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OUR VIEW: City dropped ball with SolarBee

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opinion Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

We're disappointed at how the city of Mitchell has handled its experiment with a SolarBee device in Lake Mitchell.

The city purchased the device for $27,000 in 2010. That's not much compared to the city's overall budget of more than $30 million, but it's still a significant investment in a single piece of equipment that city officials viewed then and now as experimental.

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We, like anybody else who's been on Lake Mitchell the past few years, have seen the SolarBee sitting on the water. We gather that the device is supposed to circulate water, and that the circulation somehow prevents the kind of warm, stagnant pools that algae thrive on.

Yet, these three years after the device was purchased, the city still has no real clue if it works. Why? We learned this week that until this summer, nobody compiled any quantitative data about the quality of water near the device. We also learned this week that in 2011, the device's battery was dead half the summer.

The experiment with the SolarBee has been botched, plain and simple. When public funds are spent on an experiment, it's expected that the experiment will actually be conducted and results reported. City government officials let this device become an orphan over the past few years when they should have been faithfully recording data, and that means taxpayers have so far gained nothing of value for their $27,000 investment.

It appears the situation is being rectified. Data is being collected, and hopefully we'll know something of the device's effectiveness later this year. That information can then be used to determine if more SolarBees should be deployed throughout the lake to counteract the annual algae blooms.

We must say, though, that we're skeptical. In the past, we watched the city try aluminum sulfate treatments. We've observed the worthwhile efforts to clean up the watershed that feeds the lake, including the diversion of animal waste away from Firesteel Creek and into holding ponds.

And yet the algae still blooms.

We've become convinced the only thing that would rid Lake Mitchell of algae is the removal of the dam and spillway and the conversion of the lake back to a creek, which is the way nature intended it. Upstream, algae is not a problem. In the lake, which is basically a warm, stagnant bathtub where a free-flowing current should be, we suspect algae will remain a permanent menace.

We don't advocate removing the dam or the spillway. And we don't advocate expensive anti-algae schemes with questionable results. We do believe in the upstream watershed cleanup, because that's good environmental policy regardless of its impact (likely positive, by the way) on the lake's water quality.

The moral? Our lake has algae, and probably always will. It would be great if the SolarBee could minimize the problem at a reasonable cost, but we're no closer to knowing that three years after buying a SolarBee.

The city needs to get disciplined about measuring the SolarBee's effectiveness. If it's effective, get a plan and a cost estimate to the City Council for more SolarBees. If it's not effective, get rid of the device and quit wasting the public's time and money.

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