Technology used to combat algae blooms

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(Host) They may look like the vanguard of an alien invasion, but several odd looking units that will be floating on St. Albans Bay this summer have a more terrestrial purpose.

They’re called Solarbees and it’s hoped they’ll reduce or eliminate the algae blooms that have plagued the bay for years.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Three Solarbees are being deployed in St. Albans Bay. Each one is 16 feet across, floats on pontoons and is equipped with solar panels for power.

They run 24 hours a day, circulating 10,000 gallons per minute from depths of up to 100 feet.

The idea is that by circulating and aerating the water, the blooms of algae, some of which are toxic can be prevented and the bay can once again be used for swimming.

(Rath) “For years it was. As it got polluted and more polluted, very few people swim there. I think last year I saw three people out in the water.”

(Zind) Peter Rath is president of the St. Albans Bay Area Watershed. To rent the Solarbees, Rath’s group has raised more than 20 thousand dollars which has been matched by the state.

The units are designed to combat the high levels in phosphorus which cause the algae blooms. They’ve been used primarily in small lakes, ponds and sewage treatment facilities.

Solarbee’s manufacturer says a single unit can clean a 35-acre lake. Rath says he saw the Solarbees in operation at Lake Conesus, one of New York’s Finger Lakes.

(Rath) “The water clarity was superb there around these machines, it was very good.”

(Zind) Rath’s organization worked with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to get permission to use the Solarbees. Eric Smeltzer of the agency says it’s not clear how well they’ll work in a lake the size of Champlain.

(Smeltzer) “We’re a ways away from being confident that the Solarbees are even going to work. We’re going to do a lot of monitoring this summer in St. Albans bay to see just what they do.”

(Zind) Smeltzer says if the Solarbees work, they may have a future in keeping some recreational areas of the lake shoreline free of algae.

But everyone agrees that even if they do work, the Solarbees are only a band-aid treatment for a much larger problem: Phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain. Rath says he’s frustrated by state efforts to clean up the lake.

(Rath) “Eventually the lake will become so polluted that no one will use it for anything. And it will be the whole lake at some point in time.”

(Zind) Eric Smeltzer of the Agency of Natural Resources says the phosphorus comes from many sources and the runoff from farms and urban development continues to dump more phosphorus into Lake Champlain than the lake can tolerate.

Smeltzer says phosphorus stored in lake sediment from years of polluted runoff is also significant part of the algae bloom problem.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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