Cleaning Water with Fish Poop

Well, the folks are on a roll this weekend: this time, it’s my dad that pointed my to an AP article on experiments with using fish manure to clean water used to extract natural gas from coal-bed methane wells in Wyoming.

Ever since developers learned how to tap coal seams in the Powder River Basin for natural gas, they’ve struggled with what to do with the brackish groundwater that comes out first. A fish may be the answer.

Water is being pumped from coal-bed methane wells in rural, northern Wyoming to John Woiwode’s tilapia farm in an area where cattle roam. About 1,300 of the small, pink fish now delight in the water flipping, flopping and pooping in it.

It’s the squiggles of poop that interest researchers like Woiwode, and whether that waste could help make the water into a more usable asset instead of a pollutant…

Previous research found that using fish manure on crops irrigated with methane waste water could promote plant growth, accelerate the rate at which salt-tolerant plants take up salts and help keep soils from being gummed up by harmful levels of sodium. But if water not used by the plants can seep down below the root zone, and carry the sodium with it, the topsoil is not harmed. Tests using fish manure show that it has exactly that effect.

“Once it’s past the root zone, you have productive soil that can be sustainable for an indefinite period of time,” Woiwode said.

Fascinating! Of course, this work is still in the experimental stages, and there are hurdles to overcome — apparently, it takes a lot of talapia pooping to irrigate an acre of land. “I don’t see it as the be-all and end-all or the silver bullet,” [Woiwode] said. “We’re trying to build an agronomic model.”

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