fertilizer-research-small

Photo:  Matthew Bogard and Derek Donald, U of R graduate students. clean up their research site for the last time.


 

Saskatchewan has been chosen as a model to determine how fertilizers impact
lakes on earth.

Biologists from the University of Regina are part of a North American team of researchers who received a $ 2.8 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Their goal is to find out if urea – introduced in 1970 as a safe organic fertilizer-- is polluting lakes.

Matthew Bogard, a University of Regina graduate student, is conducting the preliminary
research. He gathered weekly water samples from the Wascana Lake from July to mid-
September.

“Wascana is a very good system because there is a lot of nutrients in it naturally and
unnaturally. There are nutrients getting in from both human effects and just from natural
landscape,” said Bogard.

Back in the lab he has been examining the nutrients in the lake and the amount of
nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon.

“Urea is the main fertilizer used across the province and throughout most of the world,”
said Bogard. “Our research is showing it makes its way into a lot of lakes around here.”

To explore the possible long term effects, he treated samples with urea, an organic
compound, in levels that range from what are found in lakes today, to what a
researchers may expect in 30 to 50 years.

“It’s the first time that we’ve really been able to show that there are detrimental effects
relating to the natural fertility of the lake,” says Peter Leavitt, University of Regina
biology professor.

“The interesting thing about urea is that it’s a really passive molecule. You can have a
glass of water at 10 per cent urea and drink it. It’s not a toxic compound ... so there’s no
reason for us to be worried about this on the surface. The problem is when you get a lot
of nutrients in a lake, you can start to get conditions in which the water quality is
degraded.”

Urea was not used in agriculture at all prior to 1970. The shift occurred however,
due to terrorism concerns. Old fertilizers can be converted into explosives. Also
because urea is better for plants. Now up to 70 per cent of all nitrogen used on farms in
Saskatchewan is urea.

Here is where Leavitt sees the problem.

“We have almost no idea what it does. If it stays on the farm, it’s good. If it gets off the
farm ...we’re a lot less certain what that is going to do to the water quality,” said Leavitt.

The area contributing water to Wascana Lake encompasses about 1400 square
kilometers.

The research team’s goal is to find enough evidence to prevent damage in the future.
“By learning more now before the problem gets out of control, we hope to completely
side step the problem in the future,” said Leavitt.

The preliminary results indicate urea is stimulating pathogenic bacteria, such as E-coli.
Leavitt says this also has many implications to a lake’s role as a greenhouse gas
source. Bacteria release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. If urea multiplies the
bacteria, so too will the carbon dioxide in the air.

The team will only have one chance at to examine a Saskatchewan lake and they want
to be armed with as much knowledge as possible.

“If this project works, nobody will know about it because we will circumvent the
problem,” said Leavitt. “It’s always nice to get patted on the back but I think really
preventing a problem would be the highest priority.”

Bogard expects his results by early 2010. Until the team feels ready to gather in
Saskatchewan to conduct the experiment, each university will continue to conduct small
scale studies on their own.

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