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In the Great Lakes Basin, Trees Are Improving Water and Ecosystem Health

Hybrid poplars planted to reduce runoff and filter subsurface water flow from a landfill in southeastern Wisconsin, USA. Photo by Ron Zalesny, USDA Forest Service

A project funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is greatly enhancing the knowledge-base about watershed-level benefits of phytoremediation, including projecting and measuring the volume of untreated urban runoff captured or treated at these sites. Northern Research Station scientists and partners are integrating phytoremediation potential of existing vegetation with strategically-planted phyto buffers in Great Lakes watersheds. In addition to improving water quality, the team is developing a green tool to stabilize stream banks, increase forest cover, and restore ecosystems, thereby enhancing nearshore health in the Great Lakes Basin.

Closed landfills, dumps, and similar sites within the Great Lakes basin contribute to nonpoint source pollution of nearshore health, especially given potential impacts of their runoff and leakage. Short rotation woody crops such as poplars and willows are ideal for phytoremediation (i.e., the direct use of plants to clean up contaminated soil and water) because they grow quickly, have extensive root systems and hydraulic control potential. Forest Service researchers have developed phyto-recurrent selection, a tool for choosing generalist plant varieties that remediate a broad range of contaminants, or specialist plants that are matched to specific pollutants. In addition, Forest Service partners have patented phytoforensic technologies that not only use plants for remediation, but also as site delineation for non-point source pollutants and as monitoring tools of remediation. In addition to projections of the volume of runoff captured and treated at these sites, project highlights for Fiscal Year 2018 include the enhancement of phyto-recurrent selection, phytoforensics, and associated tree health assessments that led to the establishment of phytoremediation systems at five landfills (four in southeastern Wisconsin; one in Michigan?s Upper Peninsula), bringing the total number of field-planted sites to ten over the last two years. In total, more than 10,000 trees have been planted, and additional testing was completed to identify superior varieties for deployment at five other landfills in 2019.


Research Partners

External Partners

  • Joel Burken, Missouri University of Science and Technology
  • Andrej Pilipovic, University of Novi Sad, Serbia
  • Larry Buechel, Waste Management, Inc.
  • Mike Peterson, Waste Management, Inc.
  • Ray Seegers, Waste Management, Inc.
  • Chung-Ho Lin, University of Missouri
  • William L. Headlee, University of Arkansas ? Monticello