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Officials OK next step toward lake experiment

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — A majority of North Carolina’s top elected leaders agreed Tuesday to move ahead with a pilot project that might reduce algae in a man-made lake that provides drinking water to the Triangle.

The Council of State voted in favor of acquiring easements from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so that the Division of Water Resources can install the experimental water-cleaning technology in Jordan Lake, which supplies water to 300,000 people in Cary, Apex, Morrisville and other smaller communities.

The council is comprised of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who usually doesn’t vote at council meetings, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and others.

Attorney General Roy Cooper and State Treasurer Janet Cowell, both Democrats, voted no.

The General Assembly last summer directed $1.7 million toward the project, while delaying for three years cleanup rules for the lake, which also aids flood control and provides recreational activities. Completed in the early 1980s, Jordan Lake has struggled for years with nitrogen and phosphorus levels. When combined, the two lead to algae that hurt water quality and fish.

The two-year experiment directs the deployment of solar-powered equipment to mix surface waters, with the hope that it will reduce outbreaks. Otherwise, implementing tougher rules agreed to with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce algae buildup could cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion for local governments, future developers and farmers, state environment Secretary John Skvarla said.

“For the last 30 years there has been an attempt to mitigate that problem and it has not been very effective,” Skvarla told the council, but the pilot project could help the state “potentially get ahead of this algae problem at a much, much cheaper cost.”

The equipment is coming from a North Dakota company. About three dozen machines will be deployed in the Haw River and Morgan Creek arms of the lake. The circulators are 16 feet in diameter, stand 2 feet above the water’s surface and are anchored to the bottom. Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder compared them to a lake buoy and said they shouldn’t cause problems for boaters.

Cooper questioned whether the equipment was effective and got Reeder to acknowledge the machines wouldn’t actually reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels entering the lake from runoff, as the delayed rules would require. Reeder said the company claims it’s had a success rate of more than 90 percent.

Reeder also said state regulators have turned in an updated environmental assessment to the Corps. The council said the state couldn’t move forward unless the Corps is satisfied with the project. The Corps of Engineers owns the lake while the state controls the water.

Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, said after the vote she was glad the project was scrutinized by council members but “nonetheless the project is still on track to shift the cost of cleaning up the lake from developers to the general public.”