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North Carolina’s Research Triangle has for years been featured on the list of seminal bests. Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill are some of the most educated, economically prosperous, family friendly, sustainable, and high-performing cities in the country. The area is even known for happy marriages, rockin’ music scenes, and tasty food. All of these distinctions have helped the Triangle, particularly Raleigh, achieve prominent spots on Forbes 2014 list of America’s fastest-growing cities.

These great features have drawn hundreds of thousands of new residents to the Triangle and its surrounding regions. Researchers at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at UNC Charlotte estimate that the population in the Triangle and Rocky Mount areas grew by more than 1 million between 1976 and 2005, a surge of nearly 90 percent. During that time, RENCI found that land development increased nearly 570 percent, from 39,743 developed acres to 264,883 developed acres.

This rapid urbanization has significantly impacted surface water quality in nearby Jordan and Falls Lake and the Upper Neuse River Basin. The 2009 Jordan and Falls Lake clean up rules are estimated to total $750 million and $1.5 billion, respectively. Though the rules have been delayed, larger cities such as Cary, Apex, Morrisville, and Durham could bear the brunt of these costs. The Upper Neuse River Basin rules also place nutrient reduction limits on new development in Durham, Johnston, Orange, Wake, and Wayne counties.

Compliance strategies vary from a tech-driven $1.5 million SolarBees project in Jordan Lake to potentially new EPA policy mandates to reduce non-point source pollution. So far, the North Carolina Legislature has taken action on the former, passing Session Law 2013-360 and appropriating nearly $1.4 million from revenue previously allocated to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The new project directs the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR) to contract with a third-party vendor in order to “deploy floating arrays of in-lake, long-distance circulators to reduce or prevent the adverse impacts of excessive nutrient loads, such as algal bloom.”

While engineered strategies are an important component of protecting water quality, many in the academic and environmental world are arguing for a greater focus on non-structural pollution management. These strategies can include green infrastructure, which promotes a multi-benefit approach to stormwater management. But financing these distributed solutions can be a challenge.

Two Triangle communities are taking programmatic approaches to financing distributed green infrastructure, working to pool different financial resources in order to incentivize non-structural installations. Several North Carolina cities have taken action to finance stormwater mitigation through a stormwater fee, and Raleigh has an additional watershed protection fee. However, a few cities are leading the charge in terms of financing distributed solutions.

Durham County’s Community Conservation Assistance Program (CCAP) is one such example. CCAP provides financial assistance (up to seventy-five percent of the cost) and technical assistance to homeowners to incentivize green infrastructure installations on private property. The program, which was authorized through Session Law 2006-78, is largely funded through state and federal appropriations and grants. Since 2008, the CCAP program has received approximately

  • $34,000 through state appropriations
  • $61,000 from Clean Water Management Trust Fund grants
  • $7,000 in Environmental Enhancement grants
  • $46,400 in EPA 319 grants
  • $6,000 from the local nonprofit Keep Durham Beautiful
  • $10,000 from the City of Durham

Under the program, the homeowner is responsible for at least 25 percent of installation costs. CCAP estimates that pollution reduction totals for all BMPs installed between 2008 and 2014 include 222 pounds of nitrogen, 17 pounds of phosphorous, and have helped retain 1,480 tons of soil that would have been lost through erosion.

Raleigh has also been working to promote non-structural management designs. However, unlike Durham’s program, Raleigh’s green infrastructure initiatives rely largely on fees. In 2004, the city put in place a stormwater utility fee and has since set aside annual funding for green infrastructure, wetlands projects, and impaired stream restoration. Similar to Durham, Raleigh’s Stormwater Management Division works with private homeowners to subsidize up to seventy-five percent of green infrastructure installations, contingent upon a ten-year maintenance agreement. The green infrastructure program receives $250,000 annually from the city’s stormwater utility fee. Over the last five years, Raleigh’s Stormwater Management department has also spent $900,000 on wetlands projects and $200,000 to monitor and reduce nonpoint source pollution in impaired streams that flow into the Upper Neuse River Basin. These projects are also funded through the city’s stormwater utility fee.

The innovative ethos that has given the Triangle such an appealing reputation will be put to the test as lawmakers continue to dispute and weigh clean-up strategies, future growth, and financial obligations. In the end, neither a single engineered solution nor a green infrastructure program is likely to individually solve this massive problem. Instead, a multi-pronged approach is necessary. While it may not be time to add “most innovative comprehensive management strategy” to the area’s list of superlatives, some in the academic, environmental, and policy world are indeed working to make that happen.

One Response to “The Triangle: Best Place to Live, Work, Play… and Innovate for Water Quality Protection?”

  1. Water In Our World - The Triangle: Best Place to Live, Work, Play… and Innovate for Water Quality Protection?

    […] An Environmental Finance Center at UNC blog post regarding innovative strategies being employed to preserve water quality in the face of continuingly rapid urbanization in the N.C. Triangle area. For more information:…. […]

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