“Because of the Toledo water crisis, Chancellor John Carey and the Ohio Board of Regents (now the Ohio Department of Higher Education) allocated $2 million to universities in the state to work together to develop solutions for the harmful algal bloom problem. They asked Ohio State, led by Dr. Bruce McPheron, and the University of Toledo, led by Dr. Tom Bridgeman, to take leadership of this effort. Because of our 37-year history of supporting projects at Ohio universities, they asked Ohio Sea Grant if we could assist by identifying some of the scientists that should be involved.”
That’s Dr. Jeff Reutter, former Ohio Sea Grant Director and one of the leads on that two-million dollar initiative, talking about a new collaborative research group’s formation. In addition to The Ohio State University and the University of Toledo, researchers from Bowling Green State University (BGSU), Heidelberg University and Kent State University (KSU) will lead a total of 18 projects in five different focus areas, along with scientists at Central State University, Defiance College and the University of Cincinnati.
In an effort to develop uniform and concise proposals that could be easily reviewed and evaluated, the group used Ohio Sea Grant’s proposal development system and will use Sea Grant’s project reporting system to report the results of all 18 two-year projects. Those reports will also be used to inform the public on new findings, along with a series of webinars in which researchers will discuss their projects.
“We also invited leading scientists from the Ohio EPA, Ohio DNR, the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Lake Erie Commission to serve on a state agency advisory committee,” Reutter adds. “Their participation will assure that our projects take advantage of, and are coordinated with, efforts underway within state agencies, and that our results address management needs.”
A harmful algal bloom (HAB) is any large increased density of algae that is capable of producing toxins. In freshwater, such as Lake Erie, those algae tend to be cyanobacteria — more commonly known as blue-green algae — that are always present in the water to some extent, but which grow excessively in warm water with a high phosphorus concentration.
According to Reutter, another person who was instrumental to pulling together the funding as well as the teams of researchers was Marty Kress, Assistant Vice President in the Office of Research at The Ohio State University. Kress was able to link the strengths of the state-wide group with a $1 million Ohio State University water quality initiative called Field to Faucet that was also prompted by Toledo’s water crisis in August 2014.
“Marty was instrumental in leading the creation of the five focus areas, and really providing the liaison with the Board of Regents,” Reutter says. “In many ways, he was our point person for the whole thing.”
“The key to the entire process was the early identification of the focus areas, because that drove the discussion from that point on,” Kress adds. “Rather than talk about what you already do, you have to talk about it in the context of the problem you’re trying to solve.”
In a November meeting hosted by Heidelberg University, 65 investigators from a wide range of Ohio universities met to identify projects that should be included in the Board of Regents funding for each of the five focus areas: 1) Lake Erie water quality, 2) drinking water safety, 3) agricultural best management practices, 4) algal toxins’ effects on humans and 5) economics and policy.
Focus area 1, led by the University of Toledo and BGSU, will develop detection, mapping and warning tools for the Maumee and Sandusky River bays, funded at $250,000 each.
Researchers in focus area 2 will use another $500,000 to examine options for the detection and treatment of cyanobacteria toxins in water treatment plants. The presence of one toxin, microcystin, was the major concern when water was shut off for most Toledo residents in 2014. Microcystin causes skin irritation, as well as liver, kidney and nervous system damage, and has to be removed with activated carbon treatments to ensure concentrations in drinking water don’t rise above 1 part per billion (ppb).
Drawing on expertise from Ohio State University Extension and Heidelberg University, two projects in the third focus area intend to help reduce phosphorus runoff from agricultural fields into Lake Erie. Dr. Bruce McPheron, Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences at Ohio State, will also contribute $200,000 from Ohio State’s Field to Faucet initiative to the $400,000 allocated from the Board of Regents funding. That additional funding will go directly to expanding Heidelberg’s phosphorus monitoring system in Lake Erie tributaries.
“Ohio State University, with its comprehensive capacity, is well positioned to lead the way in providing answers,” McPheron said at the initiative’s kick-off event in September 2014. “But we don’t feel tackling this alone is sufficient, and it’s clear there are other pockets of excellence. We’re putting in [money] to get the effort off the ground, and we’ll continue to look for partnerships to leverage that.”
Focus area 4 turned out to be the biggest challenge to manage, according to Reutter. With seven good projects all focusing on important aspects of human health and toxin detection, the allocated $400,000 simply did not stretch far enough for everyone. “Getting them down to that budget was difficult, and in the end, the University of Toledo added $15,000 to three of the projects housed there,” Reutter says.
The remaining $200,000 went to focus area 5, where three researchers will investigate social influences, decision making and nutrient management policies in the heavily agricultural Maumee River basin, which contributes much of the problem phosphorus to Lake Erie.
“Our strong statewide effort will help protect water supplies from potential blooms this summer while we look for the most efficient ways to prevent future blooms,” says co-chair Dr. Thomas Bridgeman of the University of Toledo, who is also leading one of the projects.