Most communities on the Lake Erie shoreline draw at least some of their drinking water from the lake, and for the Lake Erie islands, not doing so would often mean having no easily accessible water at all. So being able to detect any contamination, such as toxins from harmful algal blooms (HABs) that appear in western Lake Erie most summers, is essential to making sure island residents can be confident that their tap water is safe.
Stone Lab, Ohio Sea Grant’s teaching and research facility located on South Bass Island, plays a large role in meeting that need. From research into what turns algal blooms toxic to the nitty-gritty details of weekly water testing for the islands’ water treatment facilities, Stone Lab staff serve their island communities in a variety of ways.
In 2014, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency began recommending that water treatment plants that use surface water as their main source of drinking water test the raw water they take in, as well as the treated water they send out to customers for microcystins, the type of toxin produced by most harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. That testing became mandatory soon after the Toledo drinking water crisis – the Toledo and Oregon plants had already been performing the tests for a few years, which is how the high toxin levels were detected – and now any plant drawing Lake Erie water tests for algal toxins weekly during the summer and every other week during the winter months.
But in many cases, smaller water treatment plants like those on the Lake Erie islands aren’t set up to run the required tests themselves and have to find a lab to provide them with the required information. That’s where Stone Lab’s Algal and Water Quality Lab comes in. The lab on South Bass Island, right by downtown Put-in-Bay, offers microcystin testing to anyone who needs it.
Right now the lab does testing for four water treatment plants on South Bass, Middle Bass and Kelleys Island. Research coordinator Dr. Justin Chaffin and his team receive samples for analysis every Monday during the summer, with data sent back to the treatment plants and the Ohio EPA.
The advantage of having samples tested at Stone Lab is that the work is kept right on the islands, instead of having to send the water to a lab on the mainland, such as to Columbus or Toledo.
“Ohio EPA recommended to the Lake Erie islands that they have their water tested, but they didn’t have an easy way to get the samples from the islands to the mainland,” Chaffin explains. “So Jeff [Reutter, Ohio Sea Grant’s former director] suggested we could do it, I agreed, and we’ve maintained that service ever since.”
The main toxins of concern are microcystins, a collection of about 150 types of harmful algal bloom toxins that are all slightly different, but share a common general structure. The test looks for that commonality, measuring the total microcystins produced by a harmful algal bloom. This information is critical to water treatment plant operators who may need to adjust their treatment processes to maintain safe drinking water for area residents.
Because Ohio EPA requires certification for both the labs and the staff performing the microcystin tests, having them done at Stone Lab adds another advantage to larger commercial labs: professional development. Research aides, who are usually recent college graduates, perform the majority of the testing during the summer, from chlorine and pH levels to the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test that detects any microcystins in the water samples. That training and certification always looks good on a resume when they apply for other research lab positions in the future.
Chaffin, partnering with scientists from LimnoTech, Bowling Green State University, Michigan Technological University, The University of Toledo, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, also leads a three-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) project funded last year that studies what causes Lake Erie algal blooms to become toxic. Right now, the size of a harmful algal bloom and the toxin levels it produces don’t seem to be connected, with some small blooms being highly toxic while larger blooms don’t produce much toxin at all.
The main toxins of concern are microcystins, a collection of about 150 types of harmful algal bloom toxins that are all slightly different, but share a common general structure.
“While forecasting harmful algal bloom size is reasonably accurate right now and real-time sensors in the lake provide the location of the bloom, we still have fundamental questions about what controls when blooms become toxic, and how to predict that toxicity,” said Chaffin. “The goal of our project is to include toxins in the annual HABs forecast and the biweekly HABs bulletin NOAA puts out for Lake Erie, predicting both algal biomass and toxicity in time and space.”
Those predictions in turn can give water managers advanced warning of an incoming toxic bloom, allowing them to adjust treatment processes accordingly without potential interruptions to safe water service for Lake Erie residents. And in the end, that’s really the goal for Stone Lab and Ohio Sea Grant – making sure Lake Erie communities are thriving and well-prepared for any water quality issues that may come their way.