Men lowered the bulky, spacecraft-looking machines into Jordan Lake one by one, first winching them from a truck, then dragging them slowly behind a johnboat to their positions on the huge reservoir.
Ken Hudnell, the suntanned scientist who engineered the controversial project, watched cross-legged from the dock.
This was the enactment on Tuesday of North Carolina’s unprecedented experiment in water management – and, Hudnell hopes, the test case that will show water regulators’ errors of omission of the past 20 years.
Over this week and the next, Medora Corp. and the state of North Carolina will deploy a $1.4 million fleet of 36 solar-powered water circulators across the lake that supplies water to roughly 300,000 people in the Triangle.
For decades, the EPA and many water-quality scientists have swept their focus and funding away from in-lake “technological” fixes, such as the SolarBee circulators, which try to physically kill off algae and other unwanted growths.
“It’s a very big milestone to me,” said Hudnell, a Medora vice president. “This is actually putting into action what I’ve been proselytizing and trying to make converts for, for years.”
The project’s skeptics argue that there’s little proof that the SolarBee project will improve water quality or reduce the need for expensive upstream stormwater ponds and other pollution prevention. (Hudnell says both prevention and treatment are necessary.)
Underlying the criticism is a philosophical concern: If the Jordan Lake project works, some worry, it may tempt North Carolina to rely further on new technological fixes instead of proven pollution controls.
“The benefit of some technology … is it can help reduce the problem and buy some time,” said Ben Grumbles, president of the U.S. Water Alliance and a former federal water leader.
“But if it’s used to indefinitely postpone the upstream (pollution) prevention strategies,” he said, “then from an environmental and water-quality perspective, that’s a slippery slope. That’s a dangerous path to go down.”
Objects of curiosity
The SolarBees won’t finish their trial run for two years, but the beacon-lit buoys already are objects of curiosity.
From a distance, they look like angular silver mounds. Up close, they’re whisper-quiet machines, a pulsing current gently but visibly spreading from their centers.
Each is marked by yellow signs with warnings in English, plus exclamation points and large triangles.
Four men are doing the bulk of the installation, anchoring the 850-pound, North Dakota-built machines along the Haw River’s inlet and the Morgan Creek arm of the huge lake.
They were flanked Tuesday by kayak-paddling representatives of the N.C. Sierra Club and motorboat-driving employees of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The state employees were collecting a round of the baseline data that will show whether the SolarBees are cleaning the water, including measurements of the lake’s clarity, oxygen content and temperature.
“The best we can tell you is we’ve got to collect the information,” said Jason Green, a branch supervisor for DENR. He’s been asked to take a boatload of legislators out on the lake, and perhaps even DENR Secretary John Skvarla.
It won’t be easy for the untrained eye to spot any improvements in the lake, he said. Jordan Lake generally isn’t home to the soupy green algae that swimmers know best, according to Hudnell.
“If you’ve never been out here, you might not (be able to) tell anything was happening,” Green said.
The next debate
The way Hudnell tells it, this experiment was the result of a happy accident.
DENR had rebuffed the former EPA toxicologist’s plans in earlier years. Hudnell decided he’d try again late last spring, after he read in The News & Observer that legislators in Greensboro and Burlington wanted to change the rules protecting Jordan Lake.
The upstream legislators first had moved to kill the long-debated environmental program. Then, led by the office of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, they fast-tracked the SolarBee project while they delayed the watershed rules.
The debate pitted the Triangle legislators whose communities drink from the lake against the Triad legislators who live upstream from it.
It’s not clear when the legislature will again take up the argument. A committee on Jordan Lake, stacked with upstream representatives, met four times this year, but no immediate plans have emerged.
Hudnell says that state officials have asked him to weigh in as they take up the rules again this fall, though legislative staffers couldn’t immediately confirm that claim.
SolarBees have been deployed in hundreds of other lakes, though never on this scale. The results have been mixed. In Lake Houston, 20 circulators significantly lowered water-treatment costs by clearing water near an intake.
A smaller deployment in Cabarrus County’s Lake Howell found “subtle” results with “minimal improvements,” according to an assessment by the UNC Charlotte Environmental Assistance Office
That report led state Rep. Tom Murry, a Republican from Cary, to raised questions about the SolarBee earlier this year. “I don’t like to waste taxpayers’ money,” he said.
The state’s Sierra Club has been a frequent critic of the technology
“It’s disappointing that this water mixing project will be moving forward, rather than reinstating the science-based Jordan Lake Rules that would stem pollution from entering the lake in the first place,” said Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the organization, in a written release.
Berger’s office on Tuesday said that the senator would support an expansion of the project if it works.
“We are pleased to see the pilot project to help clean Jordan Lake begin this week. We look forward to reviewing the progress over the next 12 to 18 months, which will help us determine next steps,” Berger said, according to a written release from his office.
Meanwhile, other technological experiments may come online across the state. The town of Cary has been preparing its own large water circulator to improve the quality of the water it draws from Jordan Lake, and the city of Durham has weighed a plan to remove polluting nutrients from Falls Lake.
Hudnell also has made strides in a push to restore federal funding for in-lake fixes – and as he fights to put his technique on the national agenda, it won’t just be North Carolina watching Jordan Lake.