Industrial Hemp the Latest Tool for Bioremediation

Industrial Hemp the Latest Tool for Bioremediation

Hemp4Water Making Progress in Mission to Clean Lake Okeechobee.

By HEATHER MACHOVINA

Reports of blue-green algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee and the canal leading from the lake to the St. Lucie River began in April this year. Not only do these large blooms hurt the overall ecosystem, but they can release toxins like cyanobacteria, which are associated with liver disease and neurological disorders in humans. According to the Lake Okeechobee News, one sample taken June 23, 2020, from near the Port Mayaca Lock had a toxin level of 800 micrograms per liter, which is 100 times higher than what is considered safe for human recreational contact, although most samples taken from surrounding areas had no toxins or very low levels of toxins present. Nutrient pollution in Lake Okeechobee is the largest contributing issue to algae blooms. 

If I told you industrial hemp could be the solution to our major algae bloom concerns in Florida, what would you think? If we could remove the causal agents, excess nitrogen and phosphorus, from our natural waterways, drastically reducing the problematic algae growth, wouldn’t it restore species populations overall? Months of research among Hemp4Water and partners at South Florida State College have brought us closer to battling the blooming monster of our beautiful Lake O and surrounding waterways. 

Hemp4Water is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization on a mission to use industrial hemp to clean the rivers and lakes of excess nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as educate people about cleaning up our waterways. Under the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Industrial Hemp Pilot Project, and in partnership with South Florida State College, Hemp4Water is permitted to cultivate industrial hemp and has been working relentlessly at the Avon Park campus over the last 3 months to arrive at this pivotal point in the journey. 

“In our research, we’re finally getting to the point of stabilization,” says Steve Edmonds Jr., founder of Hemp4Water. 

“We’re actually going to be doing, not preliminary data collection, but solid research collection with real verifiable, reproducible data on four different strains.” 

As with anything new, the last few months at Avon Park have been filled with learning and developing new procedures, protocols and screenings; figuring out what works, what doesn’t work, and starting to get a pattern down for something that can be regularly measured with consistency. Hemp4Water and college partners have been working with two lakes on the Avon Park campus at South Florida State College, each with a BioHaven Floating Island, housing hemp plants. They have been trying different genetics by putting plants through the absolute worst conditions and selecting the hardiest, most resilient strains to advance with. Currently, they have selected four hemp strains to move forward with in studying, developing, and cultivating. “These plants need to be able to handle living on these BioHaven Floating Islands unattended, in the dead zone of Lake Okeechobee, in the Florida brutal sun and heat, with no pest protection, and no rain for days,” says Edmonds.

One hemp cultivar, Tenacious E, is the oldest surviving plant in the project so far. It only looks to be a few weeks old, although it has been surviving through rigorous conditions for months. The plant has been sprayed with herbicide, drowned by a fountain, blown by near tornado strength winds and still lives on. This is one of the strong lines of genetics that will continue to be studied in the next phase.

Currently, the research and calculations predict that a 1-square-kilometer BioHaven Floating Island of hemp plants will be able to conservatively remove 900,000 pounds of phosphorus and 7 million pounds of nitrogen from the water in Lake O in just one year! The ongoing research and funding for both the college agriculture program and Hemp4Water nonprofit organization are essential for the coming months of progress and research continuation. Two separate scientists have joined the project recently and estimate that nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Lake Okeechobee could be restored to natural levels within five to 10 years based on the data and research up to this point. 

So, what’s the next step? Let’s get to cleaning!

At the end of June, Hemp4Water broke ground on a piece of property in Martin County on the rim canal of Lake Okeechobee. Here they will plant ¼ acre each of the four selected hemp strains in the soil to obtain land number comparisons, and analyze against those grown on the water at the Avon Park campus. Because the percentage of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water is higher than that of the soil, the water-grown plants should, in theory, take in a higher amount of each nutrient during their growth cycle. Furthermore, they will put four BioHaven Floating Islands on the canal here so they can also collect direct data from Lake Okeechobee. 

“Ultimately, it is our intent to tackle the worst problem in the state first, and that is cleaning up Lake Okeechobee,” Edmonds says. “This isn’t a Band-Aid. I think we’re actually on a path that might provide a solution.”

To learn more about the project and the nonprofit organization, visit their site at  Hemp4Water.org