What is the context of this research?
Until 1991, Iraq's marshes were remarkably resilient. For over 5,000 years they supplied construction material, fuel, livestock fodder, and protein (fish and waterfowl) that supported the world's oldest, longest-lived urban civilization.
Transitioning from freshwater backswamps along the Tigris and Euphrates, across the vast, watery inland delta, though ever-saltier zones to the coast, beds of giant reed (Arundo), cattail (Typha), reed (Phragmites), rushes (Juncus), bulrushes (Cyperus and Scirpus), cord grass (Spartina), and salt grass (Distichlus) formed a checkerboard of emerald carpets - much as they do here in our South Carolina Low Country. Well-adapted to harsh climatic cycles that included flood, aridity, hyper-saline, and gypsiferous conditions, these plant communities included strains adapted to various, and variable, soil and water chemistry. Following environmental disturbance, marshes quickly re-established, populated by whichever species and strains best-tolerated the new conditions.
However, the 1991 Gulf War kicked off a chain of events so disruptive that even this hardy system could not recover. Over 15,000 square miles of marshland were forcibly drained. Upstream damming shut down 90% of the rivers' freshwater flow. Irrigation return water from central Iraq - contaminated with herbicides, pesticides, petrochemicals, and salts flushed from agricultural soils - was piped directly into the few remaining patches of wetland, or directly into the Gulf.
These engineering actions desolated vast tracts of land so quickly that plant communities never had a chance to re-adapt. By desiccating hatchery habitat and drastically altering water salinity, they also collapsed both fresh and salt-water fisheries.
Attempts to restore the marshes have been only marginally successful: there simply isn't enough fresh water to re-flood more than a fraction of their former extent - and what remains is too far away to provide environmental support to far-distant Basra.
What is the significance of this project?
Iraq's marshes suffered engineered destruction within the course of a single decade - but here in the United States, coastal wetlands have suffered and continued to suffer similar degradation on a much slower, but also much larger scale. Due to off-take for agricultural, industrial, and urban consumption, the Colorado River no longer reaches its own delta, let alone its former outlet in the Sea of Cortez. Its once-lush marshlands, home to otter, herons, and jaguar at the time of Spanish first contact, are long gone.
World-wide, dozens of rivers have met the same fate. Under stress from industrial development, sea-level change, and climatic change, since 1932, Louisiana has lost nearly one-quarter of its coastal land area - about 1,900 square miles. Over half of the Florida Everglades has been converted to agriculture. Diversion of those waters has slowed aquifer recharge, resulting in salt water intrusion into Miami's drinking water supply.
We know that constructed marshes can be (and have been) used effectively for (fresh) waste water treatment, at far lower cost than conventional treatment plants. Further, constructed coastal (tidal) salt marshes have been used effectively to halt erosion and mitigate storm damage. We seek to harness these kinds of successes to a new endeavor: that of reclaiming waste water from oil drilling and refining, using it to construct a test marsh, and comparing the result, in terms of biomass production and outflow water quality, to results obtained from test marshes built for (freshwater) sewage treatment and (brackish) irrigation return water.
Plant strains from communities identified as most successful under each condition will then be micro-propogated, and used to populate chains of marshes constructed to manage Basra's urban and industrial waste water streams.
If successful, the project will revitalize villages left high and dry by the previously engineered destruction, restore (at least some) environmental services to the larger cities - and serve as a living laboratory for new remediation techniques, with world-wide application.
What are the goals of the project?
With this funding, by May 2014, we will meet with land donors, survey the proposed sites, and collect soil and water samples. Over the summer, we will analyze them to determine the mix of specific plants and microorganisms best suited to these tough conditions. Then we will prepare the detailed engineering plan and commence construction.
We have already assembled the team, obtained in-country support, identified a willing land donor, set a date and time for the survey, and have hosts who will cover our ground costs.This funding will pay for our international flights to attend these meetings and collect samples. Stretch funding will pay lab fees and support lab assistants to process our pilot soil and water samples.
Our overarching goal is to test whether we can effectively use waste water and waste land to construct salt marshes that will treat the contaminated water.
Over the next two years, we will establish test beds to rapidly assess the best mix of salt-tolerant marsh grasses to:
Goal 1: Bio-remediate contaminants to prevent illness and death in humans, livestock, fish, wildlife, and their supporting ecosystems.
Goal 2: Increase plant biomass production to augment human food and animal fodder supplies.
Goal 3: Provide nursery habitat for fish, shellfish, and waterfowl to augment food production.
Goal 4: Improve and stabilize surface and ground water quality to promote human, livestock, fisheries, and ecosystem health.
Goal 5: Augment downstream water supply for post-mediation usage.