I-Team: Jordan Lake's 'SolarBees' get stung in a new state report; taxpayers lose out

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The SolarBees are supposed to improve water quality.

For years, Jordan Lake has had a growing problem: algae. And because it's the primary drinking source for hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina, stakeholders around the region have been increasingly worried.

To fight the problem, almost 10 years ago, a major compromise was reached on new rules for the lake that would help reduce algae levels. But then, the rules were suspended as state environmental officials pushed a new, cheaper, more business-friendly solution. SolarBees.

SolarBees are sun-powered turbines that float in the water and are supposed to stir the water up, increase the amount of oxygen, and reduce the amount of algae. In the summer of 2014, 36 SolarBees were installed in Jordan Lake at the southern and northern ends at an initial cost of $1.3 million for a two-year pilot program.

The problem is, according to a new report just put out by the state Department of Environmental Quality, it hasn't worked.


"The report just shows that this has been a big expenditure of taxpayer funds to no end," said Mary MacLean Asbill with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "The report indicates that there has been no progress in cleaning up Jordan Lake. There's been no reduction in the nutrients which is the problem the SolarBees were purported to address."

Asbill was among the more vocal critics when SolarBees were first proposed as an alternative to the Jordan Lake rules. She says they never made sense to her. "The pollution needs to be stopped before entering the lake. It is absurd to think you can remove the pollution from the lake without doing anything to stem the flow of it into the lake. The measures need to be taken in the beginning rather than the end."

The new report out from DEQ supports Asbill's theory and offers a scathing assessment of the success (or lack thereof) of the SolarBees. It says nearly two years after their installment, "improvements are not evident" and that there has been "no significant change in water quality." Moreover, it states the use of technology like SolarBees that doesn't help improve conditions would "appear to contradict the fundamental premise of the Clean Water Act, which seeks reduction of pollutants to waters of the United States."

The report goes on to say, "When used in bodies of water such as reservoirs that have high nutrient inputs and changing flow conditions like those in North Carolina, the machines become less effective. This is especially true when they are applied to mix only the surface of shallow waters that are not heavily stratified. This is the application design of the Jordan Lake Pilot Project."

"Technologies that do not result in actual nutrient reductions may simply shift nutrient problems or impairments to downstream waters" the report asserts. What's more, it says SolarBees "create aesthetical issues as they float on the surface of the water, and are continually visible. They have the potential to create other user conflicts such as hazards to boating due to the density and amount of machines required to circulate large open waterbodies."

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