Odiferous Waterways

What is that smell? Stagnant, odiferous water? Odiferous is a fancy way of saying stinky. That stinky, green water that too often shows up in both rural and urban waterways often comes in combination with too much algae, which is a result of something else. We’ve got a fancy word for that too.

Hypereutrophication. Hyper – meaning “too much” plus eutrophication meaning nourishment, that is, “too much food,” mostly in the form of nitrates and phosphates, sewage, fertilizers, etc. much of which is delicious to all forms of algae.

Farming is the major culprit of hypereutrophication, because of all of the nutrients aka fertilizer they add to their soil to grow plants; but, we all contribute, and pointing fingers doesn’t create solutions. Consider this: We know how to take the nutrients that are at the heart of today’s smelly water problems and turn them into tomorrow’s fish. It doesn’t involve chemicals, just the opposite: It’s all about taking nature’s own wetland effect and applying it in these damaged, unhealthy, green, stinky, waterways.

Here’s a look at a flow chart that helps understand the issue:

The Wetland Effect

The answer comes from nature. She’s been inventing for a very long time. Evolution has helped discard natural prototypes that didn’t work. The model that does work is called “The Wetland Effect.” Here’s a list of the primary variables associated with wetlands:

  1. Surface area.
  2. Circulation/aeration.

Are you surprised by the shortness of the list? Certainly there are other factors that add to the wetland effect, or that limit it. These include: residence time, solar energy, available carbon, nutrients, temperature, plants, pH, salt, habitat design, micro nutrients, heavy metals, exposure to toxin, and a few others. But the primary variables are simple, and workable. With surface area and circulation/aeration leading the way, the other variables become manageable. Without the primary conditions, it doesn’t happen!

Unless you are very lucky, live far away from people, or your system is somehow immune to global warming, surface area and circulation/aeration is crucial to the health of your waterway. Without these two variables, the growth of the absolutely critical microbes in charge of cleaning up after us will not be sufficient. The wetland effect is nature’s septic system, nature’s biofilm reactor. Without it, nasty things stack up quickly!

Even if somehow stormwater management can stop all incoming nutrients, there will still be a certain volume of nutrients, built up over time, in the lake’s sediment. During those moments between algae blooms, when water clarity finally improves and sunlight reaches down to those nutrients, or when a weather or wind event kicks them up, the whole process starts over. You’ve likely seen it. Or smelled it.

What does this boil down to? What does it mean? The short answer is…We have the science. We know how to design for microbial nutrient uptake. Our ability to steward for a quality environment is here now. Stinky lakes devoid of healthy fish? We can do far better.