USC to expand construction of aquaponics systems

The Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies is partnering with the Office of Sustainability and the Undergraduate Student Government Environmental Student Assembly to increase awareness about sustainable urban farming by constructing aquaponics systems on Catalina Island and in Parkside Gardens, set to be complete in October, in addition to the system currently in operation at the CSU/Expo Urban Mini Farm.

“Aquaponics is a versatile platform that aids in teaching concepts in biology and chemistry and into larger, broader environmental issues and economics,” said Diane Kim, director of undergraduate programs for the Wrigley Institute.

Last spring, students participated in a workshop led by David Rosenstein, cofounder of Our Foods and Evo Farm, that helped garner support for the program and educate students about aquaponics and sustainable agriculture.

“It was a three-day workshop and tutorial on how to build an aquaponics system,” said Elliott Wezerek, assistant director of ESA. “We ended up building a system for Community Services Unlimited, which delivers local food to people in the community.”

ESA has been part of this process from the beginning.

“We plan to have an event in the fall for the opening of the Parkside Garden’s aquaponics system,” Wezerek said. “ESA is coordinating with the Wrigley Institute to raise awareness about aquaponics.”

Essentially, aquaponics is a symbiosis among plants, microorganisms and fish, where the fish provide fertilizer for the plants and the plants act as natural biofilter for the fish.

“The two aquaponics systems combined should produce up to 3,700 plants and 80 pounds of fish per year,” Kim said.  “I’m not advocating that aquaponics is a panacea, but it’s one solution to urban farming that allows us to also think creatively about better ways we can be doing things.”

Senior Natalie Kra, junior Afton Montgomery and junior Christopher Carr, three current environmental studies students interning for the project, helped construct and maintain the existing aquaponics systems.

Part of the stimuli for the introduction of aquaponics and other related sustainability practices comes from a recent increase in funding for these type of projects.

ESA, USG, Graduate Student Government and USC Sustainability have partnered to create a Green Engagement Fund that has set aside $65,000 to promote student involvement in making the campus more sustainable.

According to its website, USCGEF was created in 2014 to “fund student-driven, innovative projects aimed at increasing sustainability at USC while increasing awareness in environmental stewardship.”

This led directly to the planning of the Parkside Gardens’ aquaponics system, after Jason Sanders, national program manager at Eco Safe and his wife, Kelly Sanders, faculty assistant professor of environmental engineering, secured funding after submitting their grant to Sustainability, which is partly run by ESA.

Jason Sanders previously worked with Parkside to design its compostable bags and the compost program, though he admits that his wife did most of the work behind the latest system.

“We’ve come together and developed programs for students in back of the Arts and Humanities building in Parkside where there is a large gardening system,” Kelly Sanders said. “It’s supposed to show sustainability. It is completely off the grid because it uses solar power to power the pumps.”

Thomas De Clerck, a master’s student in social entrepreneurship, is in charge of this new project.

“I am interested in food security because it is important,” De Clerck said. “It is especially critical in Southern California because this aquaponics system will use significantly less water than typical farming.”

Clerck expects the construction to be finished within the month.

“The primary objective of the system is to educate USC students and community about aquaponics,” De Clerck said.  “We hope it will spark the interest of the community.”