Scientists at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) are tackling the issue of pharmaceutical contaminants from irrigation with rural sewage effluents in a newly funded project.
Collaborating with the Illinois State Water Survey, principal investigator Wei Zheng has begun a three-year study to investigate emerging contaminants, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), in fields irrigated with effluents from rural sewage treatment plants and to develop effective strategies to reduce the amount of contaminants transported to surface or groundwater.
Rural sewage effluent has great potential as an alternative to irrigation water, yet there are concerns about possible negative effects. Rural treatment plants are less effective at removing PPCPs compared to municipal wastewater treatment plants. Therefore, the use of effluents might pose a risk to surface and groundwater ecosystems.
Also, field tile drainage systems, which are commonly used in the Midwest, may accelerate the losses of these chemical contaminants from agricultural soils to nearby watersheds. The potential negative effects of using rural sewage effluent to irrigate tile-drained fields are essentially unknown.
In this project, the research team will conduct a series of laboratory, field, and numerical modeling studies to investigate the processes affecting contaminant transport, track the occurrence of PPCPs, and develop two cost-effective control techniques, oil capture and biochar-sorption channels.
The results will help federal and state agencies and farmers evaluate their current nontraditional water-use practices, inform science-based regulatory programs, and suggest best management strategies to minimize risks and promote the safe and beneficial use of nontraditional water in agriculture.
This story originally appeared in the April 2020 Food & Beverage Manufacturing News. This monthly newsletter, focused on sustainability for the food and beverage industry, is a service of ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) and is funded through a grant from U.S. EPA. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
COVID-19 is likely to have a prolonged impact on the health and well-being of residents in the greater Chicago foodshed which includes a 4-state region. A collaboration of local and regional food systems advocates created a matchmaking tool to connect needs and surplus in the Illinois institutional food system. Examples of listings include:
Those with a surplus of meat or vegetables that need a home
Those looking for local food to serve to displaced constituents
Those with a need for extra hands at their facilities (milkers, kitchen staff, drivers)
Those looking for job opportunities after their institution has closed or reduced labor
Those with additional storage space for food that needs to be preserved
In addition, the Wasted Food Action Alliance is conducting a survey [English, Spanish, Arabic] of small- and medium-size farms and for-profit and nonprofit food businesses/organizations impacted by COVID-19. This is not a one-time information-gathering process, but an ongoing effort to respond to challenges that can lead to a more sustainable food system. This is not a research project. You can complete the questionnaire multiple times as new challenges arise. Producers from all over Illinois are encouraged to complete the survey.
The Wasted Food Action Alliance is a diverse set of organizations helping build a unified approach towards reducing wasted food and leveraging it to benefit the state. Its mission is to develop a working strategy and action platform that makes Illinois a leader in reducing wasted food by connecting and building on current wasted food initiatives, education, and policy in unified ways that holistically promote source reduction; food recovery for hunger relief and other uses; and recovery of food scraps for composting and creating healthy soil.
A newly developed system in the lab could become a boon for farmers in the field. Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) scientist Wei Zheng and colleagues are creating a designer carbon-based biochar that captures phosphorus from tile drain runoff water and recycles it in soils to improve crop growth.
Zheng hypothesizes that this is a win-win strategy that will lead to increased crop yields and less nutrient runoff into water from agricultural fields.
Fertilizer phosphorus applied for plant growth tends to dissolve and leach out through field tile lines, so it promotes algae growth in nearby waterways. Harmful algal blooms (HAB) appear in lakes in the summer and die off once the growing season ends, contributing to oxygen-depleted waters, which result in fish kills and other adverse effects on aquatic life.
Zheng and his colleagues at the University of Illinois (U of I), the Illinois Farm Bureau, and other groups believe their strategy will address this problem. By installing a bioreactor in the field with a biochar-sorption filter, water that runs through the tile system is filtered to remove nutrients before it reaches lakes and streams.
The filter holds biochar—a biomass product that looks like charcoal and is made mostly of carbon with high calcium and magnesium—which traps fertilizer nutrients. The biomass is made into small pellets that won’t block water flow.
In the lab, Zheng is studying different types of designer biochars made from sawdust, grasses, or crop residue pretreated with lime sludge, for example, to find the one that is the most effective in capturing phosphorus.
“We have generated some designer biochars that have extremely high capacities for holding dissolved phosphorus,” Zheng said. “Our previous studies have shown that biochar can not only strongly adsorb nutrients such as phosphorus, but also has a high sorption capacity for other contaminants, such as pesticides and antibiotics.”
This year, Zheng and his collaborators will scale up their technology to develop a bioreactor and biochar-sorption-channel system for a field trial on a commercial farm in Fulton County. In the second year of the project, the team will establish a bioreactor system that is able to treat drainage water received from a 12-acre field. Water testing will confirm how successful the system is at reducing phosphorous runoff.
An additional part of the project, also slated for next year, is to remove biochar pellets from the channel after fertilizer season and apply the phosphorus-captured biochars to the fields where they will slowly release phosphorus and other nutrients into the soil. As a result, producers can keep fertilizer costs down and increase crop yields when applying the biochar pellets at optimal times in the growing season.
“The goal in adopting this technique is to keep applied phosphorus in the agricultural loop and prevent it from leaching into waterways,” Zheng said.
Benefits of a research team-organization collaboration
Illinois Farm Bureau is involved in this project at the state and Fulton County level to foster interactions between farmers and U of I researchers. Their participation helps to ensure that the research is focused on applicable, realistic practices for Illinois farmers, according to Lauren Lurkins of the Illinois Farm Bureau.
The Farm Bureau helps identify producers who are willing to participate in research and in funding and outreach opportunities, such as field days.
“Research including Wei’s can help to add practices to or update the science behind existing practices in the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy,” Lurkins said. “PRI has a lot of researchers and resources that our farmers utilize. They cover everything from groundwater for rural area consumption to weather monitoring, which are all important to agriculture.”
Results from the project are expected in 2023. It is funded by the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council.
On July 16, farmers and researchers came together at Fulton County Field Day. The event allowed researchers to showcase peer-reviewed applied science and demonstrate to working farmers that these conservation practices work. Individual farmers could then take aspects of what they learned and apply it in on their land.
ISTC researcher Wei Zheng demonstrated the system he has developed for using biochar to recycle nutrients from tile drainage systems. The project is funded through a grant from the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC).
The event was hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau, Fulton County Farm Bureau, Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Prairie Research Institute and University of Illinois Extension. Read more about the event in FarmWeek.
Zheng and team have proposed to combine a woodchip bioreactor with designer biochar at the tile drain outlet to capture phosphorus within the biochar. The biochar can be removed from the bioreactor system periodically and spread over the field as a form of slow release phosphorus fertilizer. They predict that the system will prevent excess nutrients from the phosphorus from entering local waterways and, if used throughout Illinois farmlands, will help reduce Illinois nutrient load to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.
Besides an inside look at Zheng’s research, the Field Day will feature additional research tours on vegetative buffer strips and drainage water recycling at the MWRD site, 15779 County Road 5, Cuba, IL. Registration starts at 11 a.m., followed by the tours from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Attendance is free, and lunch will be provided. Pre-registration is still available by calling the Fulton County Farm Bureau at 309-547-3011 or emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants in the environment are a growing cause for concern. One particular issue is the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Agriculture is often noted as a source of excessive antibiotic use. Over 70% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture. Overuse can encourage the selection of antibiotic-resistant genes (ARG).
To better understand the relationship between agricultural contamination and ARG abundance over a year-long period, ISTC researchers Wei Zheng and Laurel Dodgen contributed to a project led by Marquette University Professor Krassimira R. Hristova. The study was designed to characterize the emerging chemical contaminants and ARG profiles of 20 surface water locations in an area of Kewaunee County, WI which has an abundance of large-scale farms and where cattle outnumber humans 5 to 1. The team focused primarily on pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) and hormones. ISTC’s role was to analyze the PPCPs and hormones in the collected river water and sediment samples to help establish the relationship with ARG.
The results of the study were published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology in 2018. They suggest that Kewaunee County river sediments accumulate contaminants from non-point sources at a higher rate when manure is applied to farmland than when it is not. If these contaminants contain antibiotics, they can either directly increase or co-select for the increase of ARGs in the environment. The study provides a better understanding of how confined animal feeding operations and manure- fertilized farmland impact environmental and human health.
Zheng continues to collaborate with Marquette researchers to determine the chlortetracycline residues in river sediments and water samples and investigate its environmental fate and potential effects. The goal is to evaluate the relationship between the development of chlortetracycline-derived ARG and contaminant residues in the environment.
Midwestern farms use subsurface drainage to manage water on their fields. The process uses perforated conduits to remove excess water from soil, which increases crop production and promotes soil conservation. However, these drainage systems can also transport large quantities of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fields to surrounding watersheds.
ISTC researchers Wei Zheng and BK Sharma have received a $414,380 grant from the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council to develop designer biochars that will capture and recycle phosphorus from tile drainage systems. The project will run from January 1, 2019 – February 28, 2023.
The objectives of this project are to:
create designer biochars to effectively adsorb phosphorus,
construct refillable biochar-sorption-channels to capture phosphorus from subsurface tile drainage, and
recycle phosphorus-captured biochars as a slow-released fertilizer.
The overall project goal is to develop a method that will minimize nutrient losses, keep phosphorus in the closed agricultural loop, and improve crop yields by enhancing nutrient use efficiency.
The research team will conduct laboratory experiments to produce designer biochars by pyrolysis of biomass pre-treated with lime sludge, evaluate their sorption capacities on phosphorus, and optimize their production conditions.
The team will also complete a field study to capture phosphorus losses from subsurface drainage systems via biochar-sorption-channels. The field study will be performed at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Research site in Fulton County. Furthermore, they will conduct a greenhouse experiment to use phosphorus-captured biochars as a slow-released fertilizer to improve crop yields.
Finally, they will perform a cost-benefit analysis and compare their technique with other best management practices (BMPs) on phosphorus removal studied at the same field location.
The successful completion of this project will offer an innovative, feasible, and cost-effective method for enhancing nutrient utilization, which will increase crop production and protect water quality in the Midwest.
ECEC19 will be held on May 21-22, 2019, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign, IL. This year the conference will expand beyond the aquatic environment to also include air and soil studies along with effects on human and animal health.
The conference will feature presentations and posters on the latest in emerging contaminant research, policies, and outreach. In addition, there will be plenty of opportunities for discussion and networking with those interested in all aspects of emerging contaminants in the environment.
Researchers, educators, businesses, government officials, regulatory agencies, policy makers, outreach and extension professionals, environmental groups, members of the general public, and medical, veterinary, and public health professionals are encouraged to attend the conference.
For a number of farms in the Midwest, nitrapyrin is used to help hold nutrients in agricultural fields until the plants have a chance to use them. Nitrapyrin increases the availability of nitrogen fertilizer, which boosts crop production. Therefore, nitrapyrin can improve nitrogen use efficiency, reduce nutrient losses, and thereby mitigate eutrophication (excess nutrients spurring exponential growth of algae in lakes).
Nitrapyrin and other nitrogen inhibitors work by limiting the conversion of ammonium to nitrite (first step of nitrification). Nitrapyrin also restricts the formation of nitrate from nitrite (second step of nitrification). Nitrate is one of the major contributors to eutrophication.
While the use of nitrapyrin has benefits, concerns have been raised about whether its runoff from fields into nearby rivers and streams could have an impact on bacteria and the nitrification process in those water bodies. Even though nitrapyrin has been used as nitrification inhibitor and soil bactericide since the early 1970s, there is limited information on its fate and transport from fields into aquatic ecosystems.
As an initial step to quantify the amounts of nitrapyrin present in fields and streams, ISTC researchers Wei Zheng and Nancy Holm collaborated with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to undertake a one-year study of its occurrence in seven streams and nearby farm fields in Iowa and Illinois. The team examined the concentrations of nitrapyrin, its metabolities, and three widely used herbicides – acetochlor, atrazine, and metolachlor – in soil and water samples.
Results from their recently published article showed that nitrapyrin was found in many of the samples. It was sorbed to soil particles, transported from fields via overland flow, and leached into subsurface drains. In addition, all three herbicides were found in the stream samples with atrazine being the most concentrated of the three, especially at peak application times.
This research project extends the previously published pilot study on nitrapyrin by the USGS and is the first to show the transport of nitrapyrin from fields to streams over an entire year. In addition, this study is the first to describe nitrapyrin transport via subsurface drains, although those concentrations were much lower than surface concentrations. Studies such as this can help provide decision makers with a better understanding of the fate of chemicals applied to agroecosystems.