Solar Bees deployed at Jordan Lake in 2014
Experimental whirling devices floating in Jordan Lake have not significantly improved water quality after a year in operation.
State environmental regulators say the effectiveness of the 36 SolarBees won’t be fully known until the end of a four-year pilot program. They say it’s too early to draw any conclusions from a preliminary report issued last month.
There is not enough data for a definitive conclusion, Sarah Young, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, said Tuesday.
Environmentalists say the state already knows as much as it needs to: The devices don’t clean up pollution.
“Any sensible decision would be to pull the plug on this experiment now and get serious about restoring water quality in Jordan Lake,” Elaine Chiosso of the Haw River Assembly said Tuesday.
Jordan Lake provides drinking water for 300,000 residents in and beyond the Triangle. It has been designated under the federal Clean Water Act as impaired because most of the time it exceeds state standards for chlorophyll a, the green pigment in algae and plants.
A number of state and local political officeholders representing communities upstream, which are the sources of most of the pollution, have fought against stringent restrictions that the General Assembly put in place in 2009, suggesting the additional costs that would be imposed on development would be harmful. The legislature has delayed implementation of those restrictions four times, beginning with the Republican takeover of the General Assembly.
It has also caused a split among Republican legislators, with those representing Cary and other downstream communities opposed to the unproven technology now deployed on the lake.
These preliminary results indicate that nutrient related water quality conditions did not significantly improve in areas of the lake where SolarBees were deployed.
N.C. Department of Environmental Quality
The McCrory administration has said making Jordan Lake healthful for drinking water, as well as for recreation, is a top priority. Last year, state regulators told legislators that SolarBees would be the most cost-effective option but suggested trying a few new technologies on a small scale to see what works the best.
Legislators went with the SolarBees, which stir algae in the water in an effort to disperse and reduce pollution. The first-year study focused on two arms of Jordan Lake: Morgan Creek and the Haw River.
“These preliminary results indicate that nutrient related water quality conditions did not significantly improve in areas of the lake where SolarBees were deployed,” said the report by the state Division of Water Quality, which was sent to the General Assembly on Oct. 1.
The devices had a “subtle” performance record in a pilot project in Cabarrus County in 2007, according to a study by UNC Charlotte, which recommended not using them.
In June, state environmental regulators said the SolarBee project was late getting started and so only one summer had been tested; they had hoped to test two full summers. Algae blooms more rapidly in the summer.
Sen. Rick Gunn, a Burlington Republican who supports the experiment, said Tuesday that he agrees with regulators that it’s too soon to tell.
“We’ve made a significant investment that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that existing Jordan Lake rules would cost municipalities,” Gunn said. “I think, while we did not see movement yet, one summer is not long enough to see if there’s a positive trend. I certainly would have loved to see something more optimistic. But I remain optimistic.”
Environmentalists have said from the beginning that the SolarBees would be ineffective and that the pilot program would only delay addressing the source of pollution from upstream runoff and old wastewater treatment plants. Advocates said that one year of data was sufficient and that the results were not surprising.
If this was just a nice little science experiment that didn’t have an impact on anyone’s life, then it might be fine to say keep doing this for several years.
Elaine Chiosso of the Haw River Assembly
“If this was just a nice little science experiment that didn’t have an impact on anyone’s life, then it might be fine to say keep doing this for several years,” Chiosso said. “Meanwhile, all this pollution keeps going into Jordan Lake without the restrictions the Jordan Lake rules would have provided.”
Other environmental groups, like the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, are concerned that a deregulation law enacted this year could have the effect of preventing local governments from enforcing ordinances they have adopted to comply with the Jordan Lake rules. The Haw River passes through eight counties.
This year, the General Assembly extended what was initially a one-year trial through October 2018.
Legislators also gave $1.5 million from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to the Department of Environmental Quality to continue the project. The state has already spent $1.6 million on the SolarBees.
The devices were provided by a company on a no-bid contract. The company says its data shows more success than the state’s.
A proposal to expand the use of SolarBees to other polluted water, such as Falls Lake, and put $4.5 million more toward SolarBees was scaled back during budget negotiations in the legislature this year. The final budget requires a study to examine using similar technologies on other polluted lakes.