Could hemp be the answer to water pollution?

Cannabis Wealth speaks to Steve Edmonds, founder of the Hemp4Water Project about water pollution, biomass and how hemp may save our seas

When we think of hemp as a bioaccumulative plant, we often think of its use on polluted land or carbon in the air. But planting hemp may have even more uses than those on dry land. An initiative in Florida is using traditional ideas around hemp to clear local polluted waters.

Steve Edmonds established Hemp4Water in 2013 with a view to cleaning local Florida rivers and lakes of toxic pollution. That summer, an overflowing Lake Okeechobee, gallons of dumped pollution and rain flowed into the region’s rivers. This sparked a dangerous increase in toxic algae blooms.

Hemp4Water partnered with South Florida State College and is now a licensed pilot project directed at nitrogen and phosphorus.

“In the last century, decisions have been made to turn the natural ecosystem into a giant sewer system where everything flows into the basins, into the rivers and then into the lake. When that gets too much to deal with, they pump it into the sea,’ Steve said.

He added: “It’s a way to deal with the pollution. It’s a horrible idea and quite impactful on the environment.”

The resulting algae bloom contained Cyanobacteria. This bacteria can produce neuro and liver toxins that are poisonous to nearly all livestock, wildlife and humans. Several people became ill and some died have died from the outbreak.

Hemp4Water: A floating hemp island
Image rights: Hemp4Water Instagram

As part of their research into how to counteract the algae, the research team examined historic solutions for sewer systems such as the Aztecs or Mayans.

“Our organisation was split around what could be done. The root of the problem was the algae which is full of nitrogen and phosphorus. We thought if we could do something about both of these then we could at least reduce the algae blooms which are causing the damage,” Steve explained.

“The idea comes from ancient civilisations. We did our research into aquaponics to see what was out there. We discovered that several civilisations used aquaponics around their septic systems to clean up problematic areas. They all floated different crops on islands of marshlands so we mimicked that and ran with it.”

Hemp mats on the water

The project idea was to establish ‘mats’ where hemp could be grown and added to the lakes. The roots of the plant underwater are able to absorb the nitrogen. Meanwhile, the parts of the plant above water are able to absorb carbon from the air.

Steve said: “We need surface areas that are spread sporadically across the lake. After about a year, roughly 30 plants per mat with enough mats equal to a square acre would pull out around 7 million pounds of nitrogen and 960,000 pounds of phosphorus. That’s about the same amount of nutrients being added to the lake each year. If we can put a kilometre in then we can take one or two out to take care of the problem and start to work on the legacy pollution that is already there.”

The technology belongs to a company called Bio haven. Its team can manufacture the maps to any specification or configuration that the project needs. This currently works out to hold roughly 30 plants each at a cost of $500. Each mat then needs to be shipped to Florida, or the other cities taking part, which also costs hundreds.

Hemp4Water: A floating hemp island
Image rights: Hemp4Water Instagram

Although the project has now scaled up to include Louisiana and Michigan, the team are hoping for more funding to expand even further. But as every non-profit knows, funding, especially post-Covid, can be difficult.

Steve said: “Finding funding is extremely tenuous. A lot of grants and public funding really turn their noses away when you say cannabis or hemp. Even though we are working on all these laws and people don’t see it as taboo anymore, most of the bureaucrats don’t want to know. It’s been a challenge in that respect as we live on donations.”

The mats also create the opportunity for biomass fuels too. Greener energy is under the spotlight at the moment due to a global energy crisis and also, a worldwide commitment to reducing carbon footprints by 2050. The hemp mats could provide a valuable source of biomass through harvesting.

Hemp4Water: A floating hemp island
Image rights: Hemp4Water

“Once the mats are installed, they need to be replaced every second year by harvesting. With our programme, you have islands that are protected from wildlife. We harvest it out and replace it with new clones. We are going to put clones in with six to twelve inches of good root balls that are ready to go

We should be cycling out every three months which is going to create a lot of biomass. The great thing about this plant is that it can be used for a whole host of things including fertiliser, building materials or even textiles. You pull mature plants out, put young plants in then you keep that growth cycle going while supporting the markets that severely need it,” Steve said.

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