Feds clear algae-fighting pumps for Jordan Lake

akenney@newsobserver.comJuly 11, 2014 

— A fleet of solar-powered water pumps has been cleared for deployment in the huge Jordan Lake reservoir.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved the hotly debated SolarBee project, finding that the weighty floating devices won’t significantly impact the lake’s “human or natural environment.”

Environmentalist groups and other critics of the state’s new techno-centric approach to the Jordan Lake cleanup had hoped that the federal review might derail the project.

The state legislature last year offered up the SolarBee as a technological solution to improve water quality. At the same time, legislators again delayed potentially costly environmental rules meant to keep algae-feeding nutrients from flowing into the lake.

As it weighed final approval, the Army Corps sorted through 1,492 public comments, including some from other water-management companies, which the Corps divided into 26 categories for answering.

One group, Aqua Sierra, suggested that the state hasn’t collected enough data for the experimental project, which is meant to show that stirring water is an effective way to kill algae.

More than half the water-quality monitors on the lake were installed in July 2013, meaning they’ve collected about a year of baseline data, compared with the multiple years Aqua Sierra wants to see.

The Army Corps explained that the state deployed the new monitors as soon as legally possible and already has extensive data about the lake.

Other comments included questions about measurements, the cost of weekly maintenance and the question of whether flashing beacons would attract waterfowl, among other issues.

General Environmental Systems Inc., which is in the lake aeration industry, said the lake would look like a “Christmas tree from the sky” and worried that tourists would stay away. The Army Corps doesn’t anticipate a drop in lake tourism.

On the bright side, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission suggested that by putting more oxygen in some parts of the water, the circulators could “provide a summer refuge for striped bass” and suggested a research project on the fish and the pumps.

The Sierra Club suggested that a SolarBee deployment on North Carolina’s Lake Howell had made “minimal improvements” to water quality, citing a UNC-Charlotte report.

The Army Corps said that the Jordan Lake experiment has different objectives and noted that the Lake Howell project only deployed six of the recommended 17 pumps.

It wasn’t immediately clear when the project could hit the water. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources had hoped to be underway months ago.

The state already had paid about $400,000 for construction of 36 SolarBee units, and the pilot project is scheduled to last two years.

The N.C. Sierra Club said Thursday that it was disappointed by the approval.

The group said it would push again for implementation of the Jordan Lake environmental rules, which focus on controlling stormwater and wastewater plants, both of which can send unwanted nutrients into the regional water supply.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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