Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Environment: Living Machines and Water Resources

What follows is a guest essay by Layne Darfler, a junior at Paul Smith’s College majoring in Environmental Studies. She is from Hudson Falls, NY. This is part of our series of essays by young people from Paul Smith’s College.

What if there were a way to become more sustainable and recycle more than the everyday paper, plastic, or cans? What if we could recycle nature? It seems almost impossible since the guy on TV just told us the Earth is dying, but in reality there is a lot we can still do to help our planet. How about recycling the rain?
Storm-water runoff is when rain comes down off of roofs, onto pavement, sometimes into sewer systems, and into our waterways, eventually making it into water supplies and large bodies of water. The contaminants along with the soil being carried by the runoff pollute the waters and degrade the habitat of fish and other aquatic life. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that storm-water runoff is responsible for over 20% of polluted lakes and 45% of polluted estuaries — more than any point-source of pollution. Wells that people use for drinking water are also being affected by contaminated water. The U.S. Geological Survey reports in a press release dated March 23, 2009 that more than 20 percent of private wells surveyed contained at least one contaminant at a high enough level to raise health concerns.

So how do we stop it?

Many people create rain gardens so that rain is less likely to make it to the streets. But what if we captured the rain, cleaned it, and reused it for household activities like irrigation of plants, toilets, or even drinking water? Could it be done?

The answer is yes. Living Machines are a very simple household answer to storm water problems. They could even be the solution to flooding basements. A living machine is a series of tanks teeming with live plants, trees, grasses and algae, small fish, tiny freshwater shrimp, snails, and a diversity of microorganisms and bacteria. Each tank is a different mini-ecosystem designed to eat or break down waste. The magic lies in understanding how the organisms interact and combining them just right so that they can soak up the nutrients they love, helping them grow while providing us with clean – if not drinkable – water. These machines are designed to be self-organized systems where all the operator has to do is simply put the plants into the tanks and the plants will do the rest, just as if they were in a natural ecosystem.

Robert Livingston of Hudson Falls is a former teacher of mine, with whom I have been working on building a simple gravity-powered living machine. He knows just how much good a living machine can do for any type of building and how much fun it can be to create ecosystems. To show high school classes how ecosystems cleanse the water, a working model had to be built. Reusing materials such a water cooler jugs and old garden hoses, we created a world of cleaning.

First tank was our septic tank, highest in elevation; this was simply filled with dirty pond water from a horse field. Next bucket was the anaerobic reactor where we had a lot of soil and a lot of rock to begin capturing bacteria and slime. Then we had another bucket called a consumer cell, which housed cattails and contained some goldfish; the roots from the cattails are the main filter for this bucket because they will soak in any unneeded nutrients. The next bucket down was also a consumer cell with a different variety of life. This bucket had more soft-soil wetland plants whereas the previous one had compacted-soil plants. To get these plants we simply went into wetlands and found suitable species. “Whichever organisms are best suited to the function of our living machine can survive,” Livingston would say. “It’s like a battle royale, ecostyle.” Goldfish can come from a pet shop. But the bacterial communities come straight from the local environment.

The second-to-last bucket we had was a producer cell, which has to be in the most direct sunlight. This bucket contains algae, phytoplankton, and zooplankton and is used to capture any leftover nutrients still in the water. Finally our last bucket was our rain barrel. This is where our end product would come out and we would test this water to see if our process worked.

“These are smart machines because they are able to adjust, almost as needed, to the different stresses that the system will be subjected to,” says Livingston.

The process is chemical-free, odor-free (with the exception perhaps of the sweet fragrance of flowers), and, compared to conventional waste treatment, it costs less financially and ecologically. It also takes about four days to turn mucky water crystal clear.

Many colleges have already incorporated living machines into their campuses to decrease their impact on the Earth and have found success. Oberlin College in Ohio uses a living machine system as a research laboratory and educational tool for students and faculty. The Oberlin living machine is designed to use ecological principles to handle up to 2,000 gallons of wastewater from a building in a beautiful, gardenlike atmosphere. The college’s web page states, “A team of student operators and lab assistants maintain and monitor the treatment performance of the Living Machine. This dedicated group’s responsibilities include monitoring of water quality parameters, horticultural and pest management, general cleaning and organization, maintenance of data collection equipment, sample collection and assessment of water quality in the laboratory, and educating each other on the structure and mechanisms of the Living Machine.”

So why should we here at Paul Smith’s College care about living machines and what they could do for our campus? It’s simple. We are directly on a lake, Lower St. Regis, and our cars and buildings and pavement all contain chemicals, nutrients, and unnatural products that get washed into the lake during storms. By incorporating a living machine we could minimize this effect dramatically.

Paul Smith’s website states, “Part of being the College of the Adirondacks means promoting healthy, sustainable development and encouraging environmental awareness. That’s even part of our mission statement.” So my question is: Why is it that if you canoe next to the student center you see an orange algae-like substance coming out of a rusty pipe? I think we should feel a responsibility to protect our lake.

Tony Tufano, Director of Facilities, explained, “The orange substance is in fact a bacteria. It is an iron fixing [eating] bacteria that is found naturally in our lake but is feasting on our drain pipe and eating away at the insides of our drain pipe. We cannot put any chemicals in the pipe to kill the bacteria off because it does flow out to the lake. It was recommended we could try using hydrogen peroxide, which a very mild chemical to introduce to the environment, but we have never done so. Instead, to make sure we are keeping the drain pipe functional we use a high-pressure power washer and clear the pipe out every few months just using straight water. It does discharge the bacteria back out into the lake, but that is where they are coming from to begin with.”

And still my question remains the same. If we are such an environmentally friendly campus, why do we have a drain pipe that is flushing storm water directly into our lake? Adding a simple living machine to the end of this pipe and then allowing the cleaner and much safer water go into the lake is something that could easily help protect our waters.

As John Todd, the inventor of Living Machines, said in his keynote address at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference at Penn State in February, “Ecological design leaves this difficult planning to nature’s three billion years of testing through trial and error.” He has scattered more than 20 large industrial Living Machines around the world, with smaller machines operating in schools, rest stops, and communities. Ecological design allows these to succeed even though many of the natural processes at work remain rather mysterious.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

One Response

  1. uncle mike says:

    nice article layne. it would be nice to see these living machine relpace the ugle holes in the ground (DRAs) we see for new development. i’ve been involed in our environment since the first earth day and i still don’t see much of a change. the general public is so mis informed. not all bugs are bad. most are good. (bugs = bacteria)nice job on the article. don’t stop writting. there are too many knuckleheads who think the world is endless toilet. thanks
    uncle mike

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