Wake County

NC Senate plan could expand SolarBee program

Jonny Dilworth, left, and Jon Walter, leave the Anderson Creek boat ramp with a SolarBee unit headed for Jordan Lake July 22, 2014. The solar-powered machines redistribute water, which normally would be in a stagnant area of the lake. The state Senate is considering expanding the program by two years.
Jonny Dilworth, left, and Jon Walter, leave the Anderson Creek boat ramp with a SolarBee unit headed for Jordan Lake July 22, 2014. The solar-powered machines redistribute water, which normally would be in a stagnant area of the lake. The state Senate is considering expanding the program by two years. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A controversial pilot program aimed at cleaning the water at Jordan Lake could be expanded to other lakes and extended by two years if state lawmakers pass a plan proposed by Senate leaders.

The proposal endorsed by the Senate on Wednesday would grant an additional $4.5 million to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources for unspecified water cleanup efforts and would allow its SolarBee program on Jordan Lake to continue two years.

The SolarBees, which the legislature approved in 2013, are pumps that attempt to prevent algae blooms by stirring the water in strategic locations. People and animals can get sick by drinking water that has excess algae.

The SolarBee program has its opponents, in part because some environmental experts question its effectiveness in treating water pollution. And the proposal to extend the program also faces opposition from those who say the SolarBee program hasn’t been proven to be effective yet.

“We don’t support them in Jordan and certainly don’t want to see them in Falls (Lake),” said Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County, a local activist group. “They’re a Band-Aid on a major wound.”

Falls Lake is not specifically mentioned in the budget, but the budget gives DENR the authority to expand water cleanup efforts at its discretion, said Sen. Rick Gunn, a Burlington Republican.

“We’ve given (DENR) flexibility to look at other impaired waters,” Gunn said Thursday.

Some anticipate the money will be used to install SolarBees on Falls Lake, the largest source of drinking water for Wake County, because Republicans in the state House have raised the idea in recent months.

Gunn said DENR has authority over how the money might be used. DENR spokeswoman Crystal Feldman declined to comment on the department’s intentions for the newly proposed money and authority.

“This is just one iteration of the budget,” Feldman said.

The Senate also wants to extend the SolarBee program two years because DENR officials want more time to evaluate its effectiveness, Gunn said.

“Data takes time,” he said. “Everybody’s imperative is to look for the most effective and efficient ways of improving the water.”

Many SolarBee critics support a more sweeping but expensive plan that aims to improve Jordan Lake’s water by controlling runoff from eight upstream counties.

The more extensive plan, known as the Jordan Lake Rules, was enacted in 2009 and called for nearly $1 billion in spending on wastewater treatment plants and other measures. State legislators scrapped that plan in favor of the SolarBees, which have cost a little more than $1.6 million.

The Senate’s budget proposal has several steps to go before becoming law. Leaders in the state House likely will reject some aspects of it, and it could take weeks for the two sides to produce a compromise the governor will sign.

DENR had hoped to collect SolarBee data on Jordan Lake over two full summers before the program ends in March 2016, said Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for environment at DENR. Algae tends to bloom rapidly in the summer months, but the units weren’t installed until late last July due to delays in the permitting process, Reeder said.

“That was too late,” he said.

The Senate proposal likely would extend the pilot program through March 2018, Reeder said Thursday, noting that he was still trying to interpret the bill. He declined to speculate on how well the SolarBees have worked so far.

Ken Hudnell, a vice president and scientist for Medora Corp., which makes the units, said he’s seen reasons for optimism.

“We’re seeing good results, but it’s too early to tell the whole story,” Hudnell said.

The N.C. Sierra Club says the program has produced more reasons for doubt than hope. The organization opposes the SolarBees and the Senate’s expansion of the program because the group hasn’t seen proof that the strategy is working, said Cassie Gavin, director of government affairs of the club’s North Carolina chapter.

Furthermore, eight of the 36 units, which she referred to as “unproven technology,” floated away from their anchor points between November and January, she said.

“We don’t think it’s wise to spend another 4.5 million in taxpayer dollars on water mixers,” Gavin said.

The bill doesn’t specifically call for the purchase of more SolarBees. Gunn dismissed concerns over the rogue units.

“That’s a little blip that sometimes happens in any business,” Gunn said.

Like Gavin and other critics, Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht also wants the legislature to impose the Jordan Lake Rules. He said he’s disappointed to hear of the Senate’s plan.

“SolarBees haven’t proven to do anything, and I don’t think they’ll do anything,” Weinbrecht said. “I think we need the Jordan Lake Rules to protect our drinking source. It’s being polluted upstream.”

Specht: 919-460-2608;

Twitter: @AndySpecht

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