Life Among Floating Islands

. . . and the human relationship with water

By Ryan Cruz

It was in the grey, pre-dawn light of late summer that I had my first experience with a place and an idea that would force me to rethink Human’s relationship with water. There were still stars in the sky that morning as I shared a cup of black coffee with Floating Island founder, Bruce Kania, before we set out to explore his property and his laboratory. We gathered up a collection of fishing poles and made our way to the first of several connected ponds that, while beautiful, did not at first appear entirely unique. I’d soon come to appreciate that, thanks to Bruce’s ecological tinkering, this place was very special indeed. 

The hoot of an owl punctuated a chorus of frogs and marsh birds, making immediately clear the sheer quantity and variety of life around us. We climbed aboard an aluminum canoe and pushed off from the bank. The scrape of stones along its hull gave way to the metallic tinkling of moving water. Steam rose from the water into the crisp morning air as I began to cast my fly rod. Every two or three casts a chunky bass or bluegill would smash my fly, interrupting the morning’s stillness with electric moments of connection to the less visible life below the surface. I casted on as Bruce paddled and the rising sun painted the water a brilliant red. By breakfast time I’d caught several species I’d never landed before, including a dinner plate of a bluegill that Bruce exclaimed would be one in a thousand anywhere else in Montana. 

To cap off the fishing experience I’d switched to a streamer, and soon locked into something big.  It was near a complex of floating islands tethered to shore, and Bruce encouraged me to “keep it near the surface” as the fish plowed towards deep water and potential to snag on a tether line.  As fishing stories go, I can say that the experience drove home the point that besides deep, vibrant coloration of the bluegill, redear sunfish and the gold and green northern yellow perch, the bass were particularly thick and heavy   This massive one though simply controlled the experience.  I couldn’t turn him, and finally the line broke.  Bruce and I looked at each other with that same air of released tension.  No words for that special moment, except…amazing!  

Six months before that epic morning of fishing, I’d read a human interest story about Bruce in Montana’s 2015 Water Plan. After buying property with water turned toxic by nearby agriculture, he made it his mission to restore it to health before it flowed into the nearby Yellowstone River. His unconventional weapons of choice were floating communities of plants that he developed himself. I can’t say I’d recommend the Montana’s water plan as a gripping read, but the story of Bruce and his idea to clean water using floating islands captivated me. It struck me as an utterly unique answer to questions that had nagged at me for years. Namely, how do we as a society exist in concert with the rivers, lakes, and other waters upon which we ourselves ultimately depend? 

I’ve known the watery places in the world as a biologist, an organizer for environmental causes, an educator, and an accomplished rock-skipper. Through these many lenses I’ve strived to understand the human relationship with water. It drives our economy, grows our food, moves us, and gives us places that enrich our souls. Yet our presence near water seems to inevitably cause harm. Leaky septic systems and stormwater runoff cause problems like eutrophication, robbing water of its oxygen and spelling trouble for wildlife and people alike. 

Given booming communities and global climate change, it’s safe to say these issues will only intensify. Minimizing our impacts (i.e. environmental conservation) is undeniably a critical piece of the healthy water puzzle. Ultimately, however, our growing population must find strategies to coexist with water in ways that allow for, and indeed support, healthy aquatic environments. By breaking his local ecosystem down into functional components and utilizing nature as his model, Bruce is working to do just that. 

When I finally worked up the nerve to contact Bruce and ask to visit the Floating Island HQ, I found a passionate man excited to share his ideas with others. I told him why I cared, and he seemed to like my thinking. And so it was that I came to catch trophy bluegill while learning the environmental alchemy needed to transform water from a puddle of toxic bacteria into a true haven for life, human and wild alike.

Rather than chemical treatment or filtration, I learned that Bruce’s approach restores natural environmental processes, allowing them to function as they should. He focuses on maximizing the system’s innate ability to eat up the pollutants that cause issues like eutrophication before they can throw things off balance. To do that, he controls his ponds like an equation with each species playing a unique role. The centerpieces of it all are the floating islands of plants and biofilm (algae and other tiny life) from which Bruce’s company gets its name. They provide habitat for everything else while kicking off the all-important first steps in the biological pathways that eat up pollution. 

The end result is a high-functioning, sustainable system. Its benefits for people range from waterscape beautification, to increased water quality, to world-class recreational fisheries. The technology is scalable, adaptable, and cost-effective. Along the way, it creates some of the most ecologically valuable and rare habitat on earth as a byproduct. 

I’d learn all this and more as I spent the weekend exploring the Floating Island property with Bruce. Sometimes we’d talk shop, other times we’d just walk the fields in search of birds. I spent an afternoon learning to shoot clays with Bruce’s wife, Anne, and helped sow a field with wild grains to support the local pheasant population. Nearly every meal we ate incorporated some kind of wild food from the property, hammering home the incalculable benefits of a healthy environment. Through the experience I came to understand that Bruce’s islands provide more than the straightforward, measurable benefits I’ve already listed. There’s something about the place’s smells, sounds, and outdoor opportunities that you simply need to experience to appreciate. That something is quality of life. And that gives me tremendous hope for the future.

As I’ve processed my visit, I’ve realized that I was wrong to view floating islands as an entirely unique and novel solution to the question of water health. True, the physical product and technique is a crystallization of many new ideas and scientific discoveries. Yet the underlying process could not be more time-tested. Bruce’s success is testament to nature as model. His approach may seem unusual to the property owner or municipality in search of answers to their water quality issues, but it draws its strength from biological processes and systems as old as life itself. He didn’t reinvent the wheel – he set it turning again. 

bruce fighting a big fish that grew up in Fish Fry Lake is an example of the human relationship with water
Bruce fighting a big fish he caught on Fish Fry Lake.

Trade Nutrients for Fish

The concept of including fisheries management in strategies for water quality improvement is not new, but floating islands give the notion a boost. The simple concept is, add lots and lots of substrate and the fish will come! Catch more fish and you will sequester the unwanted nutrients in a more appropriate part of the eco-system – lunch!

Fishing for Largemouth Bass

BioHavens are magnets for largemouth bass, or “bucketmouths”. The shade, the temperature, the overhead security, the constant presence of food options, all of these fit perfectly within a largemouth’s ambush predator life model.

Harvesting Minnows

If you work with nutrient impaired water, you could do a few things and turn your smelly, green, algae-filled pond into a clear, nutrient cycling, minnow producer. By growing and harvesting minnows, you’re being a water steward. The minnows would thank you, and then you would thank the minnows!