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Director's ChoiceIn the Great Lakes Basin, the World’s Largest Phytotechnologies Field-testing Network Deploys Trees to Clean Water

 Agroforestry phytoremediation buffer system in southeastern Wisconsin.

Land use changes have disrupted terrestrial water cycles and impacted water quantity and quality across the Great Lakes Basin. Funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) to optimize ecological restoration, a project led by Northern Research Station researchers resulted in the development of the world’s largest phytotechnologies field-testing network, which consists of 16 agroforestry phytoremediation buffer systems (i.e., phytobuffers) in the Lake Superior and Lake Michigan watersheds.

The Laurentian Great Lakes Basin of eastern North America is the largest surface freshwater ecosystem in the world, containing 20 percent of global freshwater supply and 95 percent of the United States’ surface freshwater. Landfills, brownfields, and similar sites have contributed pollution via runoff (aboveground) and leakage (belowground) that has negatively impacted nearshore health. Northern Research Station scientists and partners created a phytobuffer network to clean contaminated soil, sludge, sediment, or groundwater—a process called phytoremediation. Optimizing ecological restoration with the phytobuffers depends on balancing the deployment of generalist varieties of poplars that remediate a broad range of contaminants across sites as well as specialists that are matched to specific pollutants and site conditions. New research by Northern Research Station scientists identifies poplar clones belonging to both groups with maximum phytoremediation potential. These data are useful for clonal selection to maximize ecosystem services in future phytotechnologies, regardless of specific site conditions or varieties deployed. Using generalists and specialists enhances the potential for phytoremediation best management practices that are geographically robust, being regionally designed, yet globally relevant. Phytobuffers developed as part of the GLRI help to reduce the uncertainty about using poplars for remediation and ecological restoration, with the long-term goal of providing landowners and site managers with environmentally friendly treatment options with benefits such as water quality improvement, stream bank stabilization, and forest cover enhancement.


Publications and Resources

Forest Service Partner

  • Edmund O. Bauer, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station (retired)

External Partners

  • Chung-Ho Lin and Brent DeBauche, Center for Agroforestry, School of Natural Resources, University of Missouri–Columbia
  • Joel G. Burken, Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering, Rolla
  • Andrej Pilipovic, Institute of Lowland Forestry and Environment, University of Novi Sad, Serbia
  • Larry Buechel, Environmental Legacy Management Group—Midwest, Waste Management, Inc., Menomonee Falls, WI
  • Bernie McMahon and Neil Nelson, Natural Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota Duluth
  • Mike Peterson, Environmental Legacy Management Group—Midwest, Waste Management, Inc., Menomonee Falls, WI
  • Ray Seegers, Waste Management of Wisconsin, Inc., Whitelaw, WI