Thinking Outside the Box
By Lisa A. Lewis
When the South River Federation (SRF) partners with Lake Savers, LLC—a company that implements natural technologies to restore polluted bodies of water to a healthy condition—to complete a field research and restoration project in the tidal section of Church Creek, South River, not only will they help improve the water quality of the creek, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, they will also be making history. The project, which proposes to bio-remediate— or use beneficial organisms to remove pollutants from the nutrient-laden sediments that cause poor dissolved oxygen in the tidal tributary—will utilize new technology being implemented in Maryland for the first time.
“Although the new technology has been used successfully in the Mid-West, it hasn’t been used in the Chesapeake Bay region, so we’re very excited that this field research project will be completed here in Maryland,” says Captain Diana Muller, director of science and South Riverkeeper, SRF. “This research has the potential to help restore the water quality conditions in the tidal creeks of the Chesapeake Bay.”
In order to meet the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for nutrients and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay, it’s critical to examine the tidal creeks for reductions. During the spring of 2014, the SRF completed a $1.5 million non-tidal stream restoration project in Church Creek to slow the flow of nutrient and sediment-rich stormwater entering the creek. Now plans are underway to research and develop another project, called a bio-remediation microbial nutrient reduction, in the sediments located in the tidal section of Church Creek using the new technology. Scheduled to begin in 2015, this field research will utilize Lake Savers’ cutting-edge technology.
An Innovative Approach
According to John Tucci, president, Lake Savers, years of data indicate that this area runs out of oxygen for a large portion of the year. In low-oxygen waters, harmful, toxic blue-green algae species and pathogenic bacteria thrive, making it impossible for the body of water to remain healthy. In order to improve the health of Church Creek, Lake Savers will restore high levels of dissolved oxygen to the ecosystem to get the distressed water body “breathing” and healthy again, a process called Inversion Oxygenation Technology. Then they will supplement the area with natural additives that stimulate beneficial organisms that “eat” the organic muck off the bottom of the creek, a process called Biological Augmentation. By using this approach, Lake Savers has been able to eliminate six to 12 inches of organic sediment per year, as verified by independent scientific analysis, which means they can improve the water quality and deepen the treatment area without dredging.
“The Chesapeake suffers from ‘death by a thousand cuts,’” Tucci says. “All of the small creeks that drain highly developed watersheds bring tons of pollutants into the Bay system continuously. The Church Creek project is an important test case for the broader strategy of using our technology on multiple creeks feeding the Bay. It will demonstrate that we can treat and clean many of these input areas, reducing the pollutant load significantly on the Bay system over time. The Chesapeake Bay is one of the most important aquatic systems in the world. We’re up for the challenge and would be thrilled to make a contribution to preserving this vital resource.”
The Church Creek project will also include a laboratory research component, which will be performed in collaboration with Dr. Andrew Muller, professor of oceanography, United States Naval Academy, in his lab and will provide opportunities for additional study.
While using beneficial organisms to eat muck from the bottom of a creek may seem like an unusual way to clean up Bay waters, it’s certainly not the only unconventional method. Another technique that has increased in popularity in recent years is the use of floating islands. Designed to reduce pollutants, improve water quality, and increase habitat diversity, floating islands mimic natural floating islands to create a “concentrated wetland effect.” According to Floating Island International, Inc. (FII), floating islands, also referred to as BioHaven® floating islands, are made from matrix sheets of non-toxic, post-consumer plastics (recycled drink bottles), which are bonded together with foam to provide buoyancy. The top is vegetated with native plants, and the roots grow through the island and extend into the water, where a dynamic process takes place. In short, large amounts of microbes grow on and attach to the surface of the matrix and break down nutrients and other pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and ingest them. Nutrients are also taken up by the plant roots, filtering the water.
“Our floating islands are concentrated wetlands and have 198 square feet of surface area per cubic foot of island, creating 800 percent more effectiveness, as shown by studies,” says Ted Gattino, managing partner, BlueWing Environmental Solutions, LLC. “Anne Arundel County and KCI Engineering have shown that concentrated wetlands are 10 times more cost effective versus the next best management practice for removing nitrogen and phosphorus.”
Reviving Old Technology
Although using floating islands to improve water quality is relatively new technology, floating islands are actually an old concept.
“Very old technology often gets lost for centuries only to be revived as new,” says Dorothy Williams, partner, Chesapeake Bay Floating Islands, LLC (CBFI), a company associated with FII. “The Uros, a pre-Incan tribe, developed floating islands as a place to live and seek refuge from aggressive tribes. The Aztecs needed more farmland, so they created chinampas, or floating gardens, where they grew crops. Like these ancient civilizations, we have also developed a way to use floating islands—in our case, to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. We’ve taken old technology and adapted it to suit our needs and customized it to the modern world.”
Both BlueWing and CBFI have constructed and launched BioHaven® floating islands in Maryland. (See the sidebar for a list of projects.) In addition, CBFI recently launched eight floating islands in Bethany Beach, Delaware. (The project also includes an oyster habitat.) And Floating Islands Southeast, Inc. (FISE), a licensee of FII, will launch a floating island at the National Aquarium in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 2014.
For Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association (MRA), the volunteer work he does to restore the health of the Magothy River is not just work. It’s his passion. Spadaro first developed floating gardens in the mid-1990s as a way to remove nutrients and oxygenate the water. Although floating gardens are very different from floating islands, the concept is similar. Floating gardens are trays that contain native emergent plants. The roots extend down into the water and take up nutrients, helping improve water quality. The MRA has also developed hanging basket systems.
The loss of underwater grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), in the Magothy River inspired the MRA to revisit the concept of floating gardens. Aerial surveys of SAV are conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) each year. For the past two years, there has been no SAV in the Magothy River. SAV is critical to the river’s health because it uptakes nutrients and produces oxygen; however, the water in the Magothy cannot support SAV. So in an effort to improve the water quality, the MRA deployed more than 50 floating and hanging plant systems into the Magothy River in June. The volunteer group hopes that its floating garden project will help improve the health of the river. “We’re really excited about this project,” says Spadaro. “We encourage all waterfront homeowners to install the gardens—either as floats or baskets—at their piers. The Magothy is our home, and by working together, we can restore it for generations to enjoy.”
A Successful Partnership
The MRA works closely with its partners at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) on its floating garden project, which also provides opportunities for scientific research and student involvement.
“We’re at the mid-point of the Bay, and salinity fluctuates because of rainfall,” says M. Stephen Ailstock, director, Environmental Center, and chair, biology department, AACC. “The floating garden project provides a great opportunity for further study of salinity and helps us identify which plants can thrive and learn to tolerate shifts after rainfall. The project allows us to select the best plants for a specific area and make a scientific contribution that may be applicable to other states.”
“Many of our students have had limited interactions with nature,” adds Michael Norman, technical specialist, Environmental Center, AACC. “By getting their ‘hands dirty’ on the floating garden project, they have a unique opportunity to learn about and truly experience a variety of functioning ecosystems.”
To learn more about floating gardens, visit YouTube at www.youtube.com and watch the video entitled “Floating Gardens of the Magothy,” which was created jointly by the MRA and AACC.
“When it comes to Bay cleanup, we need to explore all options and look outside the box at non-traditional methods,” says Andrew Muller. “We’re never going to be able to fix every tributary. So we need to find the ones that are most impaired and fix those. This is perhaps the best approach, and it will go a long way towards cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.”