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Harvesting invasive plants to reduce nutrient loads and produce bioenergy: an assessment of Great Lakes coastal wetlands
- Carson, Brendan D., Lishawa, Shane C., Tuchman, Nancy C., Monks, Andrew M., Lawrence, Beth A., Albert, Dennis A.
- Ecosphere 2018 v.9 no.6 pp. e02320
- Phalaris arundinacea, Phragmites australis, adaptive management, agricultural soils, anaerobic digesters, biogas, biomass, burning, composts, ecosystem services, ecosystems, energy, growing season, habitats, invasive species, mechanical harvesting, nitrogen, oils, phosphorus, pollution load, runoff, species diversity, surveys, wetland plants, wetlands, Lake Ontario
- In Laurentian Great Lakes coastal wetlands (GLCWs), dominant emergent invasive plants are expanding their ranges and compromising the unique habitat and ecosystem service values that these ecosystems provide. Herbiciding and burning to control invasive plants have not been effective in part because neither strategy addresses the most common root cause of invasion, nutrient enrichment. Mechanical harvesting is an alternative approach that removes tissue‐bound phosphorus and nitrogen and can increase wetland plant diversity and aquatic connectivity between wetland and lacustrine systems. In this study, we used data from three years of Great Lakes‐wide wetland plant surveys, published literature, and bioenergy analyses to quantify the overall areal extent of GLCWs, the extent and biomass of the three most dominant invasive plants, the pools of nitrogen and phosphorus contained within their biomass, and the potential for harvesting this biomass to remediate nutrient runoff and produce renewable energy. Of the approximately 212,000 ha of GLCWs, three invasive plants (invasive cattail, common reed, and reed canary grass) dominated 76,825 ha (36%). The coastal wetlands of Lake Ontario exhibited the highest proportion of invasive dominance (57%) of any of the Great Lakes, primarily from cattail. A single growing season's biomass of these invasive plants across all GLCWs was estimated at 659,545 metric tons: 163,228 metric tons of reed canary grass, 270,474 metric tons of common reed, and 225,843 metric tons of invasive cattail, and estimated to contain 10,805 and 1144 metric tons of nitrogen and phosphorus, respectively. A one‐time harvest and utilization for energy of this biomass would provide the gross equivalent of 1.8 million barrels of oil if combusted, or 0.9 million barrels of oil if converted to biogas in an anaerobic digester. We discuss the potential for mitigating non‐point source nutrient pollution with invasive wetland plant removal, and other potential uses for the harvested biomass, including compost and direct application to agricultural soils. Finally, we describe the research and adaptive management program we have built around this concept, and point to current limitations to the implementation of large‐scale invasive plant harvesting.