New software used in fight against nitrates in Florida groundwater
July 13, 2011, FL – As a young scholar, Fernando Rios loved science and computer programming
equally. So when Rios — who holds a bachelor's degree in physics from
Canada's University of Waterloo — went looking for a graduate program,
he discovered the Department of Scientific Computing
at Florida State University, which has about 35 graduate students and
launched a new undergraduate program of computational sciences in fall
Now, along with his FSU professor and colleagues, Rios has written an
important and practical software program that could protect Florida's
lakes and rivers from excessive pollutants.
"I wanted to use both my science and computing skills at the same
time, not just one or the other," said Rios, who, along with associate
professor of computational hydrology/geology Ming Ye, recently spent two
and half years developing the software, which is designed to help local
and state government measure the amount of nitrates from septic systems
that end up in surface water bodies such as lakes and rivers.
"In Florida, there's a lot of septic tank usage — and an increased
potential for increased groundwater and surface contamination," said
Rios, who wrote the software known as ArcNLET (ArcGIS-Based Nitrate Load
Estimation Toolkit). "When the nitrates enter groundwater, they can end
up in drinking water and surface water."
Nitrates in drinking water may cause a health disorder known as
methemoglobinemia, which in newborns can manifest itself as a
sometimes-fatal condition called "blue baby syndrome." Discharge of
nitrate-rich groundwater into surface waters also can lead to fish
kills, algal growth, hypoxia, eutrophication (a bloom of phytoplankton),
and outbreaks of toxic bacteria.
ArcNLET, which is free and available on Ye's website, officially will debut at a training workshop on Friday, July 8, in the Geography Information Systems Laboratory in FSU's Bellamy Building. The workshop is geared toward employees of state, local and county governments throughout Florida.
"Basically, we just want to introduce people to the software and give them an idea of what it can do," Rios said.
The GIS-based model is easy to use "and has a shallow learning
curve," said Ye, who holds a doctorate in hydrology. In addition to his
classes in scientific computing, he also teaches in Florida State's Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science. "An average person can use this."
Ye, who, together with Paul Lee and Rick Hicks of the Florida
Department of Environmental Protection, developed the concepts and ideas
behind the septic software model, specializes in predicting how
contaminants in water affect human health. Approximately one-third of
Florida's population uses onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems —
or septic systems — for treating domestic wastewater. Estimation of
nitrate load from septic tanks to surface water bodies is critical to
analysis of water resources and to environmental management. The ArcNLET
software can estimate such nitrate loads.
The software research and development was funded with a two-year,
$80,000 grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,
with an additional $60,000 extension of that grant. The development is
also supported in part by the Florida Institute for Energy Systems, Economics and Sustainability at Florida State.
Rios, who is now studying geography in the doctoral program at the
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, has returned to
FSU's Department of Scientific Computing this summer for a paid
internship, partly because he enjoys working with Ye and fellow FSU
graduate students. He also is continuing his work on the ArcNLET
"It's basically a tool to help guide certain kinds of
decision-making," said Rios, who dreams of someday working as a
government consultant doing environmental research on groundwater. He
said he is proud of his work but adds that ultimately it's not a
"No (computer) model will give you a definitive answer," he said.
"Basically, this is just another method to help guide decision-making."