Windsor researchers to study ways to reduce phosphorus in Lake Erie
WINDSOR — The roots of tomato plants, iron filings and sawdust are the newest weapons in the fight against toxic algae blobs in Lake Erie.
Researchers from the University of Windsor will test how well those materials can be used to filter out phosphorus, a key contributor to algae blooms, from entering the lake in a pilot project at a wetlands near Leamington.
The project — one of a number of Southwestern Ontario measures to reduce phosphorus in waterways that drain into Erie — is being funded by a $50,000 grant from the university’s alumni association.
A common ingredient in fertilizer, and found in animal and human waste, phosphorus washes into the region’s waterways across its vast farm belt, including from heavy rains that can overwhelm sewage treatment plants, fuelling algae growth.
The nutrient biofilter testing at Lebo Creek Research Wetlands near Leamington and a separate development of an outdoor classroom at Holiday Beach Conservation Area were made possible by the $50,000 grant. “This is a celebration of an important community partnership between the faculty of science, the University of Windsor and the Essex Region Conservation Foundation,” said Douglas Kneale, the university’s interim president.
Three biofilters have been installed at the wetlands with the goal to determine which material best filters and removes phosphate from the wetlands’ water before it drains into rivers and lakes, said Bulent Mutus, a Windsor professor emeritus in chemistry and biochemistry.
“Everybody knows about algal blooms (on Lake Erie),” Mutus said.
“Is it farms (that are the culprit), is it a burgeoning population, is it sewage? It’s a combination of everything and the problem is here. This project will try to address this at the point source,” he said. Testing done at another university biofilter on the Bruce Peninsula has shown up to a 71-per-cent success rate in removing phosphates using tomato plant roots as a filter, said David Ure, a graduate student involved in the research.
Ironically, Mutus said, the university team is having trouble obtaining tomato roots for its study despite the proliferation of greenhouses growing the fruit in Leamington.
Iron filings and modified sawdust have also shown promise as a way to filer and remove phosphates. Algae blobs in Lake Erie — they foul beaches, menace drinking water systems and suck up oxygen when they die, causing dead zones in the lake — have been a frequent problem in Erie, especially in its western basin. One notorious algae bloom in 2011 grew to nearly the size of Prince Edward Island. Another, in 2014, forced Toledo, Ohio, to shut down its drinkingwater supply system that draws from the lake.
Last month, the federal and provincial governments put $400,000 into five phosphorus-fighting projects elsewhere in Southwestern Ontario, to test ways to remove it from water in farm drainage systems and municipal pumping stations.