CLEAN-FLO breathes life into dead waters “the way nature intended”
By Lea Terhune
Washington — Robert L. Laing began his career as an engineer, consulting on electron ballistics and computers in the 1960s. His work led him to discover a process for treating polluted waters without chemicals.
“When I started out, I just asked the question, how did lakes stay clean for thousands of years? And the answers came to me, there was the spring and fall turnover, and in the tropical climates periodic typhoons and hurricanes and monsoons that turn the lakes over, and that puts oxygen down on the bottom. So I duplicated that and accelerated it,” Laing told America.gov.
Manipulating constituents of the water, aerating sediment with oxygen and introducing bacteria, he found, effectively restored dead waters. “I had a number of friends with lakes or ponds; we tried it on them and it was very successful. And we went on from there.” Laing founded CLEAN-FLO in 1970.
His innovation drew resistance. “He was the first one in and he took all the arrows from the industry,” says Brian Kling, who took over CLEAN-FLO with Laing’s blessing on the founder’s retirement in 2005. “There are still consultants out there that say aeration doesn’t work and that what you’ve got to do is spend $2 million to dredge your lake.”
But results demonstrate the CLEAN-FLO process — continuous laminar flow inversion oxygenation system (CLFIOS) — does work: Since 1970, more than 2,000 lakes, rivers, ponds, reservoirs and wastewater projects in the United States and internationally have been transformed by it.
One satisfied customer installed the system in a 190 million liter manure lagoon at a biofuels plant in Mead, Nebraska, in 2007. Manure from 30,000 cattle produced methane gas in anaerobic digesters, but that clogged the lagoon. Within two months after installation of the CLEAN-FLO system, markedly increased oxygen levels were recorded.
The Importance of Oxygen for Natural River and Lake Restoration
Oxygen is infused in the organic sediment on the bottom, says Kling, with “compressed air from the shoreline going through a self-sinking airline to diffusers that we manufacture that sit on the bottom.” The diffusers “maximize oxygen transfer.” Once the sediment is aerated, bacteria ingest the decaying organic matter and clean up the water to restore a healthy ecosystem.
Initially, gases like carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen sulfide are released when sediment is stirred up. “It’s a relatively quick release. You are basically exhausting what’s down there,” Kling says. “By running the system, you are preventing a buildup of those gases long term. Are we harming anything by releasing? It’s a one-time release.”
Community lakes frequently become polluted with fecal bacteria and weeds — in worst cases, in the American Southwest, infestations of Naegleria fowleri (called the brain-eating amoeba because it attacks the human central nervous system) occur. Such problems can be eliminated by the CLEAN-FLO process.
Collins Lake in Scotia, New York, was closed for swimming because of bacteria and poor water quality. In 2006, “a significant drop in bacteria levels was observed” one week after an inversion and oxygenation system was installed, according to a letter from park supervisor Jim Marx. By August, the beach reopened. The project will be featured in an upcoming film for the Sustainable Planet film festival, Kling says.
Nutrients from sewage and fertilizer runoffs create conditions that choke lakes, rivers and streams with algae and make it impossible for fish, animals or people to use the water. “Most people aren’t willing to cut the use of fertilizers. The stream qualities coming into lakes and ponds are getting worse and worse every year with the runoff and other pollutants.” Kling said.
The CLEAN-FLO system runs continuously to counter these kinds of runoff. Even in clean water, “eventually, over time, that organic load is going to build up again at the bottom,” he said.
Kling said the system is more cost-effective than conventional dredging and chemical treatment, which can cost 10 times to 15 times more. “In dredging, you are removing that material… but you are not going to stop it from coming back in. Whereas with CLEAN-FLO, once we reverse the anaerobic cycle and go aerobic and we get a lot of that stuff out of there, we are going to be able to better keep up the water body.”
Kling previously was a consultant doing watershed and fish studies, “doing some dredging type applications, doing some chemical treatments” to control algae and weed growth. In his experience with conventional chemicals, Kling said, he found “you had to use higher and higher doses of chemicals and in some cases you just couldn’t control the growth anymore.” That’s when he looked for an alternative and found Bob Laing and CLEAN-FLO. Kling’s company became a CLEAN-FLO dealer before Kling became CLEAN-FLO’s president.
Demand for the process has doubled each year since. “What we do is improve the water quality for all applications,” Kling said. Fish are healthier, odor disappears as bacteria and weeds are eliminated, people can safely swim and enjoy clear, blue water.
Global warming and shrinking water resources could bring such technologies into wider use as water becomes more precious. “There’s no question that the quality of water degrading across the country and across the world is definitely bringing us more business,” says Kling.