Nutrient pollution is a costly and challenging environmental problem, and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water. Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems. Nitrogen is also the most abundant element in the air we breathe. Nitrogen and phosphorus support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish and smaller organisms that live in water. But when too much nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment – usually from a wide range of human activities – the air and water can become polluted.
Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Significant increases in algae harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Large growths of algae are called algal blooms and they can severely reduce or eliminate oxygen in the water, leading to illnesses in fish and the death of large numbers of fish. Some algal blooms are harmful to humans because they produce elevated toxins and bacterial growth that can make people sick if they come into contact with polluted water, consume tainted fish or shellfish, or drink contaminated water.
This process is also known as eutrophication. Excessive amounts of nutrients can lead to more serious problems such as low levels of oxygen dissolved in the water. Severe algal growth blocks light that is needed for plants, such as seagrasses, to grow. When the algae and seagrass die, they decay. In the process of decay, the oxygen in the water is used up and this leads to low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. This, in turn, can kill fish, crabs, oysters, and other aquatic animals.
Nutrients come from a variety of different sources. They can occur naturally as a result of weathering of rocks and soil in the watershed and they can also come from the ocean due to mixing of water currents. Scientists are most interested in the nutrients that are related to people living in the coastal zone because human-related inputs are much greater than natural inputs. Because there are increasingly more people living in coastal areas, there are more nutrients entering our coastal waters from wastewater treatment facilities, runoff from land in urban areas during rains, and from farming.
Victor Krantz is a master grower for The Bucket Company. He has been involved with the agriculture industry for 30 years producing a wide variety of food crops and setting up commercial greenhouses in many different states. You can find them on Instagram @thebucketcompany or @cookiesandcreamfarm. Victor may be contacted directly at 727.424.0132.