Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Lake blenders misBEEgotten plan from start

By Bob Wilson

It’s always comforting – and often wrong – to think that a technology that works on a small scale can be resized to deal with much larger problems. So it is with the 36 SolarBees whirring in the upper reaches of Jordan Lake.

They’re the quick and cheap Mixmasters that state regulators and the General Assembly saw as a potential means of avoiding costly upstream pollution controls.

The SolarBees have been in the Morgan and New Hope Creek deltas for more than a year. They have three years left to prove their worth.

An interim report by state regulators shows, however, that the SolarBees have had minimal impact on water quality. Environmentalists are right to demand that the state pull the plug on them.

The SolarBees were a misbegotten idea from the start. At 14,000 acres and receiving most of its water from the Haw River, Jordan Lake was not a promising venue for the experiment.

The General Assembly appropriated $1.6 million for 36 SolarBees in the lake. But ever willing to put more money – $1.5 million this time – into the project, lawmakers think the machines need more time to prove themselves.

Ordinarily, this is called delusion. In this case it’s called politics.

Upstream polluters on the Haw River, which runs through eight counties, are happy to delay the onset of the Jordan Lake Rules. The cost of cleaning the river before it reaches the lake is admittedly enormous.

Yet, the longer the solution is delayed, the worse the pollution problem grows in a reservoir that already provides drinking water for 300,000 people.

You have to backtrack to the sources of pollution. Upgrading controls on upstream industrial, agricultural and municipal wastes is a necessity.

It’s unreasonable to think that solar-powered machines of any magnitude can mix the waters of Jordan Lake into acceptability. It’s almost like alchemists’ attempts to turn lead into gold – it can’t be done.

That’s not to say SolarBees haven’t worked in other places. Apparently they have a good record, especially in Australia. Wilmington has them in Greenfield Lake, a 100-acre recreational site, and has reported satisfactory performance.

But ponds and large potable water containers are orders of magnitude smaller than Jordan Lake and thus are more amenable to SolarBees. I don’t doubt that the machines work in smaller settings.

SolarBees don’t clean water per se. They move it from below via a pipe and spray it onto the surface. This process brings up “good” algae and phytoplankton, giving them oxygen and improving reproduction so they can more effectively absorb pollutants.

You see the same effect at work in ponds with aerators that shoot a column of water into the air. These aerators, however, are powered by electric pumps that draw from the power grid.

SolarBees draw their power from sunlight. That is, when sunlight is available. Sometimes it isn’t for days on end in North Carolina. That means the SolarBees don’t work while pollution continues to flow into the lake.

Even if the SolarBees worked at well as hoped, it’s hard to see how they could keep up with inflow from the Haw River and other contributaries.

In fact, Jordan Lake was designated as nutrient-sensitive from the day water began filling it in 1983. It has since become a vital source of water for the western Research Triangle region, including Durham.

Only a minuscule part of the lake is within Durham County. Waterfowl impoundments hold more water than that tiny portion. However, the state-regulated Jordan Lake gamelands extent well into southern Durham County, which is drained by New Hope and Little creeks.

Anyone who drives N.C. 751, Farrington and Farrington Point roads knows how quickly these corridors are filling with residential developments. Whatever the merits of these developments so close to Jordan Lake, they need water, and plenty of it.

The lake will have to provide much of this water. It can be treated at some expense, but the more the lake’s water quality is impaired by the General Assembly failure to acknowledge the elephant in the room, the more everyone will eventually pay for clean water.

Take out the SolarBees and get on with reining in upstream pollution flowing into Jordan Lake. There is only one way to do it: the hard way.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.