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Water Today Title October 22, 2020

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Update 2018/10/30
Toxic algae - The Barley Prize


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The Everglades Foundation's George Barley Water Prize, presented by Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, is the largest water prize of its kind. Its aim is to spur innovation and uncover new technologies to solve the issue of harmful algal blooms caused by excess phosphorus. The Prize consisted of four elimination rounds. We spoke to Loren Parra the director of the George Barley Water Prize, on October 24 just before the four finalists were being announced, following Stage 3 of the prize which was held in Ontario. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Blue-green algae - Lake Erie
NOAA - Cyanobacteria bloom in western Lake Erie, on 13 August 2018 - data by EUMETSAT

WaterToday - I wanted to ask some questions about the Barley prize, what you're up to and where we go from here.

Lorren Parra - Absolutely.

WaterToday - Maybe you could first tell me a little bit about the prize itself and we'll go from there.

Lorren Parra - Let me start with the mission of the prize, I mean its ultimate goal which is to find a great cost-effective solution for removing phosphorus from water. We know that excess phosphorus solution is not only a problem here in Canada or in the Everglades where our organization is based, but in fact it's a worldwide problem. Which is why our progressive Board of Directors decided that it was worth putting forth a $10 Million-dollar prize to try and find a solution to address the issue.

WaterToday - That's a substantial amount of money. If I understand this right, the contest consists of a a series of eliminations rounds, is that accurate?

Lorren Parra - Yes, that's exactly right. In Stage 1 the field was pretty broad so that we could get a handle on the ideas that were out there and who is working on this type of issue. We received over 100 applicants from 13 different countries for Stage 1.

And through Stages 2 and 3 we narrowed the field down to the finalists, the nine that actually competed in Stage three. And tonight we will be narrowing it down to the final four who will compete in the last stage of the prize called the Grand Challenge.

WaterToday - You haven't named the final four yet have you?

Lorren Parra - We have not. That will happen this evening at the award ceremony event at 4:30 pm.

WaterToday - Okay. That's interesting. I'll have to follow that up. I've been covering at least blue, green and red algae for some years. Is this specific to any algae? Or is it more aimed at the phosphorus? Are you looking more for technologies to get the phosphorus out of the water or are you aiming at blue green or red algae?

Lorren Parra - I think the question reflects an important distinction that we're trying to make throughout the prize and in regards to the issue. The blue-green algae is a direct symptom of excess phosphorus solution.

So, the technologies are not geared or aimed towards the removal of blue-green algae but its root cause which is excess phosphorus solution. So all the technologies are based around removing phosphorus from water.

WaterToday - I read something on the website from your CEO. He had said, "We tried litigation, legislation, regulation and education." Does this mean that that those four measures didn't work and the $10 million is kind of a last gasp to try and do something about this?

In other words, do you see these other four measures - litigation, legislation, regulation and education - as still part of the deal? Or is it more like okay, we're just going to put an enormous amount of money down and this will solve the problem?

Lorren Parra - I really think it's a combination, specifically the latter you just mentioned. Our board of directors who initiated and you know created this prize, looked at the history of the problem in Florida. Extra phosphorus solution has been a big problem in the Everglades for years. And the basis of our organization is Everglades restoration and advocacy, and the history of trying to address the issue.

So, our board of directors just looked at each other and said, "What can we do to move the needle on this issue because we've been working on this for years? What would be the most cost-effective way for us to really have some type of breakthrough on the issue?"

We have phosphorus removal technologies that are popular order. The problem with them is that they're incredibly land- intensive and they're pretty expensive. This makes it more difficult for blanket implementation in different parts of the world. Putting up this prize and defining specific criteria and guidelines, with minimal footprint and cost could lead to a real breakthrough.

WaterToday - I could see that. can you tell me what happens after the four finalists are named, the time frame, this kind of thing?

Lorren Parra - I'll tell you a little bit about the pilot which was Stage 3, we called it the Pilot Phase. We were here in Ontario, our 9 competing teams were set up on the banks of Holland Marsh in Bradford/ West Gwillimbury at the Art Janse Pumping Station. Their technologies each received between 2500 and 8500 gallons of water per day, and we had onsite technicians that were taking daily samples of the effluent. All that data was then passed along to our independent panel of judges to review to help them make their decision on the final four.

That was the basis of the Pilot phase. That stage was almost impossible without the partnership of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment without the entire support of the towns of Bradford, West Gwillimbury. There were a lot of folks that really brought that stage to life here. I mean like I said we're based in Florida, we're not used to snow melt and this cold weather. But we decided that if we're giving away $10 million we definitely want to find the technology that can handle both the warm, flash flood, tropical climates that we see in the Everglades, and the temperate climate that you see up here in Canada. It was really important to get to a place where our competitors could test in snow melt in a cool temperature. So that was why we came up all the way North. As you can imagine it's kind of hard to find a cold weather spot in Florida.

WaterToday - I was reading that the estimated cost of recovery for Lake Erie's blue-green algae issue varies between $2.2 and 4.6 billion. How do you calculate the damage from phosphates like that?

Lorren Parra - Well I definitely can't speak to water bodies here in Canada, but in the Everglades, you know that's the bulk of our research, our chief scientist has estimated that to remove so much as 10% of phosphorus worldwide would cost upwards of $3 trillion.

And those were the statistics that you know really moved the board to say, "Well what is $10 million in comparison to $3 trillion to address a worldwide problem." if the prize would move the needle tenfold from where we are now, the investment would be worthwhile.

WaterToday - An awesome ROI no doubt! Do you have any idea or indication on how bad this could get? I read in your statement that 15,000 fresh water lakes are affected by algae. Do you think for instance it could double in one year or go up 10%? Do you have any kind of idea?

Lorren Parra - I couldn't give you a statistic off the top of my head. But what we do know and what we expect is that the problem is just getting worse. So warm weather, and climate change, rising sea levels that only helps to induce both the frequency of algae blooms and the intensity of them.

WaterToday - I suppose for our viewers anyway, the obvious question would be, 'Why doesn't someone sit down with sort of every farmer everywhere and say, "Look you can't keep doing this and we'll make it worth your while if you'll stop dumping so much phosphorus and this kind of thing." Have you addressed that with your team?

Lorren Parra - What most people don't know is that agriculture is the second biggest driver of the economy in the Florida and when it comes to Lake Okeechobee what we know is if we were to cut off say all phosphorus runoff coming into the system there is so much legacy phosphorus already in the water that it would still be a behemoth endeavour to clean up the lake. This is why we wanted to focus on the effluent coming out of the lakes because legacy phosphorus is a huge issue around the world. I also think one of the reasons the Pilot Stage was so successful was because we were in an agricultural community who is seeing these issues and is invested in trying to figure out a solution.

One of our presenting sponsor is actually the Scott's Miracle-Gro Foundation. They're a huge lawn fertilizer company and they removed all phosphorus from their lawn products about 2-3 years ago. So having a variety of stakeholders at the table has helped us to be really successful. And the ag community has definitely been one of those important stakeholders.

WaterToday - Well that's interesting. I've covered many conferences about phosphates and algae and what I get at the end of most of these conferences is that unless people are willing to change overnight nothing's going to solve this. So your solution is, okay let them keep doing whatever it is they're doing but if we pay enough money we'll come up with a technology or innovation to get this stuff out of the lakes. Is that about accurate?

Lorren Parra - In a place like Florida agriculture is necessary and there is a growing population worldwide, so we have an obligation to continue feeding society. To suggest that farmers should stop what they're doing is just not going to work out. We're heavily focused on finding an innovative solution to this problem that will work in conjunction with the existing approaches a lot of places are taking. You know what Florida is doing is different from what Ontario is doing is different from what the Southern side of the Great Lakes is doing. So what we really wanted to do is find an innovative technological approach that can add and be part of a holistic approach that different communities are already taking.

WaterToday - After you announce these four finalists this evening what is the next step?

Lorren Parra - We'll announce the final four this evening and they'll have about a year to get ready and set up. Like I said in this previous stage, Phase 3, the teams were testing between 2500 and 8500 gallons of water per day. In the final stage we're bumping them up to an average of million gallons of water per day, with a maximum of 2.5 million gallons of water per day. I mean it is an exponential scale up but its several orders of magnitude. The teams are therefore going to need about a year to design their new technologies, to construct them and get them down to Florida.

WaterToday - That's amazing!

Lorren Parra - So we're giving them from now until about the beginning of 2020 to get set up and we're expecting to turn on the water as we say and really launch, formally launch the last stage in mid-2020.

WaterToday - One of the things we cover at Water Today is if it's not self-evident is filtration technology. And one of the worries when you do filtration, is that you take too much out of the water, not just the bad stuff but also the good stuff. And I was wondering is that factored into your criteria?

Lorren Parra - Absolutely. Through each stage of the prize, you know especially stages three and stages four they have had a number of criteria and environmental sustainability is one of them. So making sure that they are not loading water ways with harmful chemicals or anything like that is critical. Environmental sustainability is a huge part of how we grade these teams alongside their cost and their effectiveness at removing phosphorus from the water.

WaterToday - Perhaps I should clarify my own question. I was referring to the minerals in a lake that are needed for nutrition . Do they remain in the water or are they pulled in the process?

Lorren Parra - I'm a little bit unclear on how to answer your question. But we've run a slew of different tests on the effluent that the teams are actually producing. So we're looking at not only their phosphorus removal but also their safety; you know their toxicity levels, a number of different chemicals. But if you'd like a little bit more clarification to that exact question our chief scientists G. Melodie Naja can probably answer a little bit better.

WaterToday - Okay that's fine, I can follow it up. So in a year, once the winning team is picked, what happens next? Does the winner go to some huge companies and say underwrite our technology or do you? Where does your involvement start and stop?

Lorren Parra - If we're going to award $10 Million, it is key for us that the winning technology actually come to market. So, the team that wins has a three-year window to get their technology commercialized and if they cannot do that, if they're not poised to do that we've got a handful of universities participating in this. We have a US Federal agency participating in this.

If the team that wins isn't able to actually commercialize their technology then the Everglades Foundation would take over that IP and figure out the best way to get it to market. But that is a clause attached to final winner.

WaterToday - Wow! I find this amazing. And I have to say that you seem to have covered just about everything in the right way to do a prize such as this. I'd like to give you a compliment there.

Lorren Parra - That is very kind. This has been a handful of years in the making. And you know we really try to do our homework. We talk to the folks at the XPrize a great deal to get some guidance on how best to do this. And I'd like to think and I hope that should you ever speak to them they would agree we've kept our contestants at the forefront, making sure we got their feedback and what they needed to be successful. Because really without them we're just a competition. So making sure that they've had everything they needed from us to really incubate their technologies is really important as well.

WaterToday - This is remarkable I'd like to thank you for your time.

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