Wetlands clean selenium from agricultural runoff

Berkeley - Researchers from the University of California have found a natural detox program for selenium-contaminated farm runoff in the form of wetland vegetation and microbes.

Results from a two-year study by UC Berkeley researchers show that man-made wetlands in the state's San Joaquin Valley were able to remove an average of 69.2 percent of the selenium in agricultural drainage water. More significantly, some plant populations showed remarkable promise at converting selenium into a harmless gas consisting primarily of dimethyl selenide. That means less of the selenium would end up in sediment or plant tissue.

The new study, published online Wednesday, Jan. 1, in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, follows previous research at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif. The researchers found that wetland ponds built in Richmond could take out as much as 89 percent of the selenium from millions of gallons a day of refinery discharge, preventing it from reaching San Francisco Bay.

"We thought that if wetlands could filter selenium from oil refinery wastewater, then they could probably be used for agricultural runoff," said Norman Terry, professor of plant biology at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and principal investigator of the study. "We're basically learning that some of the best, most efficient filters for pollutants can be found in nature."

Terry said the entire wetland ecosystem is acting as a bio-geo-chemical filter. "Everything is working in concert to take the selenium out of the drainage water," said Terry. "The extensive root system of the plants slows down the water flow so the selenium gets trapped in the sediment. The plants also provide a source of fixed carbon to fuel microbes, which metabolize the selenium into non-toxic gas. It is truly an amazing process."

The UC Berkeley research is part of a larger project funded by the UC Salinity/Drainage Program. The program involves re

Contact: Sarah Yang
University of California - Berkeley

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