What if a giant network of thirsty sponges could be “planted” in soil to make water cleaner?
Four Portland State students, with the help of a Solutions Generator grant from PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, are researching how bioswales can help mitigate nutrient-rich runoff that can harm water supplies in farming communities.
The hope is that their efforts will provide farmers with a way to help improve local water quality.
Bioswales are a commonly used tool for dealing with water quality issues in urban settings. They are formed by surrounding a water source, like a small creek, with unique native plants that thrive in very wet soil. The idea is that the plants pick up pollutants from water runoff in places such as parking lots and act as sponges to absorb damaging elements before they reach a larger water source.
The project got its start in 2012 in Sherwood, Ore., when Bobby Nuvolini, an environmental science undergraduate, and Jake Constans, an environmental studies undergraduate, first got funding to look at a new application for bioswales.
“We couldn’t find any research that had been done in an agricultural environment,” Constans said. With nearly a year’s worth of work, an additional ISS grant for 2013 and expanding partnerships with campus and community groups, the project is starting to gain momentum.
The group has teamed up with Baggenstos Farm in Sherwood—a food supplier for PSU’s Aramark dining services—to run the experiment. The farm donated a portion of their land for construction and research of a single bioswale.
“This is how advances get made,” Nuvolini said, “by partners like these.”
The farm’s runoff flows into the Tualatin River—a huge resource both for people and their farms. When you combine the fertilizers and pesticides from all of the farms in a given area that end up in the river, the damage accumulates quickly.
The effect can be algae blooms, which can wreak havoc on entire ecosystems. Because of the added chemicals in the water, algae can reproduce rapidly. When they eventually collapse, they suffocate the environment by removing the water’s oxygen. This process is known as eutrophication, which can result in massive die-offs of fish and other plant life.
“It’s not just about sustainability, it’s also about protection,” said Amira El-Cherbini, an environmental studies major working on the project.
The project has also found help from others in the Sherwood community. Jared Kinnear, a project manager for Clean Water Services, a water resource management utility company, has donated both resources and ideas to the effort. Scholls Valley Native Nursery and community partner Jonas Moiel have also offered local plants to the bioswale.
Other groups at PSU have offered their services. This year, a Senior Capstone class that monitors streams took part by acting as a quality-assurance monitoring team.
“The idea behind this is to increase the capacity around the monitoring,” said Mary Ann Schmidt, director of the Student Watershed Research Project and the stream–monitoring course’s instructor. “It’s a great entry point to involve citizen science and community outreach.”
Dr. Heejun Chang of the geography department has acted as the project’s faculty mentor. Chang, Constans said, has helped them put together an appropriate research method.
The project’s outreach has been an effort to gain aid as well as time. The project will take up to five years to show promising results. It is the hope of the Solutions Generator that the group will be able to pass the torch along when they are no longer able to directly contribute.
“If the project works we want it to be a model,” El-Cherbini said.