Stop mixing, start fixing Jordan Lake

One of the 36 SolarBee units deployed on Jordan Lake.
One of the 36 SolarBee units deployed on Jordan Lake. 2014 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

If you were given a glass of murky, smelly water, would you give it a good stir and drink it?

That’s essentially what state lawmakers are asking of some 300,000 Triangle residents who rely on the Jordan Lake reservoir for their drinking water.

Two years ago, the legislature suspended enforcement of the painstakingly crafted Jordan Lake rules that would reduce the flow of nutrients that are feeding algal blooms. The blooms give the lake’s water a cloudy greenish look, deplete the water of oxygen needed by fish and cause taste and odor problems for water taken from the lake by municipal water systems.

Instead of limiting the nutrient flow from stormwater runoff and other sources, the Republican-led General Assembly decided to experiment with solar-powered, floating water mixers to break up the blooms. The decision pleased developers and municipal officials upstream from the lake who said the rules were too expensive to implement and unlikely to solve the problem.

Of course, developers who don’t want to give up land to stream and river buffers and local officials who don’t want the expense of improving their treatment plants are not the best judges of whether nutrient limits would help the lake. Such steps as contained in the Jordan Lake rules are standard for protecting waterways and have been effective.

Meanwhile, the legislature’s Rube Goldberg-style response of having 36 floating mixers known as SolarBees stir the lake is not working. An October report from the state Division of Water Quality found that after one year “nutrient-related water quality conditions did not significantly improve in areas of the lake where SolarBees were deployed.”

Elaine Chiosso of the Haw River Assembly, a citizens’ group that seeks to restore and protect the Haw River and Jordan Lake, responded to this much-expected failure with the right comment.

“Any sensible decision would be to pull the plug on this experiment now and get serious about restoring water quality in Jordan Lake,” she said.

Sensible environmental stewardship and water quality measures, however, do not apply in this matter. What Republican lawmakers are serious about is pleasing Triad developers and others who regard protecting drinking water for the Triangle as an expensive nuisance.

And in this mission, the legislature’s leadership is getting shameful support from Gov. Pat McCrory’s Department of Environmental Quality. State environmental regulators say one year is not enough of a test for the SolarBees. They say the pilot program needs to run for its full four-year trial period. In the interim, the Haw River and Jordan Lake will absorb three more years of excessive nutrients.

Jordan Lake, a reservoir created in 1983 by damning the Haw River a short distance upstream of its confluence with the Deep River, has been susceptible to algae buildup from its start. The Jordan Lake rules were developed through public hearings and negotiations between residents, environmental groups, local and state government agencies and provide common sense steps to reduce the flow of fertilizers and other nutrients into the lake.

That these protections have been suspended in favor of the SolarBee charade should outrage the Triangle’s senators and representatives, Democrat and Republican alike. They should press for an immediate end to the water mixers and a resumption of the rules that will reduce what’s causing the algae blooms.

If the legislature won’t act, the EPA should use its powers under the Clean Water Act to impose its own limits on nutrients flowing into the Haw River and Jordan Lake.