Raleigh, N.C. — A provision tucked into the budget enacted Friday spends $1.5 million on a water quality project environmentalists say is a "boondoggle."
In 2013, Senate leaders pushed for a $1.3 million budget appropriation for a pilot project to put giant solar-powered water mixers in Jordan Lake. Backers of the project said they would help reduce blue-green algae blooms in areas of the lake near water intakes.
Thirty-six of the gadgets, called SolarBees, were deployed in July 2014 in two areas of the lake with high levels of algae – Morgan Creek and Haw River.
The 18-month pilot study has not yet been completed. Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokesman Jamie Kritzer said early data show little change from historical chlorophyll levels at the test sites and little difference between the test sites and comparable control sites. However, he cautioned, "Results for the study are still considered to be preliminary estimates due to the limited, one-year project period and inherent environmental variability."
In 2005 and 2006, communities in Washington and New York conducted their own SolarBee pilots and concluded that the devices did not deliver the desired results. However, SolarBee maker Medora says other projects have been successful.
The provision in this year's budget includes another $1.5 million for a no-bid, three-year contract extension for the SolarBees. It also directs DENR regulators to look for other impaired lakes where the mixers could be deployed.
In the meantime, the budget provision also puts the Jordan Lake Rules – 2009 legislation aimed at decreasing upstream runoff of nutrients into the lake – on hold for an additional three years. The rules, which are unpopular with many developers and home builders, have been on hold since they were enacted.
Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr thinks delaying the rules is the true motive behind the SolarBee project.
"You kind of got to chuckle when you start talking about SolarBees," Starr told WRAL News. "They're gigantic blenders. What are they going to achieve? There's a simple answer – nothing. The water quality will not improve, and the pollution coming into the lake will continue, because that's not being addressed."
Starr, like most other environmental experts, says nutrient overload is the problem with Jordan Lake. It catches storm and agricultural runoff from cities and suburbs and farms in a wide swath of the Triangle and Triad.
Stirring up water, Starr said, doesn't remove the nutrients from it. But the project gives critics of the pollution control rules another excuse not to implement them.
"You're not addressing the actual cause of the pollution. It's a mask," Starr said. "By continuing to delay these rules, you're just furthering the poor water quality of Jordan Lake that lots and lots of citizens depend on for their drinking water as well as a great recreational source. So, the continued delay of these rules will do nothing but hurt North Carolinians in the long run."
"It is a shame to see our state wasting $1.5 million dollars on a technology that will never clean up Jordan Lake, at the same time suspending methods that will actually stop pollution from going into the lake to begin with," said attorney Mary McLean Asbill with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "The legislature is throwing good money after bad."
Shelly Carver, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger defended the extension.
"Early water quality data show improvement at Jordan Lake. So, the pilot project will be extended through fall 2018 at the request of DENR to monitor continued water quality improvements," Carver told WRAL News.
"As a reminder, the Jordan Lake Rules have been a failed strategy for improving water quality. Instead, they have restricted economic growth in the Piedmont Triad and forced hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent in compliance," Carver continued. "That's why the General Assembly created the pilot project in 2013 to apply water quality improvement technology in the lake itself."