You can’t see nitrogen. You can’t taste or smell it, either. You know it, though – it’s that stuff, which, when combined with oxygen makes nitrous oxide - ‘laughing gas’. However, in some other forms, nitrogen is no laughing matter.
To quote the US EPA (yes, even this current EPA),
“Nutrient pollution is one of America's most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water.”
Here on Cape Cod, a beautiful peninsula ‘arm’ extending from the Massachusetts mainland, farming is a big industry, alongside to the main industry here, tourism. Corn, cranberries are grown in quantity here. The EPA goes on to say:
“Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems. Nitrogen is also the most abundant element in the air we breathe. Nitrogen and phosphorus support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish and smaller organisms that live in water.
But when too much nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment - usually from a wide range of human activities - the air and water can become polluted. Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy.”
So, nitrogen is important, but if we fail to manage it properly, we fail.
A project here on Cape Cod is aimed at stopping that failure. As reported in today’s Cape Cod Times, it is a joint brainchild of the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, the US EPA, and Mount Holyoke College. This partnership of stakeholder sponsors is building a bioreactor to act as a collection system for nitrogen-laden sources, such as septic systems, that affect key watershed areas in the Marston Mills area of Cape Cod – in particular, the Marston Mills River. The system is a maze of ‘beds’ of woodchips, alum, and biochar, which can filter the nutrients from the water – to intercept the nitrogen.
The pilot project has a goal: determine if the bioreactor can assist in the removal of nutrients, including nitrogen, before surface water flows from the bog and into the river (and Cape Cod Bay).
This is particularly important since nitrogen can cause toxic cyanobacteria blooms.
From the article: “We want to intercept those nutrients before they reach the river,” said Casey Dannhauser, special projects manager for the Clean Water Coalition.
I reached out to Casey, who provided said
"Projects like this wouldn't be possible without our partners. We started meeting weekly just before COVID-19 struck and it would have been really easy to shelve the project until the world was in a better place. Instead they continued to bring their expertise and technical assistance to the virtual table and make the bioreactor a reality despite a global pandemic."
She also provided this video:
It’s “only” a pilot project, but it’s an important step forward in the reduction of nitrogen and the reduction of cyanobacteria. Watch this space for updates and/or a follow-up article about this bold and interesting project!