Study finds controlling phosphorus pollution in wetlands more important than believed

DURHAM, N.C. A study led by a Duke University scientist suggests that the current emphasis on controlling upstream nitrogen pollution fails to adequately address the impacts on water quality of another potential contaminant, phosphorus. Thus, according to the scientists, current strategies used by environmental managers to control excessive nutrients in coastal wetlands may not achieve their intended goals.

The finding was published in a report in the Friday, Jan. 24, 2003, issue of the journal Science by Pallaoor Venkatesh Sundareshwar, a research associate and instructor at the Duke University Wetland Center in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and co-authors James Morris and Brandon Fornwalt from the University of South Carolina at Columbia, and Eric Koepfler from Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sundareshwar and his co-authors worked in a pristine wetland at the University of South Carolina's Baruch Marine Field Laboratory, near Georgetown, where organisms' natural interactions could be studied in the absence of human-caused pollution.

Both the phosphorus originating in upstream fertilizer applications, and the nitrogen derived from lawn and agricultural fertilizers or animal livestock operations can run off the land and flow downstream to shallow wetland estuaries, where they can cause algae blooms and fish kills that can threaten critical seafood nursery areas.

Managers have emphasized controlling nitrogen because that nutrient can lead to highly visible algae "blooms" in estuaries, which can turn the water green, Sundareshwar said in an interview. "People tend to be driven by what they see. But what we have shown is that's not the whole truth; there is a major response to phosphorus by bacteria, which you can't see."

By treating test plots with measured amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus

Contact: Monte Basgall
Duke University

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