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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.

Projects

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

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 researchers from NOAA, Bowling Green State University, and Sinclair Community College, are working to understand the vertical movement of different types of algae – such as green algae, cyanobacteria and diatoms – throughout the water column. Their goal is 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 and 2017 harmful algal bloom seasons, 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 throughout the water column during several separate 24-hour periods. In a related project, a drone equipped with a specialized camera developed by NASA scanned the lake surface for floating cyanobacteria.

The researchers are still analyzing the data, along with information collected from other sources, but initial trends indicate that predicting the location of cyanobacteria in the water column isn’t a reliable way to prevent water treatment plant intakes from drawing algae into the system. Even when there is a dense surface scum of cyanobacteria, there is still a great deal of cyanobacteria throughout the water column and can be drawn into the intake. In addition, water currents and mixing can overwhelm any advantage gained by tracking the cyanobacteria’s regular vertical movement in the water column.

The data collected will contribute to NOAA HAB Tracker models that will be able to incorporate both vertical and horizontal bloom movements into more powerful future predictions.

The Bottom Line

Scientists are developing methods to help water treatment plants decide on the best spot for collecting drinking water.

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, policy makers have set 2025 as the target year to reduce phosphorus loading by 40% (based on 2008 loads), with an interim goal of a 20% reduction by 2020.

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 were then used to evaluate how adoption of conservation measures over time would impact overall water quality. These models are also being used to estimate how climate change predictions for the region, which include an increased number of more severe storms, will impact efforts to reduce phosphorus runoff.

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 provided important guidance for the project. The scenarios tested were not able to reach the dissolved phosphorus target nine out of ten years, as specified in Annex 4 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. However, many of these scenarios approach the total phosphorus target load. Another finding was that recommended practices to reduce phosphorus runoff can be mixed and matched to work with farmer preferences and opportunities.

Widespread adoption of practices will be necessary, as many scenarios required multiple management practices across at least half the farm fields in the Maumee watershed, so this mix-and-match approach could be essential to achieving the 40% reduction goal.

The Bottom Line

Results from a multi-partner watershed modeling effort guided development and application of a model that can provide science-based guidance on how best to 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 blue-green 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.

Samples were collected from the central basin between 2013 and 2017 to identify the cyanobacteria in the water, and to measure water quality parameters such as temperature, dissolved oxygen and phosphorus and nitrogen content. In 2016 and 2017, more frequent sampling in June-August targeted identification of any algal toxins in the water.

The researchers found that central basin blooms occurred earlier in the year than western basin blooms, and that June and early July central basin blooms are mostly made up of Dolichospermum. Sampling indicated that this cyanobacterium can produce saxitoxins, which are of emerging concern in Ohio waters. Microcystis, the main cyanobacterium present in western basin blooms, was found in the central basin in August and September when the western basin bloom spread eastward.

Collaborators on the project included the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which analyzed algal samples for cyanotoxin-producing genes, and NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), which used imagery from MODIS and MERIS satellite sensors to quantify bloom biomass. The research team also worked with Lake County Metroparks to collect samples near a beach in the park district.

The Bottom Line

Routine sampling has expanded harmful algal bloom monitoring into the central basin of Lake Erie, providing additional timely information to state and federal agencies.

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 for 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 was to determine whether high density of algae are connected with high toxin levels, and whether environmental conditions like temperature or waves drive the shift from non-toxic to toxic blooms, using genetic analysis of the algae types found in the water. Based on a request from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the researchers also included a bloom in the Maumee River that occurred during their sampling period.

Sampling the 2016 Maumee River bloom 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.

In Sandusky Bay, the heavy rains of 2015 and the drought in 2016 had little impact on bloom biomass and toxin levels, which were quite similar despite differences in runoff. This is in stark contrast to the Microcystis bloom in western Lake Erie, where the 2015 rains yielded a record-breaking bloom, while the 2016 drought resulted in very low algal biomass.

However, there was little correlation between toxin levels and the amount of toxic Planktothrix types in Sandusky Bay, which the researchers attribute to rapid changes in water movement that continually mix toxic and non-toxic algae.

The Bottom Line

Researchers examined 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. They found that Planktothrix blooms behave quite differently from Microcystis blooms.

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

Principal Investigator

R. Michael McKay, Bowling Green State University


Project Summary

Winter and early spring tend to be a big gap in understanding of the Lake Erie ecosystem, due to ice cover and extreme weather conditions that prevent regular monitoring and safe sampling in the lake during those months.

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 2016-2018, the researchers collected about 75 offshore surface water samples for analysis, specifically looking into nutrients like phosphorus as well as phytoplankton biomass to determine how algae were growing below the ice. The 2016 and 2017 winters coincided with extreme low-ice years on Lake Erie, possibly providing a look into the lake’s ice-free future due to a warming climate. The 2018 winter ice cover, in contrast, was more extensive than in other winters over the past 45 years.

Data from the surveys was submitted to the National Science Foundation’s Biological & Chemical Oceanography Data Management Office for inclusion in the archive of a previous project. These data are available to other researchers for use in future projects.

The Bottom Line

Working with the Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker CCGS Griffon allowed the researchers access to Lake Erie waters before the ice cover melted away, offering a look into a part of the lake’s life cycle that tends to be poorly understood.

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 farm fields in the Lake Erie watershed to help improve the overall health of the Great Lake. Experts say soluble phosphorus runoff from farms is the primary driver 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 used automated sampling equipment and sensors to test water samples throughout four watersheds – Rock and Honey Creeks (subwatersheds of the Sandusky), the upper Portage River watershed, and the Blanchard River (subwatershed of the Maumee) – to identify possible high phosphorus-contributing locations and different sources of phosphorus runoff that may contribute to loading into Lake Erie.

They found that small losses of phosphorus due to agricultural practices are a major contributor to phosphorus runoff into the lake, and these losses were consistent across all of the subwatersheds, implying that targeting watersheds with high exports will be very difficult. However, they identified an approach to sampling that would help target watersheds with higher exports without sampling as intensively as needed to calculate loads. Ongoing development of a method to determine whether those phosphorus losses are from recently applied fertilizers or legacy phosphorus leaching from the soil will help target efforts to address the problem further.

Scientists at The Ohio State University are also using molecular analysis techniques to develop chemical signatures of organic phosphorus entering Lake Erie from various sources, such as farm fields, cattle operations and sewage treatment plants. The research team has received additional HABRI funding, and will continue to use the data already obtained to better track manure-derived phosphorus runoff.

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 lessen phosphorus entering into the Lake Erie watershed.

The Bottom Line

Tracking phosphorus from agricultural sources through sampling and chemical fingerprinting can help determine how best to avoid nutrient runoff that fuels Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom problem.