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Ecological Restoration: Cleaning the Fisherville Mill Canal

by gmoke
Mon Jul 23rd, 2012 at 07:37:25 PM EST

The Fisherville Mill Canal on the Blackstone River in Grafton, MA has been contaminated for decades by #6 fuel oil in its waters.  John Todd Ecological Design ( with the participation of the town of Grafton, USEPA, MA DEP, MA Audubon Society, Blackstone Headwaters Coalition, Clark University, Brown University, US National Park Service, Fisherville Redevelopment Corporation, Fungi Perfecti Inc, and others began a bioremediation project cleaning the water with natural processes on May 27, 2012.  This approach to remediation includes

microbial, fungal, plant and animal biodiversity supported by engineered habitats for the ecosystems.  Ecological design uses biodiversity in lieu of high-energy mechanical and chemical systems.

Oil contaminated water from the bottom of the canal is pumped through tubes filled with gravel for filtration into the greenhouse to be sprayed on fungal mycellium beds and then flows into a series of six aquatic cells, large transparent tanks filled with water, each comprising a different highly diverse aquatic ecological system.  From the greenhouse, the water is pumped to an artificial floating marsh-like system known as a restorer, with plants that grow above the surface of the canal and root systems that extend below the water, providing habitat for a variety of micro-organisms which remove contaminants from the water in the canal.  The greenhouse treats five hundred gallons of water per day, five hundred gallons full of diverse and beneficial life is pumped back into the canal each day.   John guesstimates that the restorer filters about 100,000 gallons of water per day.  This whole system is an eco-machine, a working ecological chemostat.

Tests show there has been a 75% reduction in petroleum contaminants in the treated water since the beginning of the project on May 27, 2012, according to the initial results which came in on July 17, 2012 from samples taken on June 15, 2012.

"The purpose of this project is to prove the efficacy of natural systems to remove complex contaminents from the Fisherville Mill Canal."
 The hope is it will also improve water quality downstream.

I learned about this project on a visit to Falmouth, MA to see John and Nancy Todd, two of the founders of New Alchemy Institute and old friends.  John has been doing ecological design since the 1960s and his speciality is water and waste treatment.  On this project, he included fungi as part of his ecological restoration system and is working with Paul Stamets, a well-known expert on mycology, for the first time.

It was exciting to be there on the day that the first test results from the Fisherville Mill Canal arrived.  

Here are John's fundamental principles of ecological design:

Geological and mineral diversity must be present to evolve the biological responsiveness of rich soils.

Nutrient reservoirs are essential to keep such essentials as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available for the plants.

Steep gradients between subcomponents must be engineered into the system to enable the biological elements to evolve rapidly to assist in the breakdown of toxic materials.

High rates of exchange must be created by maximizing surface areas that house the bacteria that determine the metabolism of the system and facilitate treatment.

Periodic and random pulsed exchanges improve performance.  Just as random perturbations foster resilience in nature, in living technologies altering water flow creates self-organization in the system.

Cellular design is the structural model as it is in nature where cells are the organizing unit.  Expansion of the system should also use a cellular model, as in increasing the number of tanks.

A law of the minimum must be incorporated.  At least three ecosystems such as a marsh, a pond, and a terrestrial area are needed to perform the assigned function and maintain overall stability.

Microbial communities must be introduced periodically from the natural world to maintain diversity and facilitate evolutionary processes.

Photosynthetic foundations are essential as oxygen-producing plants foster ecosystems that require less energy, aeration, and chemical management.

Phylogenetic diversity must be encouraged as a range of aquatic animals from the unicellular to snails to fish are as essential to the evolution and self-maintenance of the system as the plants.

Sequenced and repeated seedings are part of maintenance as a self-contained system cannot be isolated but must be interlinked through gaseous, nutrient, mineral, and biological pathways to the external environment.

Ecological design should reflect the macrocosmos in the microcosmos, representing the natural world miniaturized and reflecting its proportions, as in terrestrial to oceanic and aquatic areas.

from A Safe and Sustainable World:  The Promise of Ecological Design by Nancy Jack Todd
Washington:  Island Press, 2005
ISBN 1-55963-778-1

You can see many examples of John's work, including another canal restoration project in China, by visiting his website:

The Challenge of Appalachia:  Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World r-a-Carbon-Neutral-World

From Coal to a Carbon Neutral World:  Ecological Design for Appalachia Design-for-Appalachia

Sidestepping the Impasse:  Zero Emissions to Ecological Design al-Design

Ecological Design for Geoengineering

Zero Emissions Resources

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More ecological restoration?
. yes 100%
. no 0%
. not yes 0%
. not no 0%
. neither yes nor no 0%
. both yes and no 0%
. don't understand the question? 0%
. none of the above 0%

Votes: 5
Results | Other Polls
My initial response to such technology is highly positive.  It reminds me of an article in last month which discussed how Los Angeles was specifically creating wetlands on old waste land sites, and using them as natural sewage treatment systems.

However, I do wonder - where does the fuel oil end up?  Is it concentrated in some end biological organism?  Does it end up as sludge at the bottom of the restoration tanks?  Is it digested and broken up by the process?  What exactly happens to it?

by Zwackus on Tue Jul 24th, 2012 at 09:43:18 AM EST
Fuel oil is mostly hydrocarbons, I presume they are being oxidised to CO2 and water.
by njh on Thu Jul 26th, 2012 at 12:42:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I couldn't follow how you went from 500 gallons a day to 100,000 a day.

I think I missed something somewhere

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jul 24th, 2012 at 11:14:09 AM EST
I couldn't quite follow that either, my best guess is that the 500gal returned to the stream puts the appropriate organisms into the water, and by now it has reached a steady state where the introduced organisms over the last x days are also consuming fuel oil in an equivalent of 100000gal of water.
by njh on Thu Jul 26th, 2012 at 12:45:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
500 gallons per day is filtered through the greenhouse and then applied to the restorer in the canal.  The restorer itself floats on top of the canal and the roots of the plants in the restorer filter an estimated 100,000 gallons of water in the canal per day.

Solar IS Civil Defense
by gmoke on Thu Jul 26th, 2012 at 03:53:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - Ecological Restoration: Cleaning the Fisherville Mill Canal
Periodic and random pulsed exchanges improve performance.  Just as random perturbations foster resilience in nature, in living technologies altering water flow creates self-organization in the system.

very tidily put...

this sentence rang all the bells.

thanks for a great diary, the Todds and Stamets are heroes, you are lucky to work with them.

if we take one step towards nature, she will take ten towards us.

It's a fine line between homage, parody, and consumer opportunism. Jess Walter

by melo (melometa4(at) on Wed Jul 25th, 2012 at 12:13:50 PM EST
I don't work with the Todds or Stamets.  Don't have the background or experience.  Have known John and Nancy Todd since the early 1970s and they used to call me their Boston representative for New Alchemy Institute, undeservedly.  

Solar IS Civil Defense
by gmoke on Fri Jul 27th, 2012 at 04:31:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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