Nutrient Management: Always on My Mind

By James R. Mihelcic, PhD, BCEEM

EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic

EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic

I am inspired to solve the complex problem of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) management every day.  I think about solving this problem when I tend my winter garden of lettuce and peppers, around my neighborhood as I watch stormwater race from lawns to the Hillsborough River, in the classroom, and when I spend time outdoors enjoying our nation’s waters.

And I am in good company with my thoughts. You see, the National Academy of Engineering has identified managing the nitrogen cycle as one of their Grand Challenges.

I even started my New Year by canoeing in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and got to thinking about nutrients.  This was because some of the springs that feed the refuge have developed the tell-tale signs of nutrient pollution (green, slimy-looking plant growth) from on-site wastewater generation and lawn runoff from surrounding homes.  On that day we were also welcomed into the winter home of a group of manatees.  Manatees depend on sea grass for survival, and excessive nutrients cloud coastal waters, preventing sea grass growth. 

With support from an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant, we established our Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management, which is transforming my daily thinking to everyday reality.  We are reimagining aging coastal urban infrastructure systems to consider nutrient recovery and management that contribute to sustainable and healthy communities.

Manatee at a U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Manatee at a U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I have great expectations for our Center research and demonstrations.  Our goals are to develop the science behind new technology and management innovations, and to develop a deep understanding of integrated systems.  We will demonstrate and assess innovations to provide new knowledge for students, community members, practitioners, and other stakeholders.

We are even transforming how we educate new engineers. For example, our new textbook, Environmental Engineering: Fundamentals, Sustainability, Design integrates sustainability and nutrient concepts into every chapter, and has the potential to reach over 10,000 undergraduate engineers every year.

Our research will benefit the public because poor water quality lowers the economic, social, and environmental value of our nation’s waters for current and future generations. 

In Florida, our springs, rivers, estuaries, coastal waters, and the Everglades all suffer because of nutrient pollution.  We have already come up with some ways to help manage nutrient pollution while also meeting the agricultural needs to provide national and global food security. For example, we have shown that 22% of the global demand for phosphorus could be met if we just recovered this valuable resource from domestic wastewater. We’ve also shown how wastewater infrastructure that serves a rapidly urbanizing world can be integrated with recovery of valuable water and nutrients to improve food security.

You can see why nutrients are always on my mind.  I hope they are now on yours.

About the author: EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic is a Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and State of Florida 21st Century World Class Scholar at the University of South Florida (Tampa), where he directs the Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management

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