USF granted funds to clean tainted waters


Florida’s crystal clear waters and colorful aquatic life often depicted in postcards may be endangered by a recent outbreak of noxious algae.

James Mihelcic, a USF civil and environmental engineering professor and leader of the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), said the exessive algae taints the water and deprives the organisms living in it of nutrients and oxygen. 

“There is a hypoxic zone the size of New Jersey floating around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted USF $2.22 million to start a national research center dedicated to protecting waterways from the harmful effects of storm water and wastewater runoff contributing to algae growth.

The growth occurs when runoff from agricultural fields and misapplied fertilizer contaminates the water, he said. Wastewater also results from poorly maintained septic tanks.

USF researchers aim to develop water treatment technology to remove nitrogen and phosphorous that nourish the algae’s growth.

Mihelcic began the application process in the fall of 2012, accumulating hundreds of pages of interdisciplinary research from colleagues from USF and other universities, such as University of Texas-Austin and University of Maryland. 

Mihelcic said he believes his proposal was chosen because of its emphasis on community building and making the case that Tampa was a model location for the research. The application was submitted in January last year, but the idea was one he’s had for nearly fifteen years. 

“In the late ’90s, I was in a program for engineers that partnered with the Peace Corps,” he said, where he traveled to countries such as Bolivia, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. “So when I would traveled outside the U.S., it got me thinking about solutions – about integrating communities, which was not very common for engineers in the U.S. to think. Everything here tends to be centralized in an engaged community.” 

Before going abroad, Mihelcic said he viewed engineering as being reactionary – treating pollution once it happened. But since then, he’s moved from that mindset to one of sustainability – looking at the problems and figuring out ways to prevent them, which is CUTR’s main focus.

Another major mission of CUTR is to reach out to members of the community, namely children and economically challenged neighborhoods. Mihelcic said this component of community was one of the distinguishing differences from other applications for the grant. 

Sarina Ergas, a USF professor of civil and environmental engineering, is heading the aspect of the center that studies indirect causes of harmful nutrients that enter water systems. One of the most important sources the center is addressing, she said, is its effort to educate the community. 

“One way that we can try to reduce nutrient loading into Tampa Bay is by educating children about environmental stewardship and what they can do personally to reduce their waste,” she said. 

Mihelcic said Florida and the Tampa Bay region is the ideal location for this type of research. 

“Florida is a really good test bed, because most its major cities are along an important waterway,” he said. “Most of the world’s population lives along the ocean, along a lake, along a river and those regions are quickly urbanizing. This urban infrastructure and this increasing affluence that has led to changes in how nutrients (from storm water and wastewater runoff) move through the environment.”

Mihelcic said the ultimate goal of the center is not only to clean waterways, but address the polluting source. 

“We’re addressing the issue holistically,” he said. “It’s about our social, economical and environmental well-being. Our job is to develop the management tools to prevent the pollution.”