Feb 10, 2018


Tackling the Issue of Eutrophication

By: Andrew McGrath

For those lucky enough to experience Wisconsin’s true beauty, it is apparent that the state represents much more than beer, cheese and the Green Bay Packers. Within Wisconsin’s mitten-shaped boundaries exists a booming agricultural industry, a plethora of loving individuals, and most intriguing, more lakes than Minnesota and Illinois combined. Despite what these features represent to Wisconsinites (and their visitors), they can often be taken for granted amongst the venture through this fast-paced life. Those very same industrial and agricultural economies are quickly destroying the beloved waterways, and it is time to take a microscopic approach to protect those macroscopic sceneries.

The Issue

Anytime it rains or the snow-cover melts, the precipitation makes contact with surface-level contaminants found in agricultural, industrial, and/or other anthropogenic disciplines. This contaminated water will then make its way into the freshwater bodies of our state and more often than not, will carry with it an overabundant concentration of nitrogen and phosphorous. The abundance of these nutrients will promote the excessive growth of algal blooms in a process known as eutrophication (as seen in figure 1). These algal blooms suffocate our fish, destroy plant life, and diminish the aesthetics of our waterways. As the global demand for food has increased exponentially, so too has the issue of agricultural runoff. For several decades in Wisconsin, state legislators have made numerous attempts to regulate the agricultural practices of their farmers, however; these regulations have continuously proved difficult to enforce, further perpetuating an issue that seemed unsolvable… until now. 

The Solution

As aforementioned, it is time to take a microscopic approach to solve this issue, and that is exactly what researchers at University of Science and Technology Liaoning, Anshan 114051, China, have done. From a peculiar source, came a breakthrough that is changing the way we combat environmental issues in avery profound fashion. According to a 2009 study conducted by Shan, Mingjun, et al., “Bioremediation is considered as one of the effective ways to deal with the pollution of natural water because of its high efficiency, low cost and causing no secondary pollution.” So what is bioremediation, and what could this mean for the future of Wisconsin’s waterways? Essentially, bioremediation is a technique that utilizes microscopic organisms to rectify pollution present in water, air, or soil. Through a series of laboratory techniques known as enrichment cultures, Mingjun Shan and his colleagues were able to isolate a nitrobacteria from the Anshan Yingze Lake, one capable of producing a natural flocculent that effectively kills algae. (Shan, Mingjun, et al. 2009.) This study is groundbreaking for the world of bioremediation, as it now eliminates the use of expensive chemicals that are typically utilized in water treatment. For instance, a 1973 study conducted by the Wisconsin DNR showed similar results, but the process was carried out inorganically by means of a flocculent called aluminum sulfate (alum). Despite having minimal adverse effects, alum is fairly expensive in bulk, and would not be a practical means to remediate the 15,000+ lakes in Wisconsin. (Peterson, James O, et al. 1973.) In comparison of the DNR’s method and bioremediation, one needs to remember that the microbial species are already present in the areas that need remediation, and the only cost of utilizing them comes from growing them in the lab. When one conducts an enrichment culture, they isolate a group of microorganisms from the environment, force feed them a chemical or nutrient, and essentially use Darwinism to isolate the organisms that are capable of breaking down said chemical. One can then take their samples from the area in question, and determine whether or not the microorganism would be practical for use based on by-products, efficiency, and growth speed. (Guo, Linyun, et al. 2013) This technique gives individuals multiple attempts at remediating the same areas, all while eliminating the financial burden experienced when the test results do not prove preferable. As mentioned, this technique is fairly new, and is not widespread as of yet, but companies like Advanced BioTech of Visalia, CA are already making capital gains by selling bioremediation products. The results of said products can be seen in Figures 2 & 3, however; even with impressive results, it is important that one considers what effects these foreign microbial species may pose on an ecosystem.


Although this method may sound like the be-all-end-all to eutrophication, and possibly environmental pollution alike, there still exists troubles with this technique, and it may take years before we see this technology applied extensively. For starters, it is a fairly new technique in the timeline of biologic studies, and despite its enormous potential, there is much we still do not know about introducing manipulated species back into the wild. There also exists a rare potential of pathogenicity if these organisms are not cultured precisely, likewise; these organisms could produce adverse effects to the waterways that we may not be able to observe under a microscope. Therefore, the scientific community and the general public alike, can often times grow wary about utilizing this technology. In spite of the fact that this logic is based on the possible threats it presents, these occurrences can be deemed highly unlikely. 

As the landscape continues to morph, and anthropogenic needs begin to diversify further, the natural world will also continue to diversify, adapting to the changes thrown its way. Bioremediation presents the option to utilize that change and make an effort to give back to the planet. These waterways were gifted, and their use is a privilege, not a right. The adaptations that the microorganisms on this planet make, are proof that pollution is being combatted continuously by nature, whether or not it fits within a visible timeframe. Through bioremediation, researchers can now expedite this natural process, and hopefully bring back the waterways that were experienced before humans impacted them. The truth of the matter is, if change does not come soon, Wisconsin will face a legacy built strictly on beer, sports, and cheese, and even that cannot last forever without sustainable measures.

Andrew McGrath is a 22 year-old Environmental Engineering undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He has an extensive background with sustainable initiatives on campus, and has even helped create the campus’s first biodiesel production facility. Outside of the classroom he enjoys skateboarding, playing several instruments, and boating. Upon graduating this December, he hopes to pursue a career in the remediation industry.