Staff Columnist

When politicians tread water, turn to middle schoolers

Beachgoers walk June 27, 2019, along the sidewalk leading to Lake Macbride State Park Beach in Solon. The lake saw its f
Beachgoers walk June 27, 2019, along the sidewalk leading to Lake Macbride State Park Beach in Solon. The lake saw its first-ever microcystin warning issued by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources last season following a harmful algae bloom. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Local researchers may have come up with a way to attack water toxins that have spawned swimming advisories and closed beaches at numerous Iowa lakes.

They’re students at Linn-Mar’s Oak Ridge Middle School in Marion. No big government grants. No pricey research facilities. Just smart kids with an intriguing idea.

So intriguing that the Oak Ridge LEGO League Blasters is one of just two teams from Iowa eligible to seek a berth in June’s FIRST LEGO Global Innovation competition at Disney’s Epcot.

“Every year they have to come up with an innovative solution to a real-world problem,” said Cathy Beke, who coaches the Blasters.

They considered tackling invasive species or traffic problems. But the team, made up of Nithin John, Ethan Norris, Tanvi Gopalam, Kyle Langston, Isaac Schneider, Nolan Carney, Rishitha Gadde and Kaleb Wesselink, voted to take on the scourge of blue-green algae.

Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer nutrients running off Iowa cropland into lakes feed large, rapid blooms of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria. As cyanobacteria grow and then die, they deprive aquatic life of needed oxygen. Algae die-offs spawn toxins known as microcystins that can cause serious health problems for humans and animals.

The process is known as eutrophication, and the Blasters have a possible solution.

“Lots of Iowa lakes are filled with blue-green algae that prevents people from swimming or fishing, as well as getting water from the lake. We decided to put diatoms and rotifers in the lakes because they will eat blue-green algae and reduce eutrophication without being invasive,” said Ethan Norris while showing the team’s contest presentation to your scribbling columnist.

The group surrounds a green blanket, playing the role of an algae-clogged lake.

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“RADFARMS, the radical solution to nutrient pollution,” the team says in unison, touting the tag line of its business plan — farming rotifers and diatoms for use in lakes.

Diatoms and rotifers are microorganisms that devour algae before it has a chance to sap oxygen and create toxins. The team got help from Adina Howe, an Iowa State University researcher who tests water in dozens of Iowa lakes. One test can identify the potential for an algae bloom a couple of weeks in advance, leaving time to deploy beneficial microorganisms.

The team also has received help and expertise from Marty St. Clair at Coe College, local farmer Curt Zingula and Morgan Hibbs of the Linn County Farm Bureau.

Students told me a rotifer farm, akin to a fish hatchery, would be a fairly cheap startup. A 5-gallon bucket, for example, can hold a lot of fast-reproducing, microscopic livestock. They have yet to do extensive testing, given the lack of algae blooming on our currently frozen lakes and ponds. But they know microorganisms have been deployed to attack other large-scale environmental issues, such as the proliferation of invasive carp.

Compared with other practices aimed at reducing the effects of nutrient runoff — bioreactors, buffer strips, cover crops, etc. — the Blasters’ idea is potentially dirt cheap. That fact got the Farm Bureau’s attention when the students recently made their pitch to the farm group. Farm Bureau has offered to pay for the team’s testing, Beke said.

It’s worth noting these kids know a lot about the serious, unresolved water quality issues facing Iowa. So they also know their idea treats a high-profile symptom of fertilizer runoff, not the root cause of the problem.

“This isn’t going to solve what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico. But it might help smaller lakes,” Beke said.

And frankly, if the state is going to continue to pursue its fully voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, real progress on root causes is going to be painfully slow.

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And who knows what the Golden Dome of Wisdom will or will not produce this session to address our dirty water.

So protecting Iowa’s multimillion-dollar lake tourism industry, aquatic life and our human health from the scourge of algae toxins is a worthwhile pursuit. If our politicians won’t help, turn to the middle schoolers.

And why not think big? Previous Oak Ridge LEGO League teams developed an award-wining, water-saving toilet and radiation-absorbing fiberglass for deep space travel.

The Blasters will find out April 15 if they’re headed to Disney in sunny June. Back here in Iowa, we can head to the lake and hit the beach. Maybe.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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