 million grant from the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities is helping UNCWI partners promote and maintain sustainable forest practices on strategically located lands in the basin, again to reduce runoff of pollutants. The project will help landowners continue generating timber revenue, even as they help to ensure downstream water supplies are protected.

“We’ve got to balance the need for clean water with the reality that more and more people are living and working on the land we want to protect. We can continue to support growth and development, and continue sustainably farming and timbering the land while we protect our resources—if we’re flexible and creative,” said Endowment President and CEO Carlton Owen. “Just as there’s no single approach that will safeguard our drinking water supplies, there’s no single group that can accomplish the task by itself. The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative is an outstanding example of how ideas and solutions from many partners can flow together to reach a common goal.”

Lisa Creasman is the former Conservation Project Manager at the Conservation Trust for North Carolina in Raleigh, NC.
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