Breath of Clarity

Ecology Discussion #8: A

In order to re-establish working nutrient cycling systems, it is beneficial for humans to take action focused on increasing biodiversity. There are a variety of ways to do so. One strategy, implemented by California wine grape growers, is to enhance animal habitats. The growers set out nest boxes that became occupied by Insectivorous Western Bluebirds which helped to conserve the avian population (Jedlicka 2011). Insectivorous bird density nearly quadrupled, primarily due to a tenfold increase in Western Bluebird abundance (Jedlicka 2011). Moreover, as an estimate of the maximum foraging services provided by insectivorous birds, the study found that larval removal rates measured immediately below occupied boxes averaged 3.5 times greater than in the control group (Jedlicka 2011). Consequently the presence of Western Bluebirds in vineyard nest boxes strengthened ecosystem services to wine grape growers, illustrating a benefit of conservation practices (Jedlicka 2011). Additionally, Chan et al. (2006) used a conservation planning framework to explore the trade-offs and opportunities for aligning conservation goals for biodiversity with six ecosystem services: carbon storage, flood control, forage production, outdoor recreation, crop pollination, and water provision in the Central Coast of California (Chan et al. 2006). According to the study, strategically targeting only biodiversity plus the four non-agricultural services yielded the best results as it led to a relative biodiversity loss of 7% (Chan et al. 2006). I would explain my recommendation to the planner by drawing how a wastewater treatment facility would also help preserve biodiversity which includes sustaining the existence of humans. Pollution by untreated wastewater severely degrades aquatic and wetland ecosystems as sewage overflows contribute to excessive nutrient pollution that feeds harmful algal blooms (Cunningham and Gharipour 2018). As a result, harmful algal blooms suffocate organisms by blocking light and depleting oxygen sometimes producing hypoxic dead zones where no plant or animal life can survive (Cunningham and Gharipour 2018). Further, harmful algae blooms can cause illnesses in humans by direct contact or by exposure to toxic algal bacteria contamination in drinking water or seafood (Cunningham and Gharipour 2018). My intent is to show the functioning of nutrient cycles is dependent on the preservation of life and then suggest ways to enhance biodiversity.


Chan, Kai M.A., M. Rebecca Shaw, David R.Cameron, Emma C. Underwood, and Gretchen C. Daily. 2006. “Conservation Planning for Ecosystem Services.” PLOS Biology 4: e379. doi:10.1371/jornalpbio.0040379.

Cunningham, Caitlin and Mohammad Gharipour. 2018. “Pipe Dreams: Urban Wastewater Treatment for Biodiversity Protection”. Urban Science. 2 (10): 1-18. doi:10.3390/urbansci2010010

Jedlicka, Julie A., Russell Greenberg, and Deborah K. Letourneau. 2011. “Avian Conservation Practices Strengthen Ecosystem Services in California Vineyard.” PLOS ONE 6: e27347. doi: 10.1731/journal.pone.0027347.

Comment by Ed Piersa:

Mary –

I appreciate your argument for the preservation of biodiversity to re-establish nutrient cycling systems on Earth. Unfortunately, we have already exceeded the planetary boundary for genetic diversity:

As the Stockholm Resilience Centre (n.d.) explains, “The current high rates of ecosystem damage and extinction can be slowed by efforts to protect the integrity of living systems (the biosphere), enhancing habitat, and improving connectivity between ecosystems while maintaining the high agricultural productivity that humanity needs.” I would add to this explanation by proposing the elimination of the livestock sector. This sector’s elimination would not only help preserve biodiversity, it would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and releases of pathogens. In other words, it would be environmentally beneficial on a number of different levels.


Stockholm Resilience Centre. n.d. “The Nine Planetary Boundaries.” Accessed November 3, 2020.

Comment by Professor Fenton Kay:

Mary, good examples and ideas. I understand that there are some studies that have demonstrated that settling lagoons at wastewater facilities have some positive benefits and that using wastewater to develop wetlands, which filter the water into streams, etc. has a positive benefit. Do you think any of these sorts of ideas might resonate with your treatment plant folks?



My Comment:

Hi Fenton,

Yes, I figure the ideas would resonate with the city planner developing a proposal for a new wastewater treatment facility.

Specifically, using wastewater to develop wetlands, which filter the water into streams, would help increase biodiversity as the wetlands require vegetation that create nutrient balance by removing excess nutrients from the water.

Comment #2:

Original Post by Amanda Ruffini:

Humans may have contributed to the source of nutrient cycles but we also continue to impact and disrupt these nutrient cycles by emitting to GHGs and excess carbon, contributing to excess nitrogen or phosphorus into the water, and impacting ecosystems through resource depletion and biodiversity loss. However, nutrient cycle systems can be reestablished. The first strategy to accomplish this is to increase biodiversity. Different species contribute to different functions within the ecosystem that can aid in nutrient cycling. Naeem (1999) for instance mentions nitrogen-fixing trees that were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands. These trees increase the amount of essential nutrients in plant soil and enrich it. Beavers can alter soil fertility and tress succession and termites even play a critical role in soil fertility and ecological processes (Naeem 1999). Maintaining or increasing biodiversity allows these natural processes to play out instead of disrupting them by removing a species.

One study carried out by Jedlicka et al. (2011) looked at nest boxes that were used by wine grape growers in California to encourage avian conservation. Sustainable practices like this help enhance biodiversity and control pests. While at the same time, do not require large or excess amounts of pollution to enter the soil from pesticides and herbicides.

As Chapin et al. (2011) points out, agriculture requires replacing lost nutrients back to the soil, but has also resulted in nutrient pollution. Decreasing the amount of nutrients, like nitrogen, added to the soil, prevents the nutrient from leaching into water supplies and building up, causing overstimulation of bacteria, which depletes the oxygen, and impacts aquatic wildlife, humans, and causes NO2 release and the creation of nitrate. Adding a layer of nitrogen and phosphorous rich fertilizer at the beginning of the crop cycle can result in supply exceeding demand, which then results in the leaching. In a soil conservation class taken in undergrad, we had learned of other ways to provide fertilizer without it necessarily being a nitrogen rich one. For instance, farmers can apply layers of leaves to fields for decomposition. The process of decomposition then would release the necessary nutrients. We had also discussed the use of wood chips instead of fertilizer as well for the same purpose. However, this may be hard to do for large-scale agriculture.

Lastly, we can reduce the amount of carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients that is emitted into the atmosphere from human activity. Chapin et al. (2011) states that the use of fossil fuels has introduced large quantities of nitrogen and sulfur dioxides into the atmosphere and increased their inputs into ecosystems. Transitioning to clean energy can provide a means to reduce these inputs as less fossil fuel would be burned. Switching to electric vehicles, carpooling, wind or solar energy, and even less air travel can all help to reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned, thus reducing the amount of nutrients being released into the atmosphere or ecosystems.

When it comes to the wastewater treatment facility, I would want to make them aware how access nitrogen and phosphorous affects the aquatic ecosystem through nutrient build-up and the impacts that can have, as already explained. Helping to increase biodiversity around the site may aide in “processing” the nutrients in aiding in the cycle itself. I would also explain the importance of using more renewable energy to run the plant as fossil fuels will only increase carbon and nitrogen levels in the environment. As a side note, a wastewater treatment plant does not have to be built in the traditional manner as well. Constructed wetlands have been used to treat wastewater, which can filter nutrients and improve water quality, would not require the ecosystem to be disrupted at the same impact if built, and does not use fossil fuels to run. This could be a more viable option when it comes to environmental sustainability and helping to re-establish nutrient cycles.


Chapin III, F. Stuart, Pamela A. Matson, and Peter M. Vitousek. 2011. “Principles of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology”, 2nd Ed. New York: Springer.

Jedlicka, Julie A., Russell Greenberg, and Deborah K. Letourneau. 2011. “Avian Conservation Practices Strengthen Ecosystem Services in California Vineyard.” PLOS ONE 6: e27347. doi: 10.1731/journal.pone.0027347.

Naeem, Shahid, et. al. 1999. Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning: Maintaining Natural Life Support Processes. Issues in Ecology 4: 1-12.

My Response:

Hi Amanda,

Very awesome post showing how humans can re-establish working nutrient cycling systems. I am interested in your suggestion to implement constructed wetlands.

I found a video from Barratta Creek in Australia showing how a newly constructed wetland treatment system can be used to intercept water that comes from agricultural run off and improve reef water quality:

Constructed Wetland Treatment System – Barratta Creek

Further, another video depicts a research group at the Technical University of Catalonia who built a constructed wetlands pilot plant in the Laboratory in the Environmental Division:

Constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment

Response by Amanda Ruffini:


Thanks for the videos! I love studying wetlands, so I enjoy these types of videos a ton. Also, thank you for the constructed wetland video here in Spain. I took wetland ecology through our program and once of our papers, I discussed how constructed wetlands could be a solution for agricultural runoff here. Within our region, I know we have a couple that have been built, as well as rice fields that have been restored to wetlands as well to serve “wastetreatment” services.

I don’t know if I necessarily have a suggestion for implementing them necessarily, but believe they can be a cheaper and more environmentally friendly option to implement, as they natural improve water quality, is cheaper to create or to restore lost wetlands, still provide flood services, and can serve as biodiversity hotspots.

Comment #3:

Original Post by Taylor Day:

Human activities have greatly influenced the functioning of nutrient cycles by increasing their inputs through combustion of fossil fuels, addition of fertilizers, and planting of nitrogen fixing crops ultimately causing nutrient pollution (Chapin et al, 2011). Additionally, human activities can increase nutrient losses through inorganic leaching and erosion. In order to reestablish working nutrient cycling systems one solution to these issues includes reengineering our agricultural systems from small scale gardens and lawns to large scale industrial farms. Farmers and gardeners need to better regulate their use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers and manure through nutrient management. Furthermore, management of nutrient flow uptake can be achieved through dry wells, rainwater catchment, aerobic treatment, and bioremediation (Weyler 2018). For the issue of fossil fuels, the world must “go green” in terms of the cars they drive, and the way power is generated. Reducing the need for combustion turbines within vehicles and power plants will greatly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that are affecting the nutrient cycles. To address the development of a new wastewater treatment facility, I would recommend to the planner that they take action in reducing the impacts of eutrophication and pollution by developing a water resource recovery facility that recycles the nutrients from the wastewater. The recovery and reuse of nutrients through these facilities provides an opportunity to reduce the reliance on nutrient cycling and fundamentally change the way that wastestreams are managed (Khunjar 2017).


Khunjar, Wendell. 2017. “Extractive Nutrient Recovery is a Viable Nutrient Control Alternative for Water Resource Reclamation”. Hazen. (Links to an external site.)

Wyler, Rex. 2018. “How can we restore Earth’s nutrient cycles?” Greenpeace.

My Response:

Hi Taylor,

Great idea in terms of using a water resource recovery facility to reduce the impacts of eutrophication and pollution. According to a report (Links to an external site.) by the National Science Foundation and United States government, 80% of the energy embodied in wastewater is thermal which can be used to alternatively generate electricity.

Incorporating smart systems into the water resource recovery facilities caught my eye as they could use a host of sensors, software, and innovative equipment to track performance and inform plant operations. Smart systems would enable facilities to actively monitor the volume and content of incoming waste streams, supervise plant operations, and verify the safety or quality of outputs to enable real-time adjustments in processing parameters. These facilities could potentially scale up or down as needed to maintain economical operations under shifting conditions. Advanced technologies could support facility integration beyond traditional plant boundaries, e.g., enabling coordination with the local power company to facilitate demand-response activities.

The report also details both short and long-term room for extended research on the strategy.