A Year In, Report Says Solarbees Making No Improvement On Jordan Lake

Dec 16, 2015

Solarbees mix the water in an attempt to prevent the formation of algae.
Credit Medora Corporation

North Carolina is home to seven natural lakes. Jordan Lake—despite its name—is not one of them. It’s a reservoir, created in 1974.

And almost from the day it was first dammed, Jordan Lake has been impaired.

The Environmental Protection Agency listed it as such back in 2002. That forced the state to come up with a plan to clean it up. The “Jordan Lake Rules” were adopted by the state legislature in 2009. They would have required developers and local governments to spend hundreds of millions dollars to limit nutrient pollution that enters the Lake.

Two years ago, the General Assembly postponed that plan. Instead, they wanted to take a chance on a cheaper, more experimental method - placing solar-powered mixers in the water to prevent the formation of toxic algae.

A year later, the first results on the project are in.

And in short, the Solarbees aren’t doing much of anything.

The summary of the Department of Environmental Quality’s report is - unlike the water itself - pretty clear: “These preliminary results indicate that nutrient related water quality conditions did not significantly improve in areas of the lake where SolarBees were deployed.”

“This is all emerging science,” says Tom Reeder, Assistant Secretary for the Environment at DEQ. “I’m not sure it’s ever been done successfully anywhere in the United States. Everybody is looking at ways to do this. It’s a very, very complex thing to try to achieve.

Reeder calls the Solarbees a “pilot project” that could save hundreds of millions of dollars, if they work. He stresses that it’s only been a year and more data is needed.

“I’m thinking we would need at least another two summers to decide if this is worthwhile or not,” he says.

The stakes on the project are high. Jordan Lake’s extensive watershed includes many parts of the Triad, and it supplies drinking water to much of western Wake County.

Other Solarbee projects in New York, Washington, and on Lake Howell in North Carolina were deemed unsuccessful and discontinued. A project on Lake Houston in Texas has worked to help with water odor and taste.

Medora, Inc. claims it has 400 Solarbee installations across the country, mostly in smaller bodies of water.

“We feel that we have proved they work,” says Ken Hudnell, Director of Science at Medora. “The challenge to us is to learn more about large man-made reservoirs like Jordan Lake.”

This is an important project for Medora. Hudnell says the company is taking the profits it is making from the nearly $3 million in state contracts to deploy a team throughout much of the year to monitor the Jordan Lake Solarbees.

What that team found did not jive with DEQ’s report.

“We were surprised when we saw DEQ’s data indicating some higher levels of chlorophyll A, PH, and cyanobacteria,” says Hudnell. “We don’t understand the difference in results at this time and we are going to exchange data sets (with DEQ) and try to get some new analyses done and try to reconcile these differences.”

Hudnell says Solarbees should be a part of a multi-pronged solution at a large, impaired reservoir like Jordan Lake. That plan would also have to include controlling the pollution that goes into the water.

The General Assembly postponed just such a plan—the Jordan Lake Rules—in favor of going it alone with Solarbees through 2018.

Some say that delay will, in the long run, cost even more money.

“We keep delaying the cleanup of Jordan Lake, but at the same time, we’re not delaying development,” says Cassie Gavin, Director of Government Relations at the North Carolina Sierra Club. “Counties in this area are seeing really high population growth so that’s more building, more development, more people. So we can actually expect water quality to get worse. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is closely monitoring the Solarbee project.

If it works, some lawmakers are already talking about expanding the project into equally impaired Falls Lake.

But if two more years of DEQ’s data show what the first year’s did—that the Solarbees are not making significant improvement—then the General Assembly will either have to implement now more expensive Jordan Lake Rules, or face the real possibility of direct federal intervention.