delware environmental institute

Pollution tracker: UD's Jaisi wins ORAU Powe Award to track down nutrient pollutant in Chesapeake

Pollution tracker: UD's Jaisi wins ORAU Powe Award to track down nutrient pollutant in Chesapeake

Too much of a good thing can kill you, the saying goes. 

Such is the case in the Chesapeake Bay, North America’s largest estuary, where an overabundance of nutrients fosters the formation of an oxygen-starved “dead zone” every summer. In its annual health report card last year, the bay earned only a D+.

Deb Jaisi, an assistant professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware, wants to seek out the sources of a key nutrient so excessive that it has become a pollutant in the Chesapeake Bay — phosphorus (P). 

Jaisi wants to literally get to the bottom of this nutrient’s influx by analyzing the phosphorus present in a set of sediment cores extracted from the seafloor of the upper bay, middle bay and lower bay. The cores offer a glimpse into the geological and environmental record of approximately the past 75 years.

The Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), a consortium of 105 major Ph.D.-granting academic institutions, has high hopes for Jaisi’s research. Recently, Jaisi was one of 30 scientists selected nationwide to receive ORAU’s Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award. The award is intended to enrich the research and professional growth of young faculty and result in new funding opportunities.

Jaisi will receive $5,000 in seed funding from ORAU and $5,000 in matching funding from UD to launch his Chesapeake study. 

According to Jaisi, phosphorus in the bay comes from three primary sources: the land, the ocean, and the buried sediments from where phosphorus is remobilized and reintroduced into the bay. However, current nutrient management efforts focus solely on reducing inputs from land. 

“The contribution of these three major sources of phosphorus has varied since colonial times,” says Jaisi, who joined the UD faculty last year. “The prevailing notion that the increase in terrestrial phosphorus alone is the tipping point for the bay’s eutrophication is questionable.”