December 10, 2010
Senior Katherine “Kate” M. Wright is spearheading a fight against the algae invading Indiana’s lakes and streams. The Indiana Wildlife Federation’s (IWF) first Campus Ecology Fellow is encouraging colleges across the state to stop using lawn fertilizers that feed the green menace.
Phosphorus is a primary ingredient in most fertilizers, helping plants build strong root systems and replenishing soil that has been stripped of its minerals by intensive farming. It's possible, however, to have too much of a good thing. A 2004 Purdue University survey of Indiana lawns found that 89 percent required no additional phosphorus for healthy growth. On these lawns, excess phosphorus from fertilizer simply washes away into larger bodies of water, beginning a downward spiral called eutrophication.
“Algae thrive on phosphorus, so it spreads quickly, creating large blooms,” Wright explains. “The blooms create cover over the water, and underwater plants die because they can’t photosynthesize. Fish and other underwater animals die because there is less dissolved oxygen in the water.”
If slimy green water filled with dead fish isn’t enough to scare people away, there’s more. Some blue-green algae produce toxins that pose a threat to humans, whether by swimming in the water or by eating fish from the source. Lakes and rivers throughout the Midwest have been marked as dangerous as a result, and even reservoirs have been tainted by algal blooms.
Wright has spent her fellowship building relationships with colleges across Indiana, nudging them towards adopting the phosphorus-free initiative. She has found that groundskeepers and administrators are understandably nervous about changing their landscaping practices, fearing a drop-off in the aesthetics of the green lawns and blooming flower beds that students such as Wright walk past every day.
“The landscape that we have here is designed to showcase the campus,” Wright says. “If it didn’t look as nice, people wouldn’t think that DePauw is as nice a place to live.”
Wright points out, however, that there are already examples where sustainable landscaping has matched or exceeded common methods. In May 2008, DePauw’s Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics became the first building in Indiana to receive a Gold rating for energy efficiency and environmental design from the U.S. Green Building Council. Its landscaping not only added to the natural beauty of the site, but also contributed to its high marks as a green building.
“People think that if you use native plants or stop using certain types of fertilizer, that things will be less pretty. But that’s not true,” Wright says. “At Prindle, for instance, the entire grounds are landscaped with native plants. People go on tours there, then go outside and say, ‘Wow, this is really pretty!’ Prindle actually got credits toward its Gold certification because of its landscape.”
Last summer, she began developing a multi-tiered campus plan on behalf of IWF. The plan contains guidelines for fertilizer, pesticide and herbicides, water use, native plants and invasive species, providing multiple avenues to address campus sustainability. Colleges can pursue different levels of certification through the plan, which can then create bridges to other, more rigorous certifications such as the IWF Wildlife-Friendly Habitat certification.
“What’s really great about the campus plan,” Wright says, “is that schools that are interested in landscape sustainability—but are not yet willing to commit to going phosphorus-free—can explore other options.
“Some schools I’ve spoken with are already active,” she says. “Ball State University and Marian University have been phosphorus-free for some time now. There are places such as Goshen College that are considering five-year plans for planting certain sections of their campus with native plants, and I believe that Earlham College plants along roadways to help filter off toxins. Other schools want to know more before they commit to anything. We’re talking to student organizations in hopes that they can provide feedback that they are interested in landscaping issues as well, so there’s not just pressure from outsiders.”
Wright, a biology major, has spent much of her time at DePauw advocating similar issues. She is a long-time member of the DePauw Environmental Club and has focused her studies on the issue of replacing ornamental plants, which require extra water and fertilizer to thrive, with native flora. When DePauw President Brian W. Casey discussed his campus plan recently, one comment in particular caught her attention.
“I thought it was heartening that he mentioned native plants as a potential addition to our campus, Wright says. “I think that’s very promising in terms of what direction this University is going with its landscape.”