NC steps into uncharted waters with Jordan Lake experiment

akenney@newsobserver.comDecember 14, 2013 

Ken Hudnell thinks he can save North Carolina hundreds of millions of dollars while cleaning one of the Triangle’s most important water supplies. Now, with legislative approval, the former federal toxicologist’s campaign to change water science has made Jordan Lake its new proving ground.

While North Carolina previously had planned an expensive program to reduce nutrient pollution flowing into Jordan Lake, Hudnell offers a tempting possibility: He says the state can instead cancel out the effects of those pollutants, in part, by carefully circulating the water. And that’s best done, he claims, with devices made by his employer, Medora Corporation.

Hudnell had for years found little success in pitching the idea to state bureaucrats and politicians, but a shift in state politics gave him an opening. By April 1, three dozen massive pumps will float in Jordan Lake, weighing 850 pounds each, constantly pumping acres of water in an effort to kill harmful algae.

In the meantime, long-debated environmental regulations will sit idle, put on hold by the legislature as it awaits the results of the first such major project in the state. For $1.44 million, the state will lease the SolarBee circulators from Medora Corp. for two years.

If it works, North Carolina could opt to use 155 units at a cost of $9 million, Hudnell said. By comparison, the environmental rules could cost from $1 billion to $2 billion across the watershed, according to Tom Reeder, head of the state Division of Water Resources in the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

But the project is no surefire answer, and it faces intense scrutiny from water scientists and federal administrators alike.

“The proposal for mixing as a solution for Jordan Lake is an experiment,” said Hans Paerl, the Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences. “It’s not based on historic data and a long-term, deliberate process.

“The proof of the pudding is seeing how this experiment’s going to work out. And there’s a certain amount of risk in that.”

Jordan Lake is the primary water supply for Cary, Apex, Morrisville and Chatham County, whose combined population is about 275,000. Those governments also share water with the rest of the Triangle.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency already has warned in two letters that the Clean Water Act doesn’t allow the state to delay environmental regulations as it experiments with “mechanical circulation,” and the agency said it could take action if the state doesn’t move forward with pollution limits.

Hudnell argues that the federal government has been pursuing wrongheaded and expensive tactics for years. And the EPA has promised to allow the experiment to proceed, Reeder said.

By the end of 2015, North Carolina may know whether its experiment has paid off. If it proves ineffective, the state will have fallen behind by years in the effort to control pollution from development. If it works, North Carolina will have saved an enormous sum.

Pressure to change

As legislators argued about Jordan Lake last summer, Senate leader Phil Berger’s office and key environmental staffers were hashing out Hudnell’s proposal to put SolarBee on the water.

The rules package, a state program guided by EPA standards, had been debated for years before its approval in 2009. The program basically aims to starve Jordan Lake’s algae by limiting the flow of nutrients into the lake.

Beginning in the next few years, the rules were set to require the construction of devices to catch runoff from thousands of existing and new properties in the eight-county watershed, with the aim of catching nitrogen and phosphorus before it fed the lake’s algae.

Doing so would be costly to regional governments, and it could take land from developers and property owners. Many business and government leaders in the Triad have long doubted that the rules’ science justifies their expense, according to Pat Danahy, president of the Greensboro Partnership, a business and planning alliance.

So as the legislature conducted a controversial session, Sen. Rick Gunn, a Burlington Republican, led the dramatic push to completely rewrite the environmental program, with an emphasis on “in lake” technology.

That shift perfectly fit Ken Hudnell’s beliefs – and Medora Corp.’s products.

Ignored science?

Hudnell, an adjunct associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC-CH, came to water management through a nontraditional path. For decades, he worked as a toxicologist at the EPA, studying the effects of aquatic algae on health.

“There’s a lot of sickness out there,” Hudnell said in a phone interview from his cottage outside New Bern. “I believe there’s a huge amount of mostly hidden morbidity and mortality ... due to a lot of lower-level exposures.”

That illness, he said, “can happen from recreation in a lake that has a bloom, ... and there’s data that shows it might get into your drinking water.” Jordan Lake isn’t that bad yet, he said, but the federal government declared its waters impaired in 2002.

Toward the end of his EPA career, Hudnell led a nine-agency effort to address fresh-water algal blooms, he said. The Interagency Symposium on Cyanobacteria Harmful Algal Blooms printed an 885-page report, now hosted at EPA.gov. The report linked algae growth to an increase in nutrient pollution and temperatures and the decline of algae-eating organisms.

In 2007, “that’s when I decided, ‘The agency’s not going to do anything about this,’ and I decided I could do better without the agency,” he said. “At the time, I decided the best thing out there was the solar-powered circulators.”

Circulation technology, he believes, is the most promising idea among the “in-lake” approaches. By cycling water up from the depths, he said, many municipalities have managed to kill off algae blooms, even in heavily affected sewage ponds.

The tactic may work by confusing the algae about its depth in the water, Hudnell said, or by making them more vulnerable to algae-attacking viruses. In either case, he said, he has seen results.

And if he’s right, it would mean the federal government was throwing billions of dollars in the wrong direction while ignoring a magic bullet.

Mixed results

This year, Hudnell’s arguments found fast traction in North Carolina. Between May and July, legislators and DENR officials prepared to hand a no-bid contract to Medora, Hudnell’s employer.

In North Carolina, the state will deploy 36 leased SolarBee units in two areas where water flows into the lake, spaced every 1,300 feet at Morgan Creek, near the north end of the lake, and the Haw River, near the south end. Their tops bob a few feet out of the water, with much of their bulk hanging below. The units create no turbulence and will be marked by safety lights and signs, Hudnell said.

A full deployment would put almost 160 of the machines along the lake’s several nutrient-polluted inlets. But even the limited test flotilla will be among the largest-ever tests of the technology.

Another large test came in Lake Houston, where 20 circulators were deployed near intake pipes for a drinking-water system, according to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

The machines apparently improved water quality and prevented algal blooms near the water-system intakes. As a result, Houston’s water treatment plant has cut its chemical treatment by a third and reduced electrical use, saving about $769,000 annually, according to the council.

Other results have been less conclusive. In New York, for example, authorities deployed three units to clean Conesus Lake’s bays of algae and other problems. A scientific study of the pilot found measurements of better water quality, but not to a statistically significant degree. A report by a biologist found the deployment was ineffective, and the units were removed; SolarBee contested the findings.

And in the Pacific Northwest, Blue Lake has seen no conclusive improvements in seven years from its three SolarBees, according to Dan Kromer, a parks manager for the Metro tri-county government.

The government installed a fourth unit for a trial run, but it didn’t make a significant dent on the blue-green algae problem.

“We ... weren’t willing to buy another one without conclusive evidence,” Kromer said.

More to come?

Hudnell and Sen. Gunn, who is co-chairing a revision of the Jordan Lake regulations, say the SolarBees will be part of a broad approach to Jordan Lake. They say they’re not putting all their cards on the idea that water quality can be fixed in the lake itself.

Their statements in interviews, however, show that the current environmental approach faces heavy skepticism from these two key players.

Hudnell says there’s no limit to how much algae Medora’s SolarBee circulators can kill off, even if polluting runoff isn’t controlled. The state could instead control nutrients, when necessary, by pulling them from the lake or its inlets with technology.

Gunn, meanwhile, says that “high nutrients” alone are not a bad thing. He believes that only a subset of the current rules, such as mandatory buffers around streams, would have much effect.

In a conversation this year, DENR “had no guarantee, they could give us no conclusive reason, any reason to draw the conclusion that the money being spent was going to have a material positive impact,” Gunn said.

The state’s new technology-focused plan, however, has not won over the Environmental Protection Agency. In two letters, a regional EPA administrator has laid out a warning for state officials.

The federal Clean Water Act, wrote A. Stanley Meiburg, “does not allow the postponement of required effluent limits for the purpose of evaluating experimental approaches to remediating an impaired water.”

The current Jordan Lake regulations’ central objective is to keep nitrogen and phosphorous out of the lake, aiming to meet the limits approved by the EPA and called for by federal law. The EPA still expects the state to improve water quality by reducing pollution, Meiburg wrote.

And if the state appears to be slacking, he warned, the EPA could set more stringent limits on industries and municipalities that put nutrients into the lake. For example, it could require costly upgrades to Greensboro’s sewage treatment plant.

Reeder, the head of the state’s Division of Water Resources, says the EPA has promised not to intervene while the project is ongoing. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency had not changed its position.

One more tool

Reeder says the project is just another tool in the toolbox. For reasons unknown to him, he said, technological approaches were ignored in the original Jordan Lake regulations , and they’re becoming more necessary.

“What we found is that as the nutrient problems have gotten worse, these ... conventional approaches have gotten more and more expensive,” he said, estimating that the Jordan Lake environmental program could cost $2 billion.

But the SolarBee project might not save money in the long run, according to Paerl, the UNC professor. During the experiment, upstream towns and cities will grow, but new pollution controls won’t be going into effect – and the state will fall behind in its use of a long proven and accepted method, Paerl said. The delay is the third since the rules were signed in 2009.

“It’s going to be a lot more expensive, even in three years, to deal with that problem,” he said.

Reeder defended the delay, saying that another few years wouldn’t hurt, considering Jordan Lake has faced pollution problems “literally, since the day they closed the dam.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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