Invested in Water: Ohio's Most Important Natural Resource

Water is a sound investment for a region’s economy — in agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, recreation or power generation. Concerned Ohioans and Kent State researchers are fully invested in water through avocation, research and community activism.

It’s Saturday, 5:58 a.m. in early June. The sun is poised to rise on the shores of Lake Erie as Captain Dave Spangler prepares his charter boat Dr. Bug’s, a 30-foot Grady White, for another day of fishing. Spangler has been fishing Lake Erie since the late 1970s and has been operating his charter boat company for nearly 20 years.Spangler started fishing the lake as it was going through its first recovery from a disaster, and he’s fished the lake ever since. “Lake Erie is one of the best fishing holes in the world,” Spangler says. “I enjoy taking people out fishing, teaching them different ways of catching fish, and just being on the lake.” But Spangler is worried about the future of the amazing resource he knows so well. His biggest concern? The large algae blooms that have been occurring with greater frequency and severity over the last few years. “We’ve had a drop in business, across the board really,” Spangler says, referring to the troubling developments. “It started in 2011 when we had that massive algae bloom. People just didn’t want to come back to that.” The lifelong water enthusiast realizes that research is the key to addressing and solving water quality problems such as phosphorus reduction, nutrient pollution and habitat restoration locally and worldwide. Last fall, Spangler presented at the Central Lake Erie Waterkeeper Conference, which brought together government officials, fishermen, boaters, business people, teachers, environmentalists and the general public to examine the changing Lake Erie. Also at the conference were Kent State researchers who are likewise concerned about and actively researching algae blooms and invasive species in the Great Lakes, and in other aquatic habitats such as wetlands and ponds, as well as the bacterial ecology of streams in our nation’s woodlands, metroparks and urban areas. “I’m really glad there are a lot of people working on this, like those at Kent State,” he says hopefully.  

Northeast Ohio, future growth spot of the world  

Heath Few people know more about the algal bloom problem than Bob Heath, Ph.D. An emeritus professor of biological sciences at Kent State, Heath is a recognized authority on phosphorus and nitrogen dynamics in the Great Lakes and has been awarded more than $2 million in research funding. Heath retired in 2008 following 38 years with Kent State, but he is now busier than ever with research and awareness efforts regarding water quality issues. He serves on the Coastal Resources Advisory Council, the Great Lakes Compact advisory panel and the boards of the Burning River Foundation and the Cleveland Water Alliance. “Water is the ultimate limiting resource,” Heath says. “Humans are able to live without food for five or six weeks without any permanent damage, but we’re unable to live more than five days without water. Populations have always grown up around water, for that reason.” “I believe the entire Great Lakes region in general and Northeast Ohio in particular will be the growth spot of the world, because of its water availability,” Heath says. “The global climate change models show that within 50 years arid regions will become more arid. So the regions that will experience stable growth will be areas that have abundant water readily available. That means high quality water that doesn’t need to be polished at great expense.” Kent State’s Vice President for Research Grant McGimpsey, Ph.D., thinks it makes perfect sense that Kent State is the home to many facets of water research. “This type of research belongs here at Kent State,” McGimpsey says. “Northeast Ohio is the birthplace of the Clean Water Act. We had a serious catastrophic event [the Cuyahoga River burning] that made people in this region start talking about changing things.” Kent State has considerable strength in a broad range of the aquatic sciences and related disciplines, including ecology, hydrology and urban studies. Nearly 30 faculty members are currently engaged in research involving water. “Here at Kent State, we’ve gone about creating a tremendous set of human assets around water research,” McGimpsey says. From studying the bacterial transformation of dissolved organic nitrogen in marine and freshwater environments, to analyzing the effects of pollution on bacterial biodiversity, or developing mosquito control measures that do not adversely affect aquatic ecosystems, Kent State research holds potential at home, across the nation  and worldwide. For instance, Associate Professor of Geography Andrew Curtis, Ph.D., helps to map safe water access in challenging environments such as Haiti and Bangladesh; while Joseph Ortiz, Ph.D., professor of geology, works to improve water quality using electromagnetic sensing techniques. Access to water in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is one of the research areas of Sarah Smiley, Ph.D., assistant professor of geography, and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Ferenc de Szalay, Ph.D., studies ecological processes in freshwater marshes and swamps and Lake Erie coastal wetlands. From grassroots origins to global outreach Ohio native and Lakewood resident Erin Huber is also the type of person who likes to focus on solutions and implement ideas that work. Huber is the executive director and founder of Drink Local. Drink Tap.™ — a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization that encourages people to think about their individual water use and understand how they can use water in more sustainable ways. “We are not living in a bubble,” Huber says. “We are sharing our water with everybody, and it’s very important to wake up to what’s going on. We’re not exempt from our lake drying up or from our water getting polluted. We have to take responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Kent State is taking on that responsibility by addressing the global challenge that water represents, according to McGimpsey. “We’re making an impact not just regionally, but nationally and internationally,” he says. That’s a sentiment that would make Captain Dave Spangler very happy indeed.  

Caption: Bob Heath, Ph.D., KSU photo