Algae: The Double-Edged Sword

Mark Rasmussen | Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Director

We humans seem to have an affection and fascination with the color green—the green of money, the green grass of spring after a long winter, the green of a Christmas tree or the expanse of leaves in a deciduous forest.

Photo credit: Iowa Department of Natural Resources Beach Monitoring Program

But there are some forms of green that we look upon with suspicion or have grown to dislike—the green water of an algae bloom or the pond scum that covers the surface of our favorite beach.  We tend to lump different forms of life under the general term “algae” (including cyanobacteria, also referred to as blue-green algae, which are technically not algae at all!), so our relationship with algae can be confusing and somewhat complicated.

As photosynthetic organisms, algae use energy from sunlight to produce oxygen.  Over many eons of time, they are responsible for much of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and they are the original source of fossil carbon transformed deep in the earth into crude oil and natural gas. Algae are also the basis of many food chains in aquatic environments.

We look upon algae with favor when they are used to produce biofuels and nutrient rich dietary supplements. But then there are the “other” algae that are more suspect—blue-green algae.  (Remember, the blue-green algae are technically not algae at all, but early taxonomists used the term and it stuck.)  We especially need to be concerned with the blue-green algae that produce toxins as we enter another growing season here in Iowa.

Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, tend to do well in warm, slow-flowing, or stagnant water when both nitrogen and phosphorus are abundant and available. These nutrients, along with sunlight and temperature are the primary drivers of their growth. Some species can grow very rapidly in what is called a bloom.  In a pond they can be part of the natural process of turning a water body eutrophic when dense growth can cause a reduction in animal life due to the absence or limitation of oxygen.  In our agricultural world, blue-green algae growth can be the result of poor nutrient management when high levels of nutrients get into surface waters and stimulate growth.

Along with rapid growth, the production of harmful toxins from certain species of blue-green algae is of great concern. Children and small pets with less body mass are highly susceptible.  The toxins can also impact wildlife when they drink contaminated water.  Dried biomass on shore can also be toxic if inhaled as dust. Research has discovered that people who live or spend a lot of time near contaminated water have a greater risk of health effects just from being near this kind of water.

Toxin production in critical species is also stimulated by increased water temperature.  Therefore, we see more problems later in the summer as bodies of water warm.  Iowa began testing surface water in 2000, and every summer, beach closings and alerts are issued for water that has elevated levels of algae toxins. Climate change and hot summers which warm the water faster also stimulate toxin production and can be expected to increase the problem. 

It is difficult and expensive to purify water for drinking when water sources are contaminated, and most water treatment plants do not have that kind of purification capacity.  Last year the water in the Des Moines River in central Iowa was not useable for many weeks as a primary source due to the high level of toxins contained in the water.  Once contaminated, dilution with cleaner water is about the only solution. 

Given that we can expect this problem to get worse, we must redouble our effort to keep nutrients out of the water.  We can’t control the water temperature nor the hours of sunlight, but we can do something about the nutrient loading in our surface waters.  Unless we do more, we can expect there to be more problems with water quality in Iowa.

Mark Rasmussen

Nutrient Retention Capacity of Newly Restored Wetlands in Southwestern Ontario

During the webinar on Wednesday, Bryan Page, research biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, shared the first year of results investigating the nutrient retention capacity of newly restored wetlands in the Canadian portion of the Lake Erie watershed. In 2016, the US and Canada adopted a goal to reduce phosphorus in Lake Erie by 40% and wetlands were identified as natural infrastructure to help protect downstream water quality. The goal of this project was to assess the nutrient retention capacity of newly restored wetlands and provide a quantitative value to determine if wetland restoration should be used as a best management practice to help restore and protect Lake Erie water quality.

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This project measured all of the phosphorus and nitrogen species, rather than just total phosphorus and nitrogen, to allow for a greater understanding of nutrient retention and how biologically available the nutrients that were not retained are. Some species are more biologically available than others, making it important to consider the species when assessing nutrient retention capacity. The project assessed eight newly restored wetlands in southwestern Ontario, which had an average age of 4 years, average basin area of 0.33 hectares, and average contributing area of 16.4 hectares.

To learn more about this project and the first year results, including a breakdown of the different phosphorus species, watch the full webinar!

Join us next week, on Wednesday, February 24, for the webinar “Silvo-what?: Exploring Opportunities for Livestock with Silvopasture Management” with Ashley Conway, PhD, PAS, assistant research professor at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry.

Hilary Pierce

February 17 Webinar: Nutrient Retention Capacity of Newly Restored Wetlands in Southwestern Ontario

The Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday, February 17, will highlight research being done on the nutrient retention capacity of newly restored wetlands in Ontario, Canada.

Wetlands have been identified as natural infrastructure to help protect downstream water quality. However, wetland drainage has resulted in widespread loss of wetlands across the rural working landscape of southwestern Ontario, Canada. Bryan Page, research biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, will report on the first year of results investigating the nutrient retention capacity of newly restored wetlands in the Canadian portion of the Lake Erie watershed.

“In settled areas of Canada, up to 70% of our wetlands have already been destroyed or degraded. As they continuous to disappear, so too do the many benefits they provide,” said Page. “Newly restored wetlands retain nutrients on the landscape and help protect our lakes.”

Page received his B.Sc. majoring in Environmental Science and his M.Sc. in Chemistry both at the University of Manitoba. Since he joined Ducks Unlimited Canada’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research in 2008, his research has focused on the behavior of nutrients in restored, constructed, and intact wetlands across the prairie pothole region and southwestern Ontario.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CST on February 17:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

December 9 Webinar: The Cost and Benefits of Agricultural Water Conservation: An Economist’s Perspective

Learn more about the economics behind adopting conservation practices to mitigate water quality concerns during the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday, December 9 at noon.

Wendong Zhang, assistant professor and extension economist at Iowa State University, will present new survey results on how Iowans value reductions in harmful algal blooms in Iowa waterways, and the economic costs to induce farmers to adopt conservation practices. Drawing on published interdisciplinary data, Zhang will also discuss the challenges of the existing nutrient reduction policy toolbox and possible remedies.

“Economists could help improve the design and cost-effectiveness of nutrient management policies,” said Zhang. “Grand challenges like reducing Gulf of Mexico hypoxia takes concerted efforts and thinking beyond the existing policy toolbox.”

Zhang’s research seeks to better understand the drivers of conservation practice adoption, as well as the economic benefits and costs of various nutrient reduction policies. During the webinar he will share lessons learned from his research experience on the economics of phosphorus reduction in Lake Erie watershed and nitrogen reduction in the Mississippi River watershed.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CST on December 9:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been approved, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

January 15 Webinar: Overview of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center

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Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, January 15 at 12:00 p.m. about the Iowa Nutrient Research Center.

Matthew Helmers (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will discuss the Center and some of the impacts from research projects funded by the Center, as well as its current activities. The research funded by the Center focuses on nutrient export from agricultural lands and the performance of conservation practices. This research is important for improving our understanding of the performance of nutrient reduction practices and development of new methods for reducing nutrient loss. “The Center is interested in hearing from stakeholders what they think are the most pressing research questions,” said Helmers.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, January 15, 2020
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: visit www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:
https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Hilary Pierce

Harmful algal blooms connect the heartland to the coast

clgheaderEmily Heaton | Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University | in conservation with Alina Corcoran | Research Scientist, New Mexico Consortium


Why should people on the coast care what happens in the heartland? I was recently asked this question by the producer of a major network TV show, and struggled to think of an answer. Our conversation went something like this:

TV producer: “Everyone cares about the place that raises their food! The Midwest produces the food I eat, right?”

Me (Emily Heaton): “That depends; do you eat meat?”

TV producer: “No.”

Me: “Hmm. Then no, we don’t produce the food you eat. How about your car? You probably drive a car that uses ethanol that we produce in the Midwest!”

TV producer: “I live in New York City and don’t own a car.”

Me: “Well, we mainly raise grain that goes to feed animals or ethanol plants”.

TV producer: “Ok, then. Other than the Iowa caucus, I am not sure why anyone on the coast should care what happens in the heartland”.

And this explains network news coverage of the “heartland”.


But then I saw a presentation about Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) by Dr. Alina Corcoran of the New Mexico Consortium. Alina is a biologist who studies the algae – good and bad – that grow in our lakes, rivers, and oceans.  This is what she had to say about blooms.

Algae-oxygen-bubbles_Wikimedia CommonsMe: I didn’t know algae were such a threat to our health, environment, and economy.  Can you tell me more about blooms?

Alina: Actually, not all algae are bad.  Take two deep breaths.

Me: (breathing, deeply)

Alina: You can thank algae for one of those breaths.  They produce half of the oxygen on our planet.  But you are right that sometimes their growth can get out of control.  We call that uncontrolled growth a Harmful Algal Boom or HAB for short.

Me: What causes HABs?

Alina: Different kinds of microscopic algae and cyanobacteria cause HABs.  Some organisms live in glass houses.  Some have flagella that allow them to swim.  Some form chains.  Each organism thrives under a  different set of environmental conditions.  For example, some blooms occur when water temperature increases or when water becomes stagnant.  Other blooms occur when there are favorable winds or currents.  But I think it is fair to say there is one commonality.

Me: What is that?

Mississippi River WatershedAlina: All algae need a source of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, to grow.  What that means is that we can overfeed algae with our waste and fertilizers. In some cases, man-made nutrient sources that feed blooms are quite close to where a bloom forms, like at a sewage outfall. In other cases, the nutrient source can be a thousand miles away. The best example of that comes from the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Watershed (pictured).  That watershed drains over 40% of the US – transporting nutrients from the heartland to the Gulf of Mexico, where they feed blooms and the dead zone.

Me: You talked about toxic algae in your presentation.  Are all blooms toxic?

Alina: No, we tend to divide HABs into two categories: nuisance blooms and toxic blooms.  Nuisance blooms can discolor the water and deplete oxygen, causing fish kills.  But there is a handful of algae species that produce toxins that can harm people and other animals.  Do you remember the Toledo water crisis?

Me: I do.  That was about five years ago, right?  Residents of Toledo could not use their water!

algalbloom_Erie 2017_NOAA

Image of the Sept. 23, 2017, bloom. Source: NOAA derived from Copernicus Sentinel-3a data from EUMETSAT

Alina: Right. There was an extensive HAB in Lake Erie caused by toxic cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are also called blue-green algae, even though they are not true algae. Cyanobacteria tend to bloom in freshwater systems that are polluted with nutrients from agricultural runoff. People, pets, livestock, and wildlife can be exposed to the toxins when they swim, drink the water, or breath bloom aerosols.  Cyanotoxins (like microcystin) can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea or neurological symptoms. There are also toxic blooms in estuaries and in the ocean.  In 2017, residents of Florida experienced a particularly damaging bloom caused by another type of algae, a dinoflagellate. The bloom, which lasted over a year, caused respiratory irritation in people, fish kills, and manatee deaths.  Blooms like that also have devastating effects on tourism and the shellfish industry.

Me: Because the shellfish die?

Alina: No. Actually, most shellfish survive toxic HABs but can accumulate the toxins in their tissue.  If we eat contaminated shellfish or seafood, we can become sick.  There are different poisoning syndromes that generate different symptoms. To protect human health, shellfish harvesting areas are closed when shellfish become toxic.  Unfortunately, this is a huge hit to shellfish farmers and their families.

Me: So what can we do about blooms?  You talked about prevention and control in your talk, but you didn’t really mention talking with farmers and land managers about nutrient loss.

Alina: Farmers and land managers are definitely part of the solution. There are a few notable success stories, like the Iowa Great Lakes, where blooms have been reduced or eliminated when communities have made an effort to reduce runoff and point sources of nutrients.

 

Alina: It is important for everyone to think about the downstream effects of their practices.  Fertilizer applied to a farm or lawn is not contained — ultimately unused nutrients make their way to water bodies.  There have been strong efforts to monitor blooms and protect public health, but there is definitely work to be done to both prevent and control blooms.

Me: Thanks for the work you do, Alina. We are all in this together.

Emily Heaton

For more information:

https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/harmful-algal-blooms

https://www.cdc.gov/habs/index.html

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hab/

 

 

 

Conservation Chat Podcast Returns!

Water quality takes center stage in the Conservation Chat podcast’s long-awaited return!  The Chat debuts its new format, featuring multiple guests on the program together for a roundtable-type discussion. In the newest episode, Improving Water Quality, host Jacqueline Comito visits with two rockstars on Iowa State University’s water quality scene, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning.

Tune in to this latest episode for an engaging discussion on timely topics related to water quality and agricultural production here in the state of Iowa, centered around the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Having been released five-plus years ago, Comito, Helmers, and Benning discuss the progress made thus far, but also the immense scale of implementation needed to achieve tangible progress in terms of nutrient reduction and improved water quality. Tune in as they bounce ideas about the interwoven relationships between dollars spent, practices implemented, nutrients reduced, policy structure, and progress towards true paradigm shift.

In addition, Helmers and Benning both emphasize the importance of translating pure scientific research to more accessible, digestible outreach materials for general public consumption through such means as short videos, webinars, field days, and infographics. Helmers shares a great anecdote about the power of video to reach broad audiences around the world – he is currently hosting a student intern from Honduras, and this student had recently seen the Iowa Learning Farms’ Rainfall Simulator video in one of her engineering classes back at her home institution!

Tune in to Episode 40 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

Scaling Up Conservation Implementation: An Investment in Practices AND People

CLLHeaderDr. Matt Helmers, Professor Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center presented our November webinar and discussed the innovative Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project that is key to understanding impacts of in-field conservation practices beyond the research plot scale.

Floyd Co CLLHow does watershed delivery scale compare to a research plot? Plots are kept relatively small (e.g. 6 rows wide by 50 feet long) for easy replication at a research site. Whereas for this project, watershed delivery scale is capturing both surface and subsurface delivery of water from a small watershed (540-1,300 acres) of row crop production agriculture.  The goal is to assess the performance of conservation practices, specifically cover crops and strip-tillage, as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for large scale adoption of these practices.

Although scaling up requires investments in the practices, by the producer and taxpayers through cost-share, this project has highlighted also the importance of investing in the people that are helping make the implementation possible.

On average it took 12 hours per completed plan – from initial contact to signed contract. If the goal is 50% implementation in a HUC-12 watershed, it can take an estimated 47 weeks to complete the planning process!

Be sure to tune into the archived version of the webinar to see the preliminary water quality monitoring results and the next steps of the project.

Liz Juchems

November Webinar: Evaluating nutrient reduction at the delivery scale

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On Wednesday, November 14th at noon Dr. Matt Helmers, Professor Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will discussing the innovative Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project that is key to understanding impacts of in-field conservation practices beyond the research plot scale.

The webinar is a remote training opportunity for all stakeholders, including watershed coordinators, who are working on watershed improvement projects and implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

CLL LogoThe CLL is providing the opportunity to examine how in-field conservation practices impact nutrient loss at the scale at which water and nutrients are delivered to the stream. Through one-on-one meetings with farmers to complete the conservation planning process, the project team has helped these farmers implement cover crops, strip-tillage and CRP on their land. Pre-implementation and preliminary post-implementation water quality data will be shared from ongoing monitoring within the project areas.

“This research is critical to understanding impacts of in-field management beyond the plot scale,” commented Helmers. “Examining the results of large-scale adoption of practices at delivery-scale is critical to meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals. It is also important to note the high amount of time and human capital needed to get farmer and landowner adoption of conservation practices at the level of implementation we need.”

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, November 14, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:
https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Liz Juchems

October 17 Webinar: Wet spots as hot spots for nitrogen losses

On Wednesday, October 17th at noon Dr. Steven Hall, Iowa State University assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology, will present a webinar that aims to improve the understanding and management of nitrogen losses from hydric soil landscapes.

05209012018WLThe leaching of nitrate and emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, are key environmental impacts of Corn Belt agricultural systems. Dr. Steven Hall is leading a research group that studies the biological and geochemical processes that control the cycling of organic matter and nutrients across the plant-soil-water-atmosphere continuum.  One of their focus areas is the interactions across that continuum in former prairie potholes. These occasionally flooded hydric soils in topographic depressions can contribute disproportionately to nitrogen losses at the landscape scale, suggesting the promise of management interventions that specifically target these features.

“Crop nitrogen use efficiency, farm profitability, and environmental impacts of nitrogen loss are intimately connected,” commented Hall. “Innovative management of cropped hydric soils could yield disproportionate environmental and economic benefits.”

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, October 17, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:
https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Liz Juchems