Raleigh, N.C. — A controversial technology to fight algae could be coming to Falls Lake under a bill approved Tuesday by state House lawmakers.
House Bill 630 directs the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to study the outcome of the SolarBee test project in Jordan Lake to determine whether the devices could also be used in Falls Lake.
SolarBees are essentially large, solar-powered water stirrers that backers say will reduce algae blooms and chlorophyll caused by nutrient overload – mostly from fertilizers – that enters the lake through runoff. The technology has not been shown to be successful in other large projects around the country, but Senate leaders still inserted a provision in the 2013 budget that gave the company that developed the SolarBee what amounted to a no-bid, $1.3 million contract to try out a fleet of 36 of them on Jordan Lake.
Since their deployment in 2014, several of the giant stirrers have broken loose from the moorings and floated out into boating and fishing areas. In the meantime, the long-delayed implementation of the lake's anti-pollution rules were given yet another three-year moratorium.
The bill would also direct DENR to consult with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to confirm whether all of the requirements of the Falls Lake Rules – also passed years ago and also long-delayed – are still necessary to protect the lake from nutrient overload and whether "alternative strategies" might be employed instead to meet federal water quality regulations.
"The Falls Lake Rules have been very harmful to the poorer counties that fall within the region," said sponsor. Rep. Larry Yarborough, R-Person, in the House Environment committee Tuesday morning. "I'd like to ask DENR to take a look at them again."
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, warned Yarborough against re-opening the debate over the rules, which were developed over a period of years of often contentious stakeholder meetings. He said that, while no one much liked the final result, it was something all sides had agreed to.
"We run the risk that, once a painful agreement is reached, if we start to chip away at it, we go into a pendulum cycle where the agreement completely falls apart, and then you're back where you're started," Martin said. "This is a strong step in that direction."
"An agreement was reached, but that doesn't mean we have to stop working on it and put our heads in the sand and hope it goes away," Yarborough answered, saying that the environmental protections required by the rules "have added $8,000 to $9,000 to the cost of a house."
The bill got support from an unexpected ally: Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who's been a vocal critic of the SolarBee contract.
"I spoke to a researcher at N.C. State this morning about the SolarBee project," McGrady told the committee. "He basically told me there was no discernable improvement at Jordan Lake based on the SolarBees."
Still, McGrady said, "I have a hard time opposing what is basically a study bill. I opposed the funding of the SolarBees, but now that we've funded it, we probably better learn from it.
During House floor debate Tuesday afternoon, McGrady again spoke in its favor, though less than enthusiastically.
"The jury is still out on this one," McGrady said. "Frankly, the SolarBee product has not yet been shown to make a significant change in Jordan Lake. But if we're going to base what we do in fact and science, then this bill shouldn't be threatening."
"No one's optimistic that the SolarBees are going to work. Everyone's still exhausted with the Falls Lake process," Martin argued in opposition. "Please let's not tinker with it now."
"I believe that rules like these have got to change with times and take advantage of changing technology," Yarborough responded.
The measure passed the House 78-38 and is now headed for the Senate.