Track Blooms from the Source | Ohio Sea Grant

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Track Blooms from the Source

These projects aim to improve existing technologies and develop new methods to track algal blooms from start to finish, ensuring a healthy environment

Projects in this focus area aim to improve use of existing technologies, as well as develop new methods to detect, prevent and mitigate harmful algal blooms and their impacts. This will help to ensure drinking water safety and a healthy environment for lakeshore residents by connecting many of the potential causes and effects of harmful algal blooms, from the runoff that fuels them to the toxins that contaminate water supplies, to what makes them produce toxins in the first place.


HAB Detection, Mapping and Warning Network: Maumee Bay Area

Principal Investigator

Thomas Bridgeman, University of Toledo

Project Summary

This project focuses on tracking the movement and intensity of harmful algal blooms (HABs) that form in Maumee Bay and then move toward the Toledo and Oregon, Ohio water treatment plant intakes to develop warning networks for Lake Erie’s western basin, where harmful algal blooms are most common.

The network, which includes other HABRI projects as well as non-HABRI research, provides basin-wide data coverage of bloom-affected areas by streaming data from water quality buoys and sensors positioned near water treatment plant intakes to a public online database called GLOS (Great Lakes Observing System) Data Portal. The researchers also send weekly emails to water utility managers and other stakeholders to report results from weekly sampling cruises between the Oregon and Toledo water intakes.

During the 2016 bloom season, the researchers were able to warn the water treatment plants about a harmful algal bloom in Maumee Bay that was located just five miles from the Toledo and Oregon water intakes, although the plants’ own buoy and water samples didn’t show a bloom. City officials have expressed their appreciation for the warning network and its potential for helping to prevent another water crisis like the 2014 drinking water ban in Toledo.

Combining data from GLOS with information from river sensors and existing climate models will also refine predictive tools that will give water managers more time to react to developing bloom events in the near future, and ultimately will lead to a better understanding of how to prevent harmful algal blooms altogether.

The Bottom Line

This early warning system can be thought of as working toward a “weather radar” for harmful algal blooms, which could reduce water treatment costs during the bloom season. Publicly available real-time HABs data can assure lake users that during much of the summer season, HAB levels are very low.

HAB Detection, Mapping, and Warning Network: Sandusky Bay

Principal Investigator

George Bullerjahn, Bowling Green State University

Project Summary

This project contributed to the development of an algal bloom warning network for Lake Erie’s western basin, where harmful algal blooms are most common. Tailored specifically for their locations, the network provides basin-wide data coverage of bloom-affected areas by streaming data from water quality buoys and sensors positioned near water treatment plant intakes to an online database.

The early warning system in Sandusky Bay already demonstrated its potential during the 2015 season. A rapid increase in chlorophyll, a green plant pigment, was detected on July 17, 2015, indicating that algae were present at the primary water intake for Sandusky’s Big Island Water Works. While the rise in algae happened too quickly to keep the water from entering the treatment plant, operators had enough warning to adjust treatment to prevent a temporary plant shutdown. Maintaining the buoy in the future will continue to extend that early warning capacity to 12-24 hours before contaminated water reaches the plant intake.

The buoy also contributed information to the study of Sandusky Bay’s Planktothrix bloom, a different variety of toxic cyanobacteria than the bloom in the main western basin. Results suggest that nitrogen, an essential nutrient for algal growth just like phosphorus, plays a large role in fueling this bloom and needs to be considered in management efforts that aim to address water quality in the bay.

Data sharing with other monitoring systems farther upriver, along with existing climate models, will also refine predictive tools that will give water managers more time to react to developing bloom events in the near future, and ultimately will lead to a better understanding of how to prevent harmful algal blooms altogether.

The Bottom Line

Clean drinking water for Ohio residents and a better understanding of different types of algal blooms.

Identifying the Best Strategy to Reduce Phosphorus Loads to Lake Erie from Agricultural Watersheds; Determining Sources of Phosphorus to Western Lake Erie from Field to Lake

Principal Investigator

Laura Johnson, Heidelberg University
Paula Mouser, The Ohio State University

Project Summary

Ohio researchers are working to identify the best strategies to reduce the amount of phosphorus that runs off of farm fields that reside in the Lake Erie watershed to help improve the overall health of the lake. Experts say soluble phosphorus runoff from farms is an important cause of harmful algal blooms plaguing Lake Erie and other lakes in recent years.

A research team led by Heidelberg University’s National Center for Water Quality Research (NCWQR) is using automated sampling equipment and sensors to test water samples throughout Rock and Honey Creeks (subwatersheds of the Sandusky), and the Blanchard River (sub-watershed of the Maumee) to identify possible high phosphorus-contributing locations and different sources of phosphorus runoff that may contribute to loading into Lake Erie. Researchers at Bowling Green State University are conducting similar measurements in the Upper Portage River watershed.

The NCWQR found that phosphorus concentrations from each of the watersheds were similar before, during and after storms, indicating that current agricultural practices across the majority of farms are leading to constant small losses of phosphorus that fuel algal blooms downstream.

Scientists at The Ohio State University and at Bowling Green State University are also using molecular analysis and stable isotope techniques to develop chemical signatures in order to detect where phosphorus entering Lake Erie came from: farm fields, cattle operations, sewage treatment plants or other sources. The research team has received additional funding and will build on past data identifying these sources to then better determine the relative importance of the various sources of phosphorus runoff throughout the watersheds included in the studies.

The team will provide this information to regional modeling experts to help update current watershed models and thus identify the most effective and innovative methods to decrease the amount of phosphorus entering into the Lake Erie watershed.

The Bottom Line

Clean drinking water for communities and money savings for water plants that will be able to apply powdered activated carbon in a more targeted fashion.

HAB Avoidance: Vertical Movement of Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie

Principal Investigator

Thomas Bridgeman, University of Toledo

Project Summary

Researchers from the University of Toledo, along with scientists from NOAA, Bowling Green State University and Sinclair Community College, are working on ways to understand the vertical movement of different types of algae—such as green algae, cyanobacteria and diatoms—throughout the water column to help water treatment plants better prepare for and reduce the amounts of algae they’re taking into their system over the course of a day.

During the 2016 harmful algal bloom season, water samples from boats, automated sensor buoys and autonomous underwater vehicles (small robot submarines, essentially) combined to provide a profile of how algae were moving through the water column during two separate days and nights. In a related project, a drone equipped with a specialized camera developed by NASA scanned the lake surface for floating cyanobacteria.

The results left the investigators “pretty puzzled.” During rough lake conditions that should lead to an even mixing of algae types, green algae were still somewhat concentrated near the surface, while cyanobacteria (which produce the problematic toxin in harmful algal blooms) were more evenly spread out. Only at night were all types of algae distributed evenly in the water column.

In calm conditions, the expected mid-day surface scum of cyanobacteria did not appear. Instead, green algae were again denser near the surface, while at night the even distribution of algae types was only disrupted by diatoms, which sank closer to the bottom of the lake. The confusing results may have been due in part to the unusually small HAB caused by near-drought conditions in 2016.

A planning meeting before the next field season will bring together a number of related research groups to work out details for additional sampling trips during the 2017 bloom season, and to discuss potential explanations for this odd pattern. For now, the researchers are hitting planned milestones as expected, and they have ironed out a number of kinks, from flight permits to sampling equipment breakdowns, that will make this year’s field season more efficient.

The Bottom Line

Scientists are developing methods to help water treatment plants decide on the best times of day and weather conditions for collecting drinking water during harmful algal bloom season.

How Quickly Can Target Phosphorus Reductions Be Met? Robust Predictions From Multiple Watersheds and Lake Models

Principal Investigator

Margaret Kalcic, The Ohio State University

Project Summary

Phosphorus runoff from predominantly agricultural watersheds in northwestern Ohio has been linked to water quality problems in Lake Erie. To reduce the negative impacts in the lake, policymakers have set 2025 as the target year to reduce phosphorus loading by 40 percent, with an interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020, as part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

A multi-university team of modeling experts has developed, calibrated and validated six watershed computer models to determine which conservation practices are most likely to lead to target reductions in phosphorus runoff from the Maumee River watershed into Lake Erie. The tools will be used to evaluate how adoption of conservation measures over time would impact overall water quality, along with predicted effects of climate change.

This project builds on an existing network of collaboration and modeling efforts. The first step was to improve the existing watershed models to more realistically simulate phosphorus application rates, including manure, as well as combined sewer overflows. Then models were calibrated to predict water quality near the mouth of the Maumee River.

Meaningful engagement of a diverse advisory group provides important guidance for the project. In September 2016 the team sought feedback from representatives from the Blanchard River Watershed Partnership, the Defiance Soil and Water Conservation District, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Great Lakes Alliance, the Joyce Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation, Ohio Corn and Wheat, the Ohio Dairy Producers Association, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the Ohio Environmental Council, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Ohio Pork, OSU Extension, Soy Ohio, The Nature Conservancy and USDA-NRCS.

The meeting included a productive conversation about agricultural conservation options to analyze with the models, such as changing fertilizer and manure application rates, timing and level of incorporation into the soil, in addition to growing cover crops, managing subsurface drains and restoring headwater wetlands.

Results from the modeling efforts that followed this discussion were shared in an advisory group meeting in March 2017 to discuss preliminary results and make plans for developing conservation adoption strategies over time and under anticipated changes in climate.

The Bottom Line

Results from a multi-partner watershed modeling effort will guide final development and testing of a model that will provide science-based guidance on how to best achieve target phosphorus runoff reduction goals.

An Investigation of Central Basin Harmful Algal Blooms

Principal Investigator

Justin Chaffin, The Ohio State University

Project Summary

While much of the current research on harmful algal blooms focuses on Lake Erie’s western basin, researchers at Ohio State’s Stone Lab are also exploring what’s happening in the central basin between Lorain, Ohio, and Erie, Pennsylvania.

Goals include identification of cyanobacteria (the bluegreen algae that form harmful algal blooms) that bloom in the central basin, and whether they are capable of producing toxins such as microcystins, which can negatively affect the liver, nervous system and skin.

Stone Lab vessels are sampling four fixed locations once a week, collecting data on dissolved nutrients, water temperature and algal types. In addition, the researchers work with NOAA and other scientists to chase blooms as they occur to determine which types of algae are involved and pass that information on to other agencies.

One example included a bloom of what turned out to be Dolichospermum (formerly called Anabaena) near Fairport Harbor, Ohio in July 2016. Stone Lab scientists had detected the bloom near Avon a few days earlier and notified NOAA and the Ohio EPA so warnings could be updated. The toxin microcystin was not detected in any of the samples taken, but interestingly, conditions at the time were far from textbook for this type of algae, with nitrate, phosphorus and dissolved oxygen concentrations almost the opposite of what the species usually prefers.

Sampling will continue for the next year, while related research projects will continue to investigate what triggers algal blooms to become toxic.

The Bottom Line

Routine sampling is expanding harmful algal bloom monitoring into the central basin of Lake Erie, which will enable agencies to better keep track of Lake Erie’s overall algal bloom situation.

Seasonal Quantification of toxic and nontoxic Planktothrix in Sandusky Bay by qPCR

Principal Investigator

George Bullerjahn, Bowling Green State University

Project Summary

Unlike the algal bloom that forms in Lake Erie’s western basin each year, which is mostly made up of Microcystis cyanobacteria, the harmful algal bloom in adjacent Sandusky Bay consists mainly of Planktothrix, another species of blue-green algae. While both species produce microcystin toxins, the blooms otherwise vary in size, duration, temperature preferences and nutrient requirements.

This project’s goal is to determine whether high density of algae is connected with high toxin levels, and whether environmental conditions such as temperature or waves drive the shift from non-toxic to toxic blooms. Based on a request from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the researchers also included a Planktothrix bloom in the Maumee River that occurred during their sampling period.

Genetic analysis of water samples collected in Sandusky Bay during various weather conditions in the summer of 2016 showed large shifts between toxic and non-toxic Planktothrix types throughout the season. However, there was little correlation between toxin levels and the amount of toxic Planktothrix types, which the researchers attribute to rapid changes in water movement that continually mix toxic and non-toxic algae.

By contrast, sampling in the Maumee River revealed a solid connection between toxin levels and toxic algae, particularly in an area of the river that became almost stagnant during a dry period with little water flow. Those conditions led to a stable bloom with both high algae counts and high toxicity in the samples.

The Bottom Line

Researchers are examining the Planktothrix algal bloom in Sandusky Bay to better understand how bloom size and other environmental factors, such as temperature and water movement, are connected to bloom toxicity.

Early season (March) phosphorus inventory of offshore waters of Lake Erie

Principal Investigator

R. Michael McKay, Bowling Green State University

Project Summary

Although harmful algal blooms happen in the summer, the algae themselves are year-round residents of the water bodies they inhabit — but very little is known about other times in the annual cycle of blooms. In particular for Lake Erie, ice cover and extreme weather conditions in winter and spring prevent regular monitoring and safe sampling.

By partnering with the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards, researchers at Bowling Green State University are able to take advantage of those ships’ ice-breaking capabilities to sample offshore waters in winter and early spring, before state and federal agencies start their monitoring efforts.

In winter of 2016 and 2017, the researchers collected 60 surface water samples for analysis, specifically looking at nutrients such as phosphorus, as well as phytoplankton biomass to determine how algae were growing below the ice. The two winters coincided with low-ice years on Lake Erie, possibly providing a look into the lake’s ice-free future due to a warming climate.

The Bottom Line

Collaboration with Coast Guard personnel has provided scientists with the opportunity for Lake Erie sampling during hard-to-access winter and spring months.