Lake Champlain Sea Grant and Town of Bolton-Lake George Association Win National Research-to-Application Award

By Julianna White, Research Program Coordinator
November 02, 2022

In Bolton, New York, research on an innovative, low-cost, sustainable pilot for reduction of nitrate pollution from Bolton’s wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) has improved local water quality, attracted investments in sustainable solutions, and won a national award.

The circa 1960 Town of Bolton WWTP lacked a process for denitrification, or converting pollutant nitrate to nitrogen gas and returning it to the atmosphere. Without this process, non-point discharge of nitrate-nitrogen runs off into local groundwaters and eventually into Lake George. The Lake George Association (then called the Fund for Lake George) and the Lake George Waterkeeper monitored and analyzed discharge from the WWTP. They found excessive nitrate-nitrogen, which can promote eutrophication, or the dense growth of aquatic plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen.  

In 2017, the Town of Bolton conceived and initiated the construction of a demonstration woodchip bioreactor denitrification project, since woodchips are a low-cost, locally available, sustainable resource in the basin. Also, the bioreactor could be constructed within the existing sand bed footprint, which required little infrastructure. Materials for this demonstration project were funded through a $50,000 Water Quality and Clarity Grant from The Fund for Lake George. The contractor who supplied the local wood chips and Town personnel, including the Town Supervisor, completed construction.

But, would the woodchip bioreactor sufficiently reduce pollution into Lake George?

Given that community wastewater treatment systems are a significant source of total runoff in the Lake Champlain basin—which includes Lake George—Lake Champlain Sea Grant provided funding in 2018 to monitor and analyze the woodchip bioreactor’s nitrate removal efficiency and overall impact on water quality in Lake George. The Sea Grant-funded project included analysis of the chemistry in denitrified and non-denitrified portions of the effluent stream for comparison.

Data showed that the woodchip bioreactor reduced nitrate concentrations by an average of 38 percent in a two-year period. Findings also revealed a reduction of soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) each year during the study, with an average reduction of 33 percent in SRP over the study period.

The study also led to real-time operational decisions. Researchers emphasized that the effectiveness of nitrate removal depends on informed, real-time management by plant operators. The operators must be aware of a number of variables including wastewater temperature, alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, ammonia concentrations, and overall plant flow for their decisions.

“The Town of Bolton and its partners took a concept previously applied to agriculture and aquaculture and developed the first in-situ, real-time application that successfully reduced reactive nitrogen in wastewater from entering the aquatic ecosystem,” said principal investigator Dr. Jim Sutherland, a Lake George Association Council of Science Advisors member. “Reactive nitrogen is a global problem, and this Lake George demonstration project has huge implications and potential application.”

So, it worked. What next?

In 2021, the Town of Bolton used the research results and a town budget contribution to attract a $246,000 grant from the State of New York to invest in two new woodchip bioreactor units. The new units will allow the Bolton WWTP to reduce nutrients from the entire wastewater flow, as the demonstration project was not designed to handle the entire flow.

“The Town of Bolton has always considered the stewardship of Lake George and its water quality as prime objectives for its actions,” said Town of Bolton Supervisor Ron Conover. “We were glad to be a leader on the application of this innovative process to benefit the Town and its visitors and help protect Lake George. We are also very fortunate to have such great partners as Lake Champlain Sea Grant and the Lake George Association.”

This research project showed the level of effectiveness of a woodchip bioreactor—a passive, sustainable, low-cost technology—in wastewater denitrification. The success of the project instigated the move from pilot project into actual full-scale field application in Bolton and informs engineering design for future installations in rural communities burdened with older infrastructure that lack denitrification processes and have limited funding for new treatment plants.

The Sea Grant Association Research-to-Application Award honors a Sea Grant-funded research project that has increased understanding and responsible use of the nation's ocean, coastal, or Great Lakes resources; has supported the informed personal, policy, and management decisions of communities; or has led to the development of new products or tools with positive impacts related to a vibrant and resilient coastal economy or environment.

This community-focused, applied research in the Town of Bolton and the waters around Lake George did just that.

"Lake Champlain Sea Grant was excited to support the Lake George Association and the Town of Bolton on this important project and pleased to see further investments by the Town of Bolton and the State of New York to preserve water quality,” said Breck Bowden, Lake Champlain Sea Grant Director.

Learn more about how to propose a research project to Lake Champlain Sea Grant.