They say there is no such thing as too much of a good thing, but the existence of eutrophication is an excellent example that proves otherwise. When aquatic bodies have an overabundance of nutrients, their entire system declines and can ultimately become unlivable.
What Is Eutrophication?
All living organisms need specific nutrients to survive. One may say that the more, the merrier, but too much can amplitude problems. This fact is particularly the case in aquatic ecosystems because they are dynamic.
Eutrophication is the natural process of aging lakes or ponds. It occurs when a body of water gradually builds up its concentration of plant nutrients, causing their oxygen supply to deplete. Cultural eutrophication takes place when human activity introduces increased large amounts of these nutrients, which accelerates plant growth and eventually choke the life out of lakes and ponds.
A Common Phenomenon
Tragic as it may seem, eutrophication is common among freshwater ecosystems. Like the formation of wrinkles and the decline of muscle strength in humans, eutrophication is part of the standard aging process of lakes and ponds. Some never experience the travesty due to the lack of sunlight surrounding the area, but many still do. Over time, these particular bodies of water change regarding how fertile or productive they are. While this varies for each lake or pond, those that are naturally fed rich nutrients from natural sources like rivers and streams are described as eutrophic, meaning they are nutrient-rich when it comes to plant and animal life.
In a sense, eutrophication isn’t necessarily harmful, nor is it a bad thing. However, the aging process can hasten artificially, forcing lakes, ponds, and their inhabitants to suffer as the growth of nutrients increase far beyond the natural pace and capacity.
What Accelerates Eutrophication?
No one wants to hear it, but human activities do almost always result in the destruction of the environment, and many man-made wastes often contain phosphates and nitrates. Phosphates are phosphorous compounds while nitrates are a compound of nitrogen that is mostly produced by bacteria. Plants require both of these compounds to grow and bloom. However, the excessive use of them in detergents and chemical fertilizers have substantially increased the amount of phosphates and nitrates that wash up in lakes and ponds. When this occurs in overbearing quantities, they act like fertilizer for plants and algae, speeding up their rate of growth.
The Role of Algae
Algae pertain to a diverse group of photosynthetic organisms or plant-like organisms that thrive in water. They are incredibly self-sustaining and can produce their food through the process of photosynthesis. When additional phosphates are added to a lake or pond, water plants begin to bloom explosively and result in the progression of algae growth. In the process, both plants and algae consume greater amounts of oxygen in the water, robbing fish and other species living their share of oxygen.
All algae eventually perish, and once they do, oxygen is required by bacteria to break down the dead algae and allow it to decompose. A cycle then begins wherein more bacteria decompose dead algae, consuming almost twice the amount of oxygen they require in the process. Bacteria then releases more phosphates, which ultimately feed more algae. When the cycle comes to a full circle, it inevitably lowers the oxygen level in the body of water, causing species such as fish and mollusks to suffocate and die.
The Effects of Eutrophication
Eutrophication can have serious, long-term effects. When the phenomenon becomes particularly intense, it generates unpleasant effects and environmental imbalances. In addition to looking dingy, it also prevents sunlight from reaching the water, preventing aquatic plants from photosynthesizing.
The other effects brought by eutrophication can be summarized by (1) an abundance of inorganic chemicals such ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which induce the formation of harmful substances; (2) an increase of organic substances that give the water undesirable odors and tastes; (3) the disappearance or significant reduction of healthy fish, which greatly affects the livelihood for local fishermen; (4) the possibility of inhibiting toxic algae that can harm the health of surrounding people and animals.
Controlling the Problem
Eutrophication continues to pose a serious threat to other living organisms that require the resources of lakes and ponds.
Today, the primary control mechanism of the eutrophic process revolves around prevention techniques such as the following:
1. Have More Shellfish
The shellfish estuaries naturally remove nitrogen from the water column and filters out suspended solids. Restoring the population of shellfish in lakes and ponds may reduce the likelihood of continuous algae growth. Shellfish are also known to improve water quality by consuming phytoplankton.
2. Minimize and Regulate Pollutants
This process involves controlling the phosphorous content and other chemicals found to promote eutrophication. It’s important to prevent them from entering bodies of water by intercepting non-point pollution sources before “testing the water” in a literal sense. Creating riparian buffer zones near waterways makes this successful and ensures sediments and nutrients are deposited in this buffer instead of the water.
In rare cases where water quality is already so compromised, it is highly regarded to implement the corrective procedure of draining and treating water rich in nutrients.
3. Practice Oxygenation
Oxygenation is the process of combining medication or other substances with oxygen. Oxygenizing lakes and ponds restore their ecological conditions, which reduce the harmful effects of eutrophication. The process also aims to eliminate problems such as scarcity of oxygen and the formation of toxic compounds.
4. Make Use of Biomanipulation
Biomanipulation is the deliberate alteration of an ecosystem by adding or removing species, particularly predators. Changing the fish population of lakes and ponds as a part of watershed management can facilitate desirable changes in aquatic ecosystems suffering from eutrophication.
5. Raising Awareness
This may seem obvious, but providing the public relevant information about the causes and harmful effects of eutrophication is one of the best ways to prevent or slow down the process.
The Final Verdict
Despite drastic improvements in water quality as a result of large-scale efforts to reduce nutrient enrichment, cultural eutrophication continues to be the primary cause of water pollution for many bodies of freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems. Only the collective efforts of government officers, scientists, and citizens will slow down this rapidly growing problem.