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‘Disgusting,’ Mecklenburg official says of bill to kill buffer rules

Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County water quality chief, is shown in 2015 at Mountain Island Lake. Rozzelle’s family goes back to the 1700s on the Catawba River. His family operated the ferry at what is now Mecklenburg County property on N.C. 16 just before you cross the bridge over the lake.
Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County water quality chief, is shown in 2015 at Mountain Island Lake. Rozzelle’s family goes back to the 1700s on the Catawba River. His family operated the ferry at what is now Mecklenburg County property on N.C. 16 just before you cross the bridge over the lake. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County’s water quality chief said Wednesday he is “disgusted” by state legislators in his own political party who are trying to kill longstanding shoreline protection rules along the Catawba River and its lakes, and creeks in Mecklenburg and other counties.

The N.C. Senate passed a bill on April 24 that would eliminate the 50-foot shoreline buffer that protects the Catawba River and its lakes from runoff and stream bank erosion. The bill passed a first reading in the House two days later, was referred to committee and could be voted on any day, said Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County’s longtime water quality chief.

“If it passes the House and becomes law, it will be a very sad day for those of us who cherish our creeks and lakes,” Rozzelle told the Observer in an email.

The bill also would prevent local municipalities from enacting buffer protections on streams. That could cripple local buffers in Mecklenburg, Lincoln and other counties, Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins has said.

Buffer protections prohibit removing trees and other vegetation close to the shoreline.

The bill also would repeal the Outer Banks plastic bag ban that protects sea turtles.

All Mecklenburg County streams have potential pollution problems, except for a few on the outskirts, Rozzelle said. He later clarified that to say he was not referring to the region’s lakes, “which have excellent water quality,” he said. “Exposure to lake water presents no concerns.”

“The reality is that we are a large urban area with a lot of pollution sources that often end up impacting our surface waters,” he said. “It is difficult for us to say to our citizens that they should avoid contact with the water in our creeks, because we don’t want them to fear what is our most precious natural resource.”

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Rusty Rozzelle Charlotte Observer file photo Charlotte Observer file photo

But that was the reminder the county delivered this week after dead and sick ducks were found at Freedom Park. Tests revealed no waterborne illness was to blame, and the cause remains under investigation.

“We want these creeks to be cherished and enjoyed, because we know that if they are, they will be protected,” Rozzelle said “This is why what’s going on in the N.C. Senate and House right now is so disturbing to those of us who care about our surface water resources in this state.”

Buffers, he said, “are our best and most reliable tool in our limited tool box for protecting our urban waterways, and they want to take them away.”

Regarding the General Assembly’s planned elimination of the state’s Catawba buffer rules: “Over 800,000 residents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg rely on Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake, which are two of 11 lakes in this system, as their sole source of raw drinking water,” Rozzelle said. “It is impossible to overstate the importance of this resource; however, the state elected officials are attempting to remove the most effective tool for its protection.”

“We also MUST have the ability to protect our local creeks, lakes and river,” Rozzelle said. “The state legislature believes the state should control these rules, which is wrong. What works in the rural areas in the east won’t work in Charlotte. Scientists understand this, but our elected officials won’t listen.”

Rozzelle said residents should be “very concerned about the direction our politicians are taking us. This is extremely bothersome to me, because I have been a loyal Republican for 40 years. I have also worked for the county and managed its Water Quality Program for over 37 years. I am disgusted with what my party is doing.

“We are smart enough in this day and age to have both growth and a clean environment, but only if we use good science, which is not what’s going on in our state legislature right now,” he said.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak

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