The runoff of fertilizers from farm fields affects water quality throughout the world. In the United States, fertilizer runoff sends large amounts of nitrate – a form of nitrogen – into watersheds such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. There, the nitrate can overstimulate the growth of vegetation and encourage algal blooms, leading to low levels of oxygen in the water, or hypoxia, and causing the deaths of marine animals.
Complicated engineering solutions to the problem, such as building more wastewater treatment plants, may sound good, but Matthew C. Reid, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, is interested in harnessing the power of nature instead. “Traditional water infrastructure solutions to pollution are not very efficient,” he says. “They use a lot of energy. Their life cycle costs can be significant, especially when we’re talking about agricultural impacts from nonpoint sources.”
It’s not feasible to build a water treatment facility for each farm, Reid points out. “We really have to be inspired by the environment,” he says. “What can we learn from wetlands, for example, which are known to be effective at acting like sinks for pollutants or nutrients in the environment?”
Jackie Swift is a freelance writer for the office of the vice president for research and innovation.