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UF/IFAS plants flora to try to reduce pollutants going into lakes, rivers

BRADENTON, Fla. — Now, in the middle of summer, when those afternoon or evening rains come, stormwater from lawns, driveways and roofs drains down to any of the 76,000 stormwater ponds scattered around Florida.

As stormwater flows into these ponds, it can bring excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen with it. The pollutants can come from such sources as excess fertilizer, yard and pet waste.

Left untreated, phosphorus and nitrogen can wind up in natural bodies of water, such as nearby lakes and rivers. While stormwater ponds are built primarily to control flooding from rainwater, they’re also designed to remove nutrients that run off urban landscapes.

UF/IFAS researchers and Extension agents will study how well plants absorb nutrients that wind up in stormwater ponds. They hope to make stormwater pond plantings a Best Management Practice. Photo, courtesy, Michelle Atkinson, UF/IFAS Extension Manatee County.

Stormwater ponds don’t always meet this goal.

But University of Florida researchers are trying to change this. Specifically, researchers with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences want to use plants to absorb the nutrients in stormwater ponds.

They’re going to start their scientific quest this summer in Manatee County by installing plants in and around stormwater ponds – and, if they see success, they’ll take their project statewide.

“What we learn can be applied to existing and new stormwater ponds in Florida’s rapidly expanding residential landscapes,” said Basil Iannone, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of urban landscape ecology. “This is important because we need to find ways to limit the nutrients getting into Florida’s valuable water resources.”

Data are scant on how well plants control nutrients from escaping stormwater ponds.

That’s why UF/IFAS researchers are using a four-year, $197,000 EPA grant to find out more about how well plants control nitrogen and phosphorus. If the data show plants as beneficial, researchers hope to educate residents and businesses statewide to install plants as a Best Management Practice.

Iannone, principal investigator on the project, said the team will compare planted versus unplanted ponds in the plants’ ability to remove nutrients during the project.

“We want to see if the plants improve stormwater pond quality,” Iannone said. “We also want to gauge people’s willingness to adopt the idea of plantings, and we want to identify the best ways to educate people about the benefits of installing plants in and around stormwater ponds.”

In a prior project in Lakewood Ranch, also in Manatee  County, UF/IFAS researchers found 20% less phosphorus in areas of stormwater ponds with plants grown in the water.

As helpful as  plants might be, many residents view them as unsightly, according to UF/IFAS research. So, not only do scientists need proof that the plants keep the nutrients from escaping the stormwater ponds, they need the public to buy into the aesthetics of the plants.

Paul Monaghan, a UF/IFAS associate professor of agricultural education and communication, will lead efforts to identify the best educational approaches to promote planting as a Best Management Practice. That includes speaking to, and getting feedback from, stakeholder groups, such as residents and business owners.

One meeting will be held in fall 2022, one in spring 2023 and one in fall 2023. Contact Monaghan at paulf@ufl.edu for more information on those workshops.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

ifas.ufl.edu  @UF_IFAS