Drainage Contractor

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University of Illinois receives almost $1 million for algal bloom research


September 28, 2020
By Drainage Contractor

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $999,377 in funding to the University of Illinois to research how to control and prevent harmful algal blooms (HABs). Specifically, the research will address subsurface drainage systems that can deliver large quantities of nutrients from agricultural fields to receiving watersheds, potentially leading to HABs.

Today’s award marks the largest research grant to date to support a nation-wide effort to prevent and control HABs.

HABs are overgrowths of algae in water that have the potential to harm human health and aquatic ecosystems. There are several factors that can cause HABs to develop, including excess nitrogen and phosphorous in waterways.

“Harmful algal blooms are a serious and persistent problem across all 50 states that can have severe impacts on human health, the environment, and the economy,” said EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler. “By expanding our knowledge of how to control and prevent the occurrence of these blooms, we can better protect our watersheds—especially our drinking water sources and recreational waters.”

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“EPA proudly supports the efforts of the University of Illinois to develop innovative approaches to combat excess nutrient runoff,” said regional administrator Kurt Thiede. “This work is vital in improving our ability to control harmful algal blooms and protect water resources for all residents.”

The project, “Development of a Novel Bioreactor and Biochar-Sorption-Channel (B2) Treatment System to Capture and Recover Nutrients from Tile Drainage,” will produce and scale up a treatment system to effectively capture excess nutrients from subsurface drainage in agricultural fields, recycle the nutrient-captured biochar as a slow-release fertilizer, and keep nutrients in the closed agricultural loop. The project is expected to offer an innovative, feasible, and cost-effective practice to mitigate the loading of excess nutrients into watersheds from agricultural fields, improve water quality, and thereby diminish the occurrence of HABs.

The project will produce and scale up a treatment system to capture excess nutrients from subsurface drainage in agricultural fields, recycle the nutrient-captured biochar as a slow-release fertilizer, and keep nutrients in the closed agricultural loop.

“This process has the potential to be a win-win for agriculture, not only by reducing the nutrient run-off that leads to harmful algal blooms but also by capturing those nutrients and routing them back into fields, leading to increased yields,” said Illinois Sustainable Technology Center director Kevin C OBrien. “It’s our goal to put cost-effective, feasible tools for sustainability in farmers’ hands.”

“This process has the potential to be a win-win for agriculture, not only by reducing the nutrient run-off that leads to harmful algal blooms but also by capturing those nutrients and routing them back into fields, leading to increased yields,” said Illinois Sustainable Technology Center director Kevin C OBrien.

Seven grants totalling over $6 million were awarded to institutions to address the environmental challenges posed by HABs. Through the development of new technologies and the optimization of existing technologies and best management practices, these projects will assist in reducing excess nutrients that enter the country’s waterways and support EPA’s goal to reduce the occurrence of HABs across the United States.

In 2020 alone, EPA has awarded Small Business Innovation Research funding to companies developing technologies to better detect HABs, released draft nutrient criteria for lakes and reservoirs, and announced an award of more than $2 million in funding to help states implement plans to that reduce excess nutrients and improve water quality in the Mississippi River/Atchafalaya River Basin.