Can biomimicry tackle our toughest water problems?

With floating islands and other inventions, eco-entrepreneur Bruce Kania thinks so.

  • Bruce Kania stands among dried fish from Fish Fry Lake in Montana. In 2013, Kania and crews of fishermen harvested more than 7,000 sunfish, bluegill and perch from the lake, removing 14 pounds of phosphorus in the process. He dries the fish for conversion into fertilizer and tropical fish food.

    Geoffrey Giller
  • The Shepherd Project is an experimental ranch where Floating Island International cleans water and provides habitat for fish and birds in Montana.

    Floating Island International
  • According to Bruce Kania, Fish Fry Lake is "the most productive wild fishery in Montana."

    Geoffrey Giller
  • Artificial islands can clean pollutants out of water with the help of microscopic creatures like diatoms and protozoa.

    Floating Island International
  • A bin full of nightcrawlers helps Floating Island break down underwater weeds.

    Geoffrey Giller

Bruce Kania stood over an open trapdoor, peering down precipitous stairs into a repurposed septic tank sunk in the middle of Fish Fry Lake. “Stay behind me, and do what I do,” he said, grasping the railing in bear-paw hands. A breeze teased his white hair and lifted his slacks at the left ankle to reveal the shaft of a prosthetic leg. “It gets tricky down there.”

And with that, the CEO of Floating Island International lowered his angular 6-foot-5-inch frame down the hatch.

I squinted into the concrete bowels. “It’s like entering a submarine,” Kania boomed from the depths. On a hazy summer morning, the dock seemed more appealing. Blackbirds flitted over the water; garter snakes plied the reeds; bluegill darted in the shallows. But while Fish Fry appeared to be Mother Nature’s handiwork, she was working for Kania, who dug out the lake in 2008. Like all the water bodies that dot Kania’s 340-acre spread in Shepherd, Montana, Fish Fry isn’t just an ecosystem: It’s a laboratory.  

When I wobbled down the stairs, I found Kania in a murky chamber, gazing out a window as though into a massive aquarium. The never-used septic tank had been lined with acrylic windows and converted into a viewing room on the pond floor. Perch and sunfish drifted in the gloom. Tadpoles bumped against the pane.

The lake’s good health, I knew, was unusual. According to a 2013 Environmental Protection Agency survey, almost 85 percent of lakes in the Northern Great Plains, the region that includes Shepherd, lack healthy ecosystems. Throughout the West, nearly a third of our river and stream miles are in poor condition. The culprit is often fertilizer runoff from fields and feedlots, which damages watersheds by birthing algal blooms and reducing oxygen. For all its virtues, the Clean Water Act doesn’t regulate such “nonpoint” pollutants — a loophole big enough to drive a tractor through.

“In the U.S., we’ve become masterful at growing food from the ground,” Kania reflected as fish danced in the window. In his fierce focus, blue eyes narrowed, he resembled one of the raptors that hunt in his meadows. “But in the process, we’ve sacrificed our water.”

Kania has spent the last decade trying to correct that imbalance through biomimicry, the concept of imitating natural processes to address environmental problems. Kania believes there are few ailments that copying nature can’t heal. The dead zones that plague the world’s oceans? Kania has a solution. The disappearance of wetland habitat? There’s a fix. Insect-borne diseases? The common cure for all, he says, lies in Floating Island International’s signature technology: buoyant artificial wetlands, nearly 6,000 of which are now deployed worldwide, from New Zealand to South Africa to China.

“Bruce has never been afraid of thinking outside the box,” Frank Stewart, a Bozeman engineer and frequent Kania collaborator, told me. “He’ll throw out something that sounds wild — and half the time, it works.” But can a self-taught scientist’s wild ideas save the West’s water? 

Building wetlands to capture pollution isn’t new. Scientists have long understood that natural wetlands act as landscape sponges, filtering sediment, nutrients and waste from rainwater and snowmelt. Despite this, civilizations on every continent have drained swamps and marshes and converted them to farmland. Today, the United States has half as many wetland acres as when Europeans arrived.

It was inevitable, then, that engineers would attempt to reconstruct what nature had lost. German scientists began building wetlands in the 1950s; American interest spiked in 1973, when an OPEC oil embargo pushed researchers to seek low-energy wastewater treatment methods. Constructed wetlands proved their worth in cities like Arcata, California, where an artificial marsh succeeded in filtering pollution and sheltering birds. The idea went global. “There have been wetlands built from the Arctic Circle to the tropics, from the starkest deserts to the lushest rainforests,” Jim Bays, senior ecologist at the engineering firm CH2M Hill, told me.

Kania didn’t know this when, drawn by the nearby Yellowstone River, he moved to Shepherd in 1999. But he learned quickly. Soon after he arrived, his black mutt, Rufus, swam in a pond on his new land. When the dog emerged, it was streaked with rust-colored scum.

Kania tracked down the red gunk’s provenance: It was a bloom of an algae-like organism called cyanobacteria, nourished by fertilizer from a 60-mile-long irrigation ditch that terminated on his land. In some places, blooms were toxic. This one wasn’t poisonous, but it was foul.

A less inquiring person might have bathed the dog and called it a day. But Kania is an inventor. As a boy in Wisconsin, he had lost his lower leg to a train; years later, annoyed by the way his prosthesis rubbed against his residual leg, he designed a gel liner that cushioned the connection. “You could put this material on a cement floor and punch it without hurting your hand,” Kania recalled. “The concept of finding this stuff — it was awesome.” He launched production in the mid-1990s. The experience left him with a hunger for solving problems, and his prosthetic-related inventions provided him royalties to do it. In his life, he’s worn many hats, from sporting goods manufacturer to ethanol investor. By the time he got to Shepherd, he found one that fit. 

As Kania researched cyanobacteria blooms, he realized the crisis transcended his land. The Yellowstone River is a branch of the Mississippi watershed, which deposits 1.7 million tons of nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico annually, generating blooms vast enough to see from space. The result is an oxygen-deprived swath, some years as large as New Jersey, devoid of marine life — a dead zone.

To Kania’s puzzle-loving brain, the dead zone suggested another business. First, he needed a team. He called Frank Stewart, an engineer with expertise in biofilms, communities of bacteria that cohere everywhere from streambeds to human teeth. Biofilms are notorious for clogging pipes and contaminating hospital equipment, but Stewart realized they were exactly what Kania’s smelly ponds needed. “If you have biofilm growing on rocks and plants, it will remove nutrients,” Stewart explained. “Fish and other aquatic organisms move it up the food chain, and it keeps the water cleaner.”

But biofilms can’t grow without help: The bacteria need surfaces on which to adhere, structure that many ponds lack. Kania turned to nature for inspiration. Back in Wisconsin, where he’d once worked as a fishing guide, the biggest muskies and bass had congregated beneath floating peat-bog islands, whose vegetation provided refuge and clean water. He wondered now if there was some way to replicate those wetlands — to create platforms for biofilms and habitat for wildlife. What nature had made in Wisconsin, Kania resolved to re-create in Shepherd. 

In a concrete-floored workshop near his house, Kania and a team of manufacturers built dozens of prototype platforms. They decided on a bristly mat, knitted from the fibers of recycled plastic bottles, whose crevices supported biofilms. They injected foam resin to make the plastic buoyant and drilled holes for wetland plants, like speedwell and monkey flower, whose roots absorb more nutrients. By 2005, they had their wetland –– a BioHaven, Kania called it — and a brand-new company, Floating Island International.

Word spread, aided by the evangelism of Kania and his wife, Anne, the company’s vice president. Floating Island International constructed 1,600 BioHavens in its first two years: in lakes, in ornamental gardens, in wastewater ponds. At first, empirical evidence documenting their effectiveness was scant. Some agencies shied away; skeptics suggested that FII might be overhyping its product. “We’ve tried their technology, and it works,” Steve Patterson, founder of a company called Bio x Design that makes its own wetlands, told me. “But they’re not just something that you can use anywhere and everywhere and magically clear your ­water up.”

Gradually, though, data rolled in. Floating wetlands, it appeared, had a major advantage over stationary ones: When water levels fluctuated, as they often did in stormwater ponds, Kania’s creations rose and fell on the surface, their performance unfazed. A suite of islands installed behind a museum in Durham, North Carolina, improved total nitrogen removal by almost 30 percent. Another increased ammonia removal from a Billings wastewater lagoon by 38 percent. New Zealand reported similar results. When Jim Bays of CH2M Hill conducted tests in Florida, he found the islands increased nitrogen uptake by 32 percent. “At this point, there’s definitely enough information to say that islands have an important place within the toolbox,” Bays said.

As municipalities and natural resource agencies came around, more uses cropped up. Kania’s wetlands removed de-icing chemicals from an airport stormwater pond in Maine; slowed the erosion of salt marshes in Louisiana; eliminated BPA from a tank full of betta fish at Billings West High School. The Army Corps of Engineers hired Floating Islands West, a California spin-off, to design a one-acre-square island to provide habitat for Caspian terns. Six months later, 258 breeding pairs had settled in.

Bruce Kania’s islands have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of everyone but Bruce Kania. But their inventor isn’t satisfied — he’s talked about tackling California’s dying Salton Sea, or building an island big enough to house refugees. And lately, his attention has migrated from floating wetlands to the fish that shelter beneath them.

That’s where Fish Fry Lake comes in. Within its diverse ecosystem, Kania explained, pesky excess nutrients don’t feed algae — they cycle up the food chain, from plankton to aquatic invertebrates to frogs and fish. Last year, he harvested over 7,000 fish from the lake, effectively removing 14 pounds of phosphorous. (Most of the fish were ground into fertilizer, though some wound up in the frying pan.) “This is probably the most productive wild fishery in Montana,” Kania said. 

The epitome of his new fishy focus, however, is his plan to control the West’s insect-borne diseases. And it is here that he has finally met resistance.

As Kania and I paced the edge of another pond he’d dug in his khaki-colored grasslands, we heard the rumble of an approaching pickup. From the once-white Ford Diesel emerged a stout, kindly man who introduced himself as Mike Penfold, former Montana director of the Bureau of Land Management.

Penfold wanted to talk about bad hunting. Last October, he’d floated Montana’s Marias River, hoping to bag a white-tailed deer. “I only saw one that was alive,” Penfold recalled. “I saw five or six carcasses down by the riverbank, and a very fat coyote.” He didn’t take a shot.

The deer had been stricken with epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, a midge-borne malady that killed hundreds of whitetails last fall. As he floated past the bodies, Penfold couldn’t help but feel that his former agency was at least partly responsible, not just for EHD, but for other Western outbreaks, like bluetongue and West Nile. “We operated hundreds of water sources all over the state,” he said — ponds for livestock and wildlife that doubled as insect breeding grounds. “We contributed to midge and mosquito development.”

So Penfold was excited about Kania’s latest plan: to fill Western ponds with larvae-devouring minnows alongside a new type of island, called a floating streambed, which pumps water through the wetland to expedite the nutrient-to-fish conversion. Last year, in a 1/10th-acre pond, Kania raised 72,000 fathead minnows and sticklebacks. Mosquitoes vanished. “You could put six minnows from this pond into water sources around the West,” Kania said. “We’d be resurrecting the food web in 12,000 ecosystems.” In stock tanks incapable of supporting fish, Kania wants to plant tiny islands, as small as three square feet, to attract invertebrate predators like dragonflies.

Though Penfold has approached former colleagues, agencies remain skeptical. “Putting new species into waterways is a big decision,” Dan Vermillion, chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission, told me. “This department has been burned before.” In the 1980s, mysis shrimp, planted to enhance kokanee salmon, wreaked havoc on Flathead Lake. Elsewhere, introduced mosquitofish have displaced native species — without controlling mosquitoes.

The commission informed Kania that a battery of studies would have to precede any minnow introduction program. While Kania acknowledged the need for research, he pointed out that sticklebacks and fatheads are native species. And diseases are ravaging wildlife now, he said. Isn’t the idea worth testing?

“Conceptually, using native species as biological controls is a good idea,” said Brad Shepard, senior aquatic scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Still, Shepard had concerns. Though the two minnow species are native to Montana, discrete populations might be genetically adapted to local conditions. “The ideal thing would be to have sources of fish very close to where he’s putting them.” 

Though Kania plans to test the idea on Montana’s Fort Belknap and Crow Indian reservations next spring, the most rigorous trials might occur on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Rather than applying for state grants, he’s courting the Gates Foundation in hopes of carrying out trials in malaria-plagued Africa. “Could the law of unintended consequences come back to haunt me?” Kania asked me. “I don’t know. But I do know this: What’s happening in these waterways is already ­unnatural.”

Later that morning, Kania led me to his minnow pond, a rectangular cut filled with water the color of weak coffee. He knelt in the brush, grabbed a length of twine, and hauled up a wire cage. Inside gleamed a pinky-length fathead. Kania cradled it in his palm, the hint of a paternal smile behind his beard. “Look at the size of him,” he said fondly. “That’s probably double what they’re supposed to weigh.” He admired the minnow a moment longer. Then he slipped the fish into the pond.

This story was originally titled "The biomimicrist" in the print edition.

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