Pumps are not enough to protect Jordan Lake

December 21, 2013 

On the list of important and fundamental government functions, ensuring that people have sufficient and safe drinking water stands near the top. That’s why it is mind-boggling that the General Assembly has decided to turn that job over to an armada of floating machines.

That’s the effect of a new law aimed at protecting Jordan Lake, a 14-acre manmade lake that provides the primary water supply for 275,000 people in Cary, Apex, Morrisville and Chatham County. By April 1, a state contractor will place three dozen 850-pound floating pumps into the lake. The idea is to improve the water’s circulation and break up algae blooms that can make the lake unsafe for wildlife and recreation and could ultimately endanger it as a water source. The algae is a symptom of too much nitrogen and phosphorous coming into the lake from stormwater runoff upstream.

This Jules Verne approach to water quality might be a worthwhile experiment if it were being done in addition to tight limits on runoff in the watershed that feeds it. But the invasion of pumps known as SolarBees is being done in place of watershed restrictions. Even if stirring the water helps, it will do nothing to stem the load of pollutants coming into the lake. It’s as if a reservoir has been converted to a water treatment basin.

Those dozens of floating pumps drifting on Jordan Lake will represent the flotsam of the state’s exploded stewardship. Only the Environmental Protection Agency is left to force Republican leaders to protect the environment and the drinking water as they should.

Rules to stem runoff

Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, Jordan Lake has been susceptible to buildups of algae virtually since it was completed in 1982. To protect it in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, citizens and government officials worked diligently to draw up regulations known as the Jordan Lake rules. The rules set standards for development in the watershed that would reduce the amount of pollutants that would be carried to the lake as a result of stormwater runoff.

Developers and some local governments in the eight-county watershed vigorously opposed the rules. They said the rules would require them to build buffers and build systems to trap stormwater at great expense. 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 Quality in the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Opposition and delays

The rules adopted in 2008 have been repeatedly delayed by the legislature. This year, the Senate even voted to repeal them, but the House would not go that far. Into the impasse entered Ken Hudnell, a former EPA scientist who now works with the company that makes SolarBees, Medora Corp. Legislative opponents were delighted to have an alternative to the rules that will cost the state only $1.44 million to lease the pumping devices for two years. The legislature promptly passed legislation suspending the Jordan Lake rules for three years – and letting developers build for three years without compliance – while the pumps stirred the lake.

Using the pumps isn’t a proven solution. The News & Observer’s Andrew Kenney recently reported on the SolarBees effort and noted its uncertainty and the uneven results when SolarBees were employed elsewhere. Hans Paerl, the Kenan professor of marine and environmental sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, said, “The proposal for mixing as a solution for Jordan Lake is an experiment. It’s not based on historic data and a long-term, deliberate process.”

Reeder, of DENR, says the EPA has promised to let the experiment proceed. Fair enough. But EPA has also promised to enforce the Clean Water Act. And it should. Protecting Jordan Lake will require the intervention of responsible people, not machines.

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