Corps OKs lake-stirring experiment

Jul. 10, 2014 @ 06:43 PM

The federal agency that manages Jordan Lake says it doesn’t see any environmental roadblock to an anti-pollution experiment North Carolina officials want to run in two of the lake’s arms.

Now that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is on board, contractors by month’s end should begin placing 36 floating, solar-powered “circulators” in the lake to stir the water around them, said Tom Reeder, water resources director for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“All the major components are down here, they just have to be assembled on site and put in the water,” Reeder said.

The Corps of Engineers signoff came by way of a “finding of no significant impact” that in turn allows the agency to give the state an easement to place the devices in the lake.

Had the corps’ district commander, Col. Steven Baker, not signed the finding, the $2 million experiment would have remained on hold pending the completion of a full-on environmental impact statement.

With the finding in hand, Reeder expects approval of the easement to follow in the next couple of weeks.

The project is using devices sold by the North Dakota-based Medora Corp., and is occurring at the behest of the N.C. General Assembly. Legislators last year approved a three-year delay in the implementation of regulations that are supposed to curb deposits of nitrogen and phosphorous into the lake.

The two elements are nutrients that fuel the growth of algae that can crowd out other forms of aquatic life by using up the water’s dissolved oxygen.

Upstream governments, Greenboro’s most notably, oppose the rules on economic grounds, fearing they’ll require expensive sewage-treatment plant upgrades and complicate real-estate development.

The delay in implementing them is to see if stirring the lake can help water quality by suppressing algae growth, enough at least that the water can meet regulatory standards for clarity, pH and the presence of a key type of chlorophyll.

Environmental groups like the N.C. Sierra Club believe the state is wasting its time and money, as Medora’s “SolarBee” circulators don’t actually remove nitrogen and phosphorous from the water.

“It’s not really going to address pollution going into the lake,” said Cassie Gavin, the Sierra Club’s director of governmental relations, adding that the real problem is “too much nutrient” in the water.

The Corps of Engineers finding addressed only the limited question of whether the circulators themselves would do any harm. The question of whether they’ll do any good is, in essence, not in the corps’ jurisdiction, the finding said repeatedly.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in commenting on the proposal, joined critics of the project in noting that it doesn’t address nutrient deposits. That means any good it does will be fleeting, disappearing the moment the two-year trial project ends.

EPA officials – charged with enforcing the federal Clean Water Act, the law driving the need for a clean-up of the lake – added that they see nutrient reduction efforts like the delayed rules package as the “long-term solutions” to Jordan’s water-quality problems.