Mary Beth Lane |The Columbus Dispatch

BUCKEYE LAKE — A wetlands research site has joined the scene at Buckeye Lake, hosting a long-term experiment that might someday help cleanse the lake of the blue-green algae blooms that foul the water each summer.

It could take as long as a decade before any conclusions can be drawn, but wetlands expert William Mitsch and a multi-university team of researchers from Ohio State University, Kenyon College and other institutions think they are on to something with the “wetlaculture” project they are conducting in a field in Buckeye Lake village. Wetlaculture combines wetlands and agriculture.

Mitsch, an Ohio State environmental science professor emeritus who built and directed the university’s Olentangy River Wetland Research Park and now directs the Everglades Wetland Research Park based at Florida Gulf Coast University in Naples, Florida, is posing this question:

Can a wetlands capture and retain storm water runoff carrying the soil nutrients phosphorous and nitrogen in sufficient quantities so the wetlands could later be recycled into farmland capable of growing crops without additional fertilizer?

As it is now, decades of storm water runoff carrying manure, sewage and fertilizer have washed into Buckeye Lake, accumulating a thick bottom layer of the soil nutrients that feed the growth of toxic blue-green algae.

If enough nutrients can be retained in the wetlands to grow crops without fertilizer, that will be a win for both clean water and farming, Mitsch said.

“The only sustainable solution is to ask Mother Nature to work it out,” he said. “It’s the idea of creating and restoring ecosystems for the benefits of us humans and the benefits of nature.”

Local residents and businesspeople are excited about the research project. The project joins the planning organization Buckeye Lake 2030, the clean-water group Buckeye Lake for Tomorrow and other community groups discussing what the region should look like after the state completes its estimated $110 million dam project. The dam is scheduled for completion next year, replacing the nearly 200-year-old earthen dam that was deemed at risk of failure.

Veterinarian Doug Poorman has allowed Mitsch to plant the experiment on part of his marshy 14-acre spread behind the Petplex Animal Hospital he owns on Walnut Road.

“The region is looking to improve itself as a whole and we thought this would be a great way to bring something of value to the community,” Poorman said.

The research is separate from but intersects with efforts by Buckeye Lake for Tomorrow to clean up the lake. The nonprofit volunteer organization has been working since 2008 with local farmers and others to reduce the phosphorous and nitrogen sources running into the lake.

The organization’s regular sampling and testing of the tributaries flowing into the lake and the lake itself shows that cleaner water is flowing in than is flowing out, said Steve DeBruin, a local veterinarian who, like Poorman, is active in the group. The sediment-layered lake bottom now is the chief culprit feeding the algae bloom, he said.

“We know there is no easy fix,” DeBruin said.

On Poorman’s land, Mitsch and his team of graduate students have built individual “mesocosms,” or simulation mini-wetlands.

They are growing bulrush in 28 soil-filled tubs that are irrigated by a plumbing system that carries water by gravity downhill from three tanks installed along the South Fork of the Licking River. The river water, which is fed by Buckeye Lake and thus, is dense in soil nutrients, is pumped into the tanks by a gas-fired generator.

The research includes loading water into the tubs at different rates and at different depths, and regularly sampling it.

Bing Bing Jiang, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida who is among the researchers working with Mitsch, takes samples every two weeks. She turns on the inflow spigots plumbed into the tubs and then uses a turkey baster to draw water samples from the enclosed outflow pipes connected to the tubs. She deposits the samples into plastic bottles, boxes them up and mails them to Mitsch’s lab at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The compiled sampling data will show which approach has worked fastest and best to accumulate enough nutrients to grow a little batch of corn or another crop at the site. If that works, the team will use mathematical models to scale up the project to a full landsc

In the full landscape that Mitsch envisions, a nutrient-dense wetlands would be drained and converted to farming, and then another nearby piece of farmland would be made into a wetlands to start the process again — cycle after cycle.

The plumbing, supplies and other work to build the mini-wetlands cost about $30,000, funded by a grant from Buckeye Lake 2030 and other private donations, said Mitsch, who plans to build an identical mini-wetlands in Naples as part of the wetlaculture research.

The project has interested Poorman enough that he now is thinking about turning another part of his marshy land into a larger wetlands park that could serve as an outdoor classroom for students interested in learning about ecology.