Countering blue green algae blooms with ultrasonic solutions

Golf course lakes and ponds can become plagued by toxic algae that can threaten plants and wildlife. Learn how ultrasound technology can overcome this issue without the use of chemicals.


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Algae blooms on the surface of a pond at Rockland Country Club in Sparkill, NY.Photos courtesy of Rockland Country Club

Golf courses frequently feature penalty areas, lakes, and ponds to adorn the landscape and add beauty to the course, create tranquility and enhance the golfing experience. Environmental care plays a role, too; Many courses strive to achieve recognition through Audubon International or Nature Conservancy status to demonstrate their commitment to improving environmental stewardship of course lands.

Unfortunately, golf course lakes and ponds can also become plagued with algae which creates a distraction or nuisance. Even worse, these algae blooms can harm the landscape and kill wildlife. Lakes and ponds are often the primary water source for a course’s irrigation system and algae blooms can cause serious concerns for superintendents. A warmer climate and abundant nutrients found in fertilizers, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, contribute to the dangerous spread of algae on golf courses.

For many golf courses, the use of chemicals has been the traditional solution to this problem. While effective, chemicals can harm other forms of life both in and surrounding the lakes and ponds. It also frequently requires continuous application and can present safety hazards for crews to handle and store. Residential communities surrounding golf courses, as well as the members and guests themselves, often voice negative reactions to the use of algaecides and pesticides.

Audubon International explains in its Environmental Management Practices for Golf Courses guide that Best Management Practice (BMP) for chemical use is to “employ practices and use products that reduce the potential for contamination of ground and surface water.” In addition, the BMP for water quality management is to “Prioritize the protection of water quality, both on and off the golf course, and train staff to use BMPs to prevent pollution.”

After decades of trial and error, it’s now known that many of the chemicals used to treat algae blooms are detrimental to wildlife. We also know that some algal variants are safe and can serve to reduce nutrient levels. But if not chemicals, then what? Left untreated, algae present health threats, damages to infrastructure and, in the end, can threaten a course’s revenue.

To understand the alternatives to chemical treatment, a basic understanding of what factors cause algae to thrive is important. Biologically speaking, blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) film is literally the definition of scum—and this is not without cause. As cyanobacteria increases during the spring and summer months across tens of thousands of lakes, reservoirs and ponds, golf course superintendents are under pressure to mitigate this problem.

Algae requires sunlight and nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen to proliferate. The primary sources of nutrients are farm fertilizer runoff, over-fertilization of lawns, phosphate-based cleaning detergents and surfactants, and overuse of algaecides (particularly copper sulfate). The latter is not intuitively obvious until you realize that overuse of copper causes death to not only algae, but to beneficial bacteria that are necessary to help remove the excess phosphates that drive the algae growth.  The remaining bacteria unaffected by the copper are mostly anaerobic and found in the muck (such as Actinomyces, also responsible for many of the odors such as MIB – it has a distinctive sewer smell).  Over time they cause the algae problem to spiral out of control by continually recycling phosphates back into the water column.

Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, feed on the phosphates expelled by anaerobic bacteria and can create complex hydrocarbons toxic to humans and many other animals that have access to the above-mentioned lake and reservoirs. Cyanobacteria photosynthesizes like plants, and has similar requirements for sunlight, nutrients, and carbon dioxide to grow and produce oxygen. There are many varieties which are typically a green or blue-green color. Other varieties can also be white, brown, blue, yellow-brown, or red.

Depending on the environmental conditions, cyanobacteria can increase to excessive levels and form visible ‘blooms’ which can lead to poor water quality and the potential for toxicity. Cyanobacteria is known to disrupt drinking water supplies, recreational activities, and water-dependent industries, and presents risks to humans, pets, livestock and a wide range of wildlife.

Managing nutrient levels is an important process in the short- and long-term reduction of harmful algae blooms. This means regular testing of all influents and sections of the water body to determine the source, after which remedies can be applied. While each water body is unique with its own influents and ecosystem, it is increasingly evident that a holistic approach involving both nutrient and algae control can effectively provide a rapid, long-term solution to the problem. In addition to reducing the nutrient levels, ultrasonic technology and good green algae are important tools to consider when needing to rapidly reduce algae levels.

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The pond at Rockland Country Club after treatment with ultrasound technology.Photos courtesy of Rockland Country Club

Ultrasound: A Safe Alternative

Next-generation ultrasonic algae mitigation systems currently spearhead the effort to reduce harmful algal blooms (HABs). Ultrasound technology is a reliable algae control solution that requires little manual intervention, is safe to use, and is proven effective in killing algae.

The latest ultrasound technology can transmit over 2,000 frequencies helping ensure that the specific frequencies that can cause structural resonance are applied to either rapidly growing or well-established algae blooms. The applied frequencies emit ultrasonic sound waves which travel through the water and create vibrations that cause structural resonance and damage to the vesicles on the inner cell walls of algae, thereby causing it to lose buoyancy, sink, prevent its ability to photosynthesize, and die.

Experts have learned through careful observation that a wide frequency range proves effective in treating most algae. The newest ultrasound systems are fitted with the latest IIoT technology to support the remote monitoring of water quality sensor data. Additionally, the use of solar generated electricity, whether the panels reside on land or are affixed to a flotation system, reduce the need for land-based power. The solar electricity-generated powers not only the ultrasonic systems, but all of the resident water quality sensors, further aiding a golf course’s sustainability efforts.

“Ultrasound has been a major component of our pond management strategy. For the past 10 years, the irrigation pond at the Country Club has stayed algae-free,” says Matt Ceplo, CGCS, former Superintendent at the Rockland Country Club in Sparkill, NY. “In fact, because we used ultrasound technology for non-chemical algae control it helped us obtain certification status with the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

In addition to the broad, 2,000+ frequency output of an ultrasonic anti-algae system, the mechanical design of next-generation systems incorporates scientifically advanced materials such as Sharklet to create a bacterial repellant surface. Sharklet reduces the chance of biofouling and hence increase the system’s uptime to continue combatting algae between service intervals.

The experts designing these systems have decades of experience studying algae, empirically discovering the ultrasonic frequency ranges that deliver results. Their knowledge and experience are also applied to the most effective placement of systems in the field environments. This is because different waterbodies have differing requirements, notably size and obstacles that could interfere with ultrasonic sound waves. Researchers use tools such as Google Earth to help prescribe and place the right number of systems.

It’s estimated approximately 95% of the 70,000 species and two million sub-species of algae are affected by ultrasonic systems. As a result, the latest ultrasonic solutions have shown to be highly effective, and a safer way to eliminate harmful algae variants. Most often, this technology will prevent an algae bloom from growing and becoming a problem. As part of a holistic suite of solutions and processes, ultrasound is effective at rapidly remediating the most troublesome cyanobacteria blooms.

Lawrence Field is CEO and Founder of WaterIQ, an algae mitigation company specializing in ultrasonic solutions that reduce or eliminate the need for chemicals and other costly or largely ineffective solutions. WaterIQ is a member/sponsor of Audubon International.