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Even if not ‘toxic,’ citizens want Lake Rhodhiss cleaned up

November 22, 2010

November 2nd—plus three weeks. Some people have wondered if I just fell off the face of the earth without commenting on Caldwell County’s 2010 local elections.

The truth is, Leslie and I had long planned a 10-day drive to Texas and back—to deliver a couple of bookcases in person—then a three-day swing to the Washington, DC, area, to complete a series of visits to all six grandchildren during “birthday season.” The first trip in the series of three actually was to coastal North Carolina in mid-October.

News-Topic Soil & Water Questions for Election Special

October 4, 2010

OFFICE SEEKING: Caldwell Soil & Water Conservation District supervisor

AGE: 61

HOMETOWN: I have lived in southern Caldwell County the last 35½ years.

OCCUPATION: “Semi-retired” small business insurance agent and sole employee of “Wordwizard Enterprises.”


I have worked hard to learn as much as I can about water quality issues; still, I am not an “expert.” I did participate in a three-year water quality study of the Lake Rhodhiss watershed, over 454,400 acres, including 19 sub-basins, and the results—including 22 specific recommendations—are posted on the website of the Western Piedmont Council of Governments at www.wpcog.org/rhodhiss/.

Lake Rhodhiss was built by Duke Power 85 years ago to make electricity, not drinking water. The EPA, along with the N.C. Division of Water Quality, found that the reservoir has a problem with pH and eutrophication, or a build-up of nutrients, because it’s getting older. It’s like a human with plaque building up in the arteries, even though the heart is pumping normally. Exacerbating the problem are four wastewater treatment plants owned by Marion, Morganton, Valdese and Lenoir—which, of the total, put two-thirds of the phosphorus and half the nitrogen into the reservoir. Morganton alone puts 20 tons of phosphorus into Rhodhiss annually, according to the 2009 study. Valdese puts in another 10 tons, while the total going into the lake is 52.5 tons.

Operators of the wastewater plants are touchy about this. They say they’ve had to meet clean water standards for 40 years—and that’s true. The EPA requires the states, through agencies like DWQ, to enforce clean water standards on wastewater and other industrial discharge permits—but not on the lake as a whole. The lake is “impaired” under federal law, but the plants—mostly—are meeting their DWQ clean-water standards.

When it comes to government, I am a staunch conservative—and this is another case where “left hand” doesn’t know what “right hand” is doing. Current regulation of the reservoir isn’t working, so long as the federal agency (EPA) says one thing while the state (DWQ) says another. The real question should be, “Does having Rhodhiss as Caldwell’s primary drinking water source cause public health concerns?” If not, then the question should be, “Why is it ‘impaired’ and what do the feds want us to do about it?”

There are occasional odors, but the water is safe to drink and fish are not dying—not yet. In the longer term, Rhodhiss is still a problem.

When we look at water quality, we need to avoid making it “dirty,” rather than having to clean it up later. It costs more to clean up messes than to prevent them. I would revisit the public health aspects of EPA “impaired” lakes and find ways to improve the efficiency of those four wastewater plants on Rhodhiss. That may require a task force with officials from Burke, Caldwell and McDowell counties, plus Morganton, Marion, Valdese and Lenoir. The “people” need to understand first that there’s a real problem, so they will demand action. That’s what I’m trying to do. Ultimately, the courts may need to get involved, too.


The 2006-2008 episode with the IBT requested by Concord and Kannapolis did demonstrate that local governments can work together with their elected state representatives and the legal system. The 38 million gallons per day Cabarrus County sought from the Catawba River for its “economic development” was ultimately negotiated down to three million, with a threat of court action, and the General Assembly changed the law to make IBTs much harder to obtain. The story is archived on my website, dennisbenfield.com.

However, Lake Rhodhiss is still our primary source of drinking water, it is still an aging reservoir with eutrophication problems, and it is still “impaired.” Rhodhiss will require major tax dollars to keep as a drinking water source for the long term. I’ve mentioned this to current county commissioners, and they shrug their shoulders. In government, it’s always “somebody else’s problem.” I believe the proposed Yadkin River reservoir, which was shelved when artesian wells were discovered up there, may still need to be built. Development also might need to be restricted along Lake Rhodhiss. Again, I’m not the expert.

As a supervisor for the last four years, I can assure you that the Caldwell Soil & Water Conservation District visits many landowners, cattle producers, nurserymen—anyone who might disturb or add chemicals to the soil—to convince them to use proven conservation practices. We spend every dollar of our state and federal allocations to keep our water resources as clean as possible. But we can’t make more water available as our county grows. Officials ultimately may choose to build the Yadkin reservoir, hook up the artesian wells, clean up Rhodhiss, or all three.

Benfield kicks off Soil & Water re-election campaign effort

August 15, 2010

HUDSON—The only elected supervisor currently serving on a short-handed Caldwell Soil & Water Conservation District board is starting his re-election campaign by pointing out a sure way to clean up an “impaired” Lake Rhodhiss, the county’s primary source of public drinking water.

Supervisor Says Soil & Water Info 'Not Hard to Find'

July 16, 2007

HUDSON—A Caldwell Soil & Water Conservation District supervisor, on a personal campaign to help citizens become better informed, says public documents and studies detailing government conservation programs are “not difficult to find.”

Dennis A. Benfield of Hudson, elected in 2006 on a promise to keep the public informed about district projects, pointed out that “a myriad of brochures, reports and formal studies about ecological problems are available directly from government agencies.”

“Some government programs and agencies,” Benfield said, “are just not necessary. But in the area of soil and water conservation, there’s a three-way partnership among state, federal and local government units that really works. The internet offers an easy way to stay informed.


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