Kent State Researchers to Launch Three New Studies to Monitor Lake Erie

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Kent State University researchers will launch three new studies of harmful algal blooms (HAB) in Lake Erie this spring as part of an overall $2 million water quality initiative by the Ohio Board of Regents. 

Harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie can produce toxins that make water hazardous to drink and force cities to use additional treatment steps to remove the toxins. In August, nearly 500,000 of the city of Toledo’s customers were without safe tap water over a weekend due to the HAB in Lake Erie. 

Protecting Drinking Water
A $250,000 project, “Harmful Algal Bloom Detection, Mapping and Warning Network: Sandusky Bay,” is aimed at protecting the Sandusky city water supply. Partnering on the effort are Bowling Green State University and The Ohio State University’s Stone Lab. Kent State College of Arts and Sciences’ Darren Bade, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, and Joe Ortiz, Ph.D., professor of geology, will be monitoring water quality in Sandusky Bay and the southern shore of Lake Erie from the Western Basin Islands to Avon Point. They will be working closely with the water treatment plant operators in that area and may be able to provide early warnings of cyanobacteria algal bloom outbreaks.

Bade and Ortiz will also coordinate with NASA on aerial overflights to collect hyperspectral visible remote sensing data to track changes in the intensity and position of the algal and cyanophyte bloom as it develops. They will coordinate with Ohio Division of Natural Resources Watercraft and the United States Geological Survey, Lake Erie Biological Station on field operations.  

“We hope that in participation with the Ohio EPA we may also extend this knowledge to other cities and townships that may draw water from the Lake,” Bade said.

The researchers’ long term goals are to get a better basic understanding of the conditions around the Sandusky Bay that promote or limit the cyanobacterial blooms that occur there. They also want to understand why the type of cyanobacteria is different in the Sandusky Bay compared to the Maumee Bay.

Some of the conditions they’ll be studying are the phosphorus and nitrogen content of the water and the transformation of these nutrients in the lake. Sandusky Bay is prone to cyanobacterial blooms because a large majority of the watershed of the Sandusky River consists of agricultural lands that release nutrients into the river that then flow to the Lake. These nutrients fuel the growth of cyanobacteria in the Sandusky Bay and out into the lake. The shallowness of the bay also provides an ample amount of light for cyanobacteria and other algae to grow.

“Historically we have relied on limiting the amount of phosphorus that gets to the lake to reduce the algal blooms, and this is still a prudent path going forward,” Bade said. “However, my collaborators and I have determined that there are times when the amount of nitrogen in the water is limiting the growth of algal blooms, which begs the question whether we should also focus on keeping nitrogen out of the lake.”

Bade said that there are some transformations of nitrogen that occur in the lake that may either increase or decrease the amount of nitrogen available to fuel algal blooms. Through funding from Ohio Sea Grant, his lab is studying some of these transformations to better understand their magnitude and influence.

“The reason that nitrogen might limit growth now, when we historically thought it was phosphorus, may be simply because we have let the input of phosphorus get so high that it is in excess of even what the algae can use,” Bade said. “So we should still tackle the phosphorus problem, but our focus on phosphorus has left us without a lot of knowledge on the role of nitrogen and this is where I hope to make a contribution.”

Studying the genes, pathways and regulatory factors
The second study, led by Xiaozhen Mou, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, was awarded $40,112 to isolate cyanobacterial toxin-degrading bacteria from Lake Erie.  She’ll also identify genes and pathways that are involved in harmful algal bloom toxin degradation, which has implications for HAB toxin bioremediation. Samples will be taken from Lake Erie and experiments will be performed on the Kent campus.

“Lake Erie is an important water source for millions of humans and numerous wildlife species,” Mou said. “I am interested in searching for effective and “green” ways to detoxify toxin-contaminated water.”

Mapping relationships and flows of information

The third award, a $65,166 grant, goes to the College of Arts and Sciences’ Kelly Turner, Ph.D., assistant professor of geography, Oscar Rocha, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, and John Hoornbeek, Ph.D., associate professor of health policy and management in the College of Public Health. Starting this summer, they’ll be using social network analysis (SNA) to "map" relationships and flows of information between stakeholders who manage or make policy decisions about land and water resources that contribute to harmful algae blooms.

Turner explained that SNA empirically explores the old adage: "it's not just what you know, but who you know." They’ll use the network map to examine how information about best management practices to control phosphorus runoff is captured and shared across different stakeholder groups. They’ll then be able to identify gaps in the knowledge chain that need to be filled.

The study feeds into two other projects spearheaded by faculty at the University of Toledo and The Ohio State University: a cost benefit analysis of management practices and a decision support data repository.

“While improving our understanding of the science behind algae blooms and our capacity to monitor and forecast them is important, more information doesn’t always lead to the management changes needed to solve important environmental problems,” Turner said. “This is referred to as the "knowledge-to-action" gap and the algae bloom issue is a classic example: we know the cause is nutrient loading into Lake Erie, so preventing them from occurring in the first place is ultimately a social question about vested interests in the status quo and regulatory or policy barriers.”

 

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Media Contact:

Jim Maxwell, jmaxwel2@kent.edu, 330-672-8028