When toxins from a harmful algal bloom (HAB) caused the City of Toledo to issue a “Do Not Drink Advisory” to 400,000 people, Ohio Sea Grant was on the case as soon as the phone started ringing.
While Stone Lab staff carried boxes of toxin analysis supplies to the City of Toledo offices, which were on the brink of running out, Ohio Sea Grant director Dr. Jeff Reutter and research coordinator Dr. Justin Chaffin were on the phone with the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) as well as city officials from Toledo to help inform their management of the issue.
But August 2014 was far from the first time Ohio Sea Grant worked on the front lines to restore the health of Lake Erie. Nutrient loading, algal blooms and the dead zone – an area of low oxygen that develops in the central basin during the summer – have been an important part of Ohio Sea Grant’s work since 1971 when the Center for Lake Erie Area Research (CLEAR) was formed.
“Our efforts to bring Lake Erie back from its dead lake image to becoming the walleye capital of the world were a success,” remembers Reutter. “However, once decision makers felt that there was no longer an acute problem, funding and monitoring for further research were diverted to other focus areas.
That change in priorities has come back to haunt Lake Erie again in the past two decades. Steadily increasing concentrations of phosphorus – a vital nutrient for agriculture crops that also fuels harmful algal blooms in the lake – have resulted in an increase in the occurrence and severity of algal blooms. The western basin, which receives runoff from the Maumee River watershed, the largest agricultural watershed feeding into the Great Lakes, is especially affected by phosphorus levels that have returned to what they were during the height of the problem in the 1970s.
While funding from the U.S. EPA for water quality monitoring ended in the mid-80s, students at Stone Lab continued to conduct an informal monitoring effort, and Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab began to prepare for the current situation in the mid-90s.
“Changes in phosphorus loading were the reason we were a leader in the creation of the Lake Erie Millennium Network between the U.S. and Canada in 1998,” Reutter remembers. “We also hosted numerous groups of elected officials, agriculture leaders, scientists and decision makers and spoke to many more around the state, region and country over the years, but it was hard to get them to understand the importance of the changes we were seeing.”
Today, Ohio Sea Grant’s work on reducing and preventing HABs ranges from the local to the international level. Reutter, Chaffin, Associate Director Dr. Christopher Winslow, and Ohio Sea Grant Extension specialists Tory Gabriel, Sarah Orlando and Joe Lucente are often called on to educate water treatment plant managers, farmers, charter boat captains, decision makers and elected officials on nutrient loading and algal problems in their jurisdictions.
Workshops and meetings at Stone Lab, Ohio Sea Grant’s research and education facility on Lake Erie’s
Gibraltar Island, go into more depth and address nutrient management at the source; excess fertilizer including manure on farm fields, sewage treatment plants and combined sewer overflows, and faulty septic systems play a large role in contributing phosphorus to Lake Erie, but can also be managed through technology and a change in farming practices that still maintain productivity.
“To eliminate HABs in Lake Erie, we need to modify agricultural practices to greatly reduce nutrient runoff, but we also all need to reduce our personal nutrient contributions by using low phosphate cleaners, being sure septic tanks are working properly, eliminating phosphorus from lawn fertilizers, and working to lessen combined sewer overflows by improving sewage treatment plants and using rain barrels, rain gardens, and lowflow toilets and shower heads,” explains Reutter.
HABs are an excessive growth of cyanobacteria, often called blue-green algae, which can produce toxins that damage the liver, nervous system and skin. “Cyanobacteria bloom when there is an excess of nutrients in very warm water,” explains Chaffin. “In addition to nutrient loading, water temperature above about 65 degrees F is a key factor in the development of harmful algal blooms.”
With higher temperatures due to a changing climate likely becoming the norm sooner rather than later, finding new ways to reduce other factors in the development of HABs has continued to be a critical part of Ohio Sea Grant’s work. “We are also learning that nitrogen plays a large role determining the type of HAB present and its potential to produce toxins,” Chaffin adds.
As part of that effort, Reutter contributes his expertise to a number of regional, national and international committees that work to address harmful algal blooms at the legislative level. He represented Ohio Sea Grant on the initial Ohio Phosphorus Task Force in 2009-2010, and returned to the Ohio Phosphorus Task Force II in 2012 to chair the Phosphorus Loadings and Targets Subcommittee. The group’s final report in March 2013 recommended a significant reduction in phosphorus going into Lake Erie.
“Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab have been invested in studying harmful algal blooms and related issues since the beginning, and will continue to do so until the problem is resolved once again.”
Dr. Jeff Reutter
“Currently, our only true lever in eliminating HABs is to greatly reduce phosphorus loading, and the Ohio Phosphorus Task Force II report calls for a 40 percent reduction to eliminate or greatly reduce HABs in the western basin,” says Reutter. A big step in the right direction had just been taken earlier that year, when The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company eliminated phosphorus from its lawn care products.
From the state level, Ohio Sea Grant was able to expand its reach internationally as part of the team developing nutrient targets for each of the five Great Lakes under the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Reutter co-chairs the Objectives and Loadings Task Team for Annex 4, the Nutrient Annex of the agreement, along with Canadian representative Sandra George of Environment Canada.
His expertise also led to Reutter becoming one of the main sources of information for media and officials alike during the Toledo drinking water ban. Interviews with local, national and international media outlets alternated with calls from U.S. and State Representatives and Senators, all intent on finding out what had happened and how it could be prevented from happening again.
“It was a very busy few days,” remembers Reutter. “At one point Sunday night in the middle of the crisis, a crew from Good Morning America was sitting in my living room asking questions at 10:30 p.m., and while the number and frequency of calls has been greatly reduced, the problem is still clearly on everyone’s minds.”
Ohio Sea Grant also put together a collection of frequently asked questions for its website (go.osu.edu/toledohab) and hosted a webinar on harmful algal blooms that was attended by 150 people, with an additional 500 views on YouTube later on.
Ohio Sea Grant will be helping the Ohio Board of Regents with management and outreach for their $2 million investment to coordinate the response of Ohio’s colleges and universities to the harmful algal bloom problem. The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences has also invested $1 million in this effort.
“We’re glad we were able to reach people quickly with this important information,” says Reutter. “Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab have been invested in studying harmful algal blooms and related issues since the beginning, and will continue to do so until the problem is resolved once again.”
In the aftermath of the drinking water ban, Stone Lab is continuing to monitor water quality in the western basin of Lake Erie, keeping an eye on everything from phosphorus concentrations to algae and toxin concentrations in the water. To help with this important work, Stone Lab’s Algae & Water Quality Laboratory was completely renovated and opened its doors again in the summer of 2013.
“Our renovated Research Building and our Water Quality Lab gives Sea Grant and Stone Lab researchers, as well as other scientists, immediate access to Lake Erie, our research vessels, and high quality research equipment to perform a wide range of water tests right by the lake, instead of having to send samples farther away,” says Chaffin. “This not only makes testing faster and more efficient, but also frees up funds for additional tests that otherwise may not be within someone’s budget.”
Renovation of the Water Quality Lab was supported by the Ohio State University Office of Research and Stone Lab, and equipment within the Lab was funded by these groups as well as the Friends of Stone Lab, Ohio Sea Grant, and the Ohio Environmental Education Fund (OEEF) within Ohio EPA. OEEF and Ohio EPA are also collaborating with Ohio Sea Grant on continued nutrient, algal and toxin research and monitoring. Together, they have recruited volunteers from among Lake Erie charter captains who collect water samples when they take customers out onto the lake, significantly increasing the number of samples taken without much additional cost.
To prevent an incidence like the Toledo events from reoccurring elsewhere – the city was without drinking water for 55 hours – Chaffin is performing algal toxin analyses for four public water supplies on the Lake Erie islands, as well as the Cities of Marblehead, Vermilion and Norwalk. Stone Lab has also responded to a number of emergency sampling requests from the Ohio EPA.
In addition to offering the services of the water quality lab, Ohio Sea Grant and OEPA also hosted two workshops for water treatment plant operators in mid-August to help them identify HABs and remove toxins from the water going through their facilities. These workshops will also be offered in 2015.
“A week after one of the workshops this year, one of the participants worked with Dr. Chaffin and correctly identified a harmful algal bloom in the reservoir at the Norwalk water plant and averted what could have been a serious problem,” says Reutter. “Our hope is that other workshop students will be able to do the same for their facilities should the need arise.”