It’s unlikely anyone has pulled something this big out of Jordan Lake and been so disappointed.
Work crews this week brought ashore the controversial 850-pound SolarBee devices North Carolina’s environmental agency deemed ineffective at cleaning the lake after two years afloat.
SolarBees are equipped with solar-powered pumps that churn the water in an attempt to reduce the effects of algae, which can cause pollution.
State lawmakers turned to them in 2014 as a potential alternative to enforcing the Jordan Lake Rules – construction and development restrictions on upstream communities that a Democratic-led legislature approved in 2009.
But in May, the state Department of Environmental Quality announced plans to abandon the experiment two years early after studies showed the SolarBees hadn’t improved water quality and sometimes floated away from their anchored positions.
On Thursday, work crews disassembled the devices to return them to Medora Corp., the manufacturer.
Now state authorities don’t have a comprehensive strategy for cleaning Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to 300,000 Triangle residents and has been deemed impaired by the federal government.
The situation leaves both SolarBee supporters and detractors frustrated.
“We wasted so much time and money on something we knew wouldn’t work from the get-go,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the N.C. Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group. “(SolarBees) are a reminder of the constant delays that we’ve had and the waste that’s come from that.”
The state spent $1.7 million deploying 36 SolarBees in Jordan Lake. It will save more than $854,000 by voiding the lease before the October 2018 end date, said Stephanie Hawco, a state spokeswoman.
Medora reported lower levels of chlorophyll a in the lake than the state Department of Environmental Quality. Chlorophyll a is the green pigment in algae and plants that thrives off nutrient pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus entering the lake.
The SolarBees would need three full years to significantly improve the water, said Ken Hudnell, vice president and director of science at Medora.
The devices aren’t a cure-all, he said, and the state should have implemented other nutrient treatments simultaneously.
“There should have been a combination of technologies deployed to do two things: suppress cyanobacteria and remove nutrients,” Hudnell said.
State lawmakers now plan to study potential remedies.
In passing their budget, they scrapped a plan to introduce algae-eating mussels into the lake and instead allocated $500,000 each year for the next five years to the Chief Sustainability Officer at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The office, along with DEQ, is tasked with monitoring Jordan and Falls lakes and continuing to study and analyze the best strategies for managing pollution-causing nutrients.
The final results of UNC’s study and its recommendations are due by Dec. 31, 2018, and the university’s first update is due by the end of this year. Brad Ives, UNC’s sustainability officer, said his group is still organizing a plan.
“We were caught a little flat-footed when the draft (bill) came out. We don’t have an answer yet as to how we’re going to do all that,” Ives said. “I imagine the (December) report will be fairly limited. I doubt we’ll have a lot of findings that will be reported by year end.”
The budget also gave $1.3 million to DEQ to try another strategy akin to SolarBees, but Hawco said Friday she’s uncertain whether the department has plans to do so. It has until the end of the year to sign a contract.
In the meantime, state legislators froze some development regulations around Jordan and Falls lakes.
Hudnell, the SolarBee contractor, said Jordan Lake is far from being dangerously impaired but echoed his product’s detractors in calling on state legislators to implement a comprehensive nutrient management plan.
“The problem’s not gonna go away any time soon,” he said.
State Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson Republican who co-chairs the General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission, said attitudes in the legislature would likely have to change for such reform.
“I don’t know the specific answer. The obligation of the state is clear under the Clean Water Act,” McGrady said. “We’ve got to come up with a solution for this but there’s an aversion among legislative leaders to enforce the Jordan Lake Rules.”