City study uses bacteria-based product to reduce algae blooms

City study uses bacteria-based product to reduce algae blooms
Ducks and fish contend with algae in their living space in Riverside Park.

It may seem counterintuitive but introducing bacteria into stormwater ponds could be the very thing that tips the scales toward making the waterways healthier. 

The City of Jacksonville’s Environmental Quality Division (EQD) will be doing just that during an 18-month study of nine stormwater ponds during which Microbe-Lift, a blend of specially formulated strains of bacteria used by landscape, irrigation and pond professionals, will be applied to the ponds to help reduce the amount of total nitrogen. Nitrogen is a food source for algae, which can harm plants, animals and people.

The study, a partnership between the City, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board (JEPB) and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) was funded with more than $300,000 in donations, grants and in-kind contributions. 

Specialists began applying the product to the ponds in June, after six months of baseline sampling. Treatments will continue through June 2020, and sampling of the treated ponds will continue for six additional months to help determine treatment maintenance needs. Nine non-treated ponds will also be sampled as a control group. 

The goal is a 60% reduction in total nitrogen, more than double the amount achieved by more traditional methods, according to Melissa Long, chief of the City’s EQD. “If we can reduce total nitrogen, we are hoping to make an impact on the river and see less algae growth. That’s something the City is really trying to do, and this is an innovative approach,” she said. “If this is successful and we do see the reduction that we are hoping to see, we will potentially use this around the city in all of our stormwater ponds, which collectively will make a huge difference – it should actually reduce the total nitrogen going into our tributaries and then to the St. Johns River.” 

A 2015 pilot study conducted on three ponds – two at the Jacksonville Zoo and one at the duck pond in Riverside Park – yielded varying results with an average of 60% total nitrogen reduction as well as an 80% reduction in fecal coliform bacteria. Since then, the formula has been tweaked, according to Long, and the tweaked formula is what is being used for the study. “The DEP recommended if we wanted to use this product to remove total nitrogen, more studies needed to be done – and that is what we are doing here.”

Microbe-Lift has been used worldwide in aquariums, koi ponds and aquaculture and has been proven effective in those environments. “We are changing the way that it’s being used here, said Long. “It’s not innovative in the fact that its being used in ponds; it’s innovative in the fact that we are using it to reduce total nitrogen.”

The study will contribute to meeting a statewide mandate to reduce total nitrogen levels by an additional 53 metric tons before the end of 2023. Because of Jacksonville’s size and population, it must reduce more nitrogen than any other municipality in Florida. Sources of nitrogen in Florida’s water include fertilizer, wastewater treatment facilities, septic systems, livestock waste, and polluted rain. Conventional treatments include street sweeping, septic tank phase-outs, and adding baffle boxes, where possible.

SJRWMD approved Microbe-Lift for stormwater ponds under its cost sharing program, awarding a $53,000 grant toward construction costs. “This innovative project, once it gets to full scale and we’ve gone through the pilot program, has the potential to improve the water quality in the lower St. Johns River – which is what we are after,” said Dale Jenkins, chief of the SJRWMD’s Bureau of Project Management.

A large creator of retention ponds, FDOT contributed $92,000 to help the project move forward. “We are not only road builders, but we are also community partners,” said Hampton Ray, community outreach manager with FDOT. “Making sure that we have the opportunity to improve our environment is important to us, and this is something the department identified as a way to help mitigate some of those issues.”

The JEPB, which is responsible for developing regulations necessary for administration and enforcement of the city’s environmental laws, is a big supporter of the project and contributed more than $136,000. Board Member David Wood explained that part of the board’s role is to manage the trust fund and allocate it for the best possible uses. 

“We try to find projects that will move the needle to improve the environmental quality in the City of Jacksonville. When the City set out the targets with regard to water quality – some of which would be difficult to attain with conventional means – and then explained the potential of this project, we were interested,” he said. “What I like about this effort is all the scientific groundwork has been laid. At the end of the study, proper statistics will be used to draw scientific conclusions about the efficacy of the treatment and whether it’s favorable or unfavorable. If the results are unfavorable, we can move on and look for other innovate ways to improve water quality. If they are favorable, the City may have found a resource to help improve water quality.”

According to Douglas Dent, technical director at Ecological Laboratories, the creator of Microbe-Life, use of the product restored a tremendously polluted waterway in Cape Coral and is being used to clean rivers in China and Indonesia. He said the product causes no ill effects to the level of biology in the water. “You will actually see an increase in the water quality, meaning that it’s better for the fish life and all the marine fauna and flora.”

The Microbe-Lift product was evaluated through the FDEP innovative product assessment program and approved for use in stormwater treatment. While no harmful effects have been noted, the City is advising residents to avoid the following treatment sites:

  • FDOT pond at the intersection of Alamo Street and Huntsford Road
  • City pond at the intersection of Kona Avenue and Century Street
  • FDOT pond at the southwest intersection of I-295 and Lee Road
  • City pond at the intersection of Ft. Caroline Road and Spanish Oaks Drive.
  • City pond just north of Ansley at Harts Road apartment complex at 11011 Harts Road
  • City pond just west of 7914 Pritchard Road
  • FDOT pond at 10420 General Avenue
  • City pond at 2581 Commonwealth Avenue (COJ Fleet Maintenance)
  • FDOT pond at the southwest intersection of Forest Street and Myrtle Avenue

For more information, visit or contact the Environmental Quality Division at (904) 255-7100.

By Kandace Lankford
Resident Community News

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