Good Toilets = Healthy Waters = More Coral = More Fish

by Daniel Delgado

Leaving the world a better place than how you found it is my definition of living a good life. When I was accepted into the Strong Coasts program, I was excited by my new potential to live a good life. Strong Coasts is a recently developed community-engaged training and research program for the University of South Florida and the University of the Virgin Islands that focuses on the connections between food, energy, and water systems (FEWS) in coastal zones. It is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation through a National Research Traineeship program. Although a new program, Strong Coasts builds on the work of Drs. Maya Trotz, Rebecca Zarger, and Christine Prouty who have collectively been working in Belize for many years. The program partners engineers, anthropologists, and marine scientists with coastal communities to identify food, water, energy challenges and solutions, and co-create knowledge.

During our first field trip to Belize in June 2019, the larger group was split into pairs to address four different topics. As an environmental engineer I was paired with Alex Webb, an anthropologist, to look at toilet systems on the cayes. Not only the type of toilet — composting, flushed with rainwater, flushed with seawater — but also the treatment systems. These treatment systems are important in managing the nutrients (e.g. as liquid fertilizer or biosolids/compost) and bacteria in human waste entering the surrounding waters. Nutrients and bacteria in large enough amounts can have a negative impact on human health and aquatic life, this includes fish and coral reefs that surround the cayes. We visited several cayes, all with slightly different toilet and treatment systems, to get a better understanding of the situation on the ground and in the water.

Dr. Christine Prouty, Strong Coasts Program Coordinator and Research Scientist, shows the NRT cohort the treatment system for the two toilets at LBCNP. Her own doctoral research looked at adoption of systems that recover resources like water and nutrients, and she worked with Mr. Luis Garcia, CEO of Ecofriendly Solutions, who installed this system.

At Laughing Bird Caye National Park (LBCNP), we snorkeled around the caye with Fragments of Hope (FoH), a Placencia based organization committed to coral restoration. Thanks to Monique Vernon, Victor Faux, Avelino Franco, and Natasha ??, we learned of the restoration work done to increase coral cover from 6% in 2016 to over 50% in 2019. We also learned about problems facing the coral reef; seeing first hand mats of algae entangled in the corals on the side of the toilets. Lisa Carne, the executive director of FoH, raises alarms whenever these very visual “biomarkers” appear at LBCNP. FoH and the Southern Environmental Association, managers of LBCNP, supported the move of the old toilet to the new site with larger tanks and additional treatment steps. Without water quality samples to measure nutrient concentrations around LBCP, the algae serves as that indicator of higher than needed nutrient loads. Speaking with her helped foster several ideas for future work in research and conservation partnerships to address the health of the coral reef.

Algae entangled in corals at Laughing Bird Caye National Park.

The effects of climate change have made the ocean warmer and more acidic. These changes endanger the coral reefs, making them more venerable than ever before. The coral reefs provide shore protection from waves, a home for several many species of fish, and to a degree help bring tourists to Belize. The corral reef is worth saving not only for these benefits that it offers, but it does offer a lot that might go unnoticed until it is gone.

The Strong Coasts cohort and researchers from UNC Chapel Hill with Fragments of Hope at LBCNP.

One of the next steps for me is to connect with the company that makes some of these treatment systems, EcoFriendly Solutions Ltd., and exchange knowledge and resources. I want to learn more about the difficulties in installing and maintaining these systems on the cayes and a little bit about the resources available to do this. I will use the knowledge I gained in the classroom and in the laboratory researching toilet water treat systems to test and improve the different systems on the cayes. Through local community and university partnerships I and other Strong Coast members hope to improve the health of the coral reef and help monitor its growth. We also hope to find new ways to not only remove the nutrient pollution, but also new ways to use those nutrients to create energy, food, fish nurseries, or cash crops that will make these water treatment systems more beneficial to the communities using them.

This article first appeared in the July 2019 edition of the Placencia Breeze.

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After high school Daniel Delgado spent six years in the Navy as a nuclear plant operator onboard a submarine. Those experiences created an interest in engineering that became a desire to pursue a degree in environmental engineering. He enrolled in community college soon after completing his Navy contract and eventually transferred to San Diego State University (SDSU), San Diego. Needing some hands on learning he applied for a research position at SDSU where he was accepted as a research assistant helping with algal biomass research. In this lab he discovered a love for resource recovery from waste and wastewater treatment when he was given a project to analyze algal feedstock cultivation in wastewater. Upon completing his bachelors, he was accepted to University of South Florida (USF), Tampa, for a Ph. D. program where he researches onsite wastewater treatment for removal of nitrogen species. His research interests revolve around food, water, energy nexus specifically in wastewater treatment, resource recovery from waste, and bioremediation.

STRONG COASTS is supported by a National Science Foundation Collaborative Research Traineeship (NRT) award (#1735320) led by the University of South Florida (USF) and the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) to develop a community-engaged training and research program in systems thinking to better manage complex and interconnected food, energy, and water systems in coastal locations. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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STRONG Coasts

Systems thinking with coastal communities at the food energy water nexus