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Scientists track fertilizer's effects on Ohio algae bloom

This year, researchers and health officials are on the lookout for the makings of another toxic algae episode.

By Brooks Hays
2014 algae bloom in Lake Erie, as seen from space. File Photo by UPI/NASA/NOAA
2014 algae bloom in Lake Erie, as seen from space. File Photo by UPI/NASA/NOAA

TOLEDO, Ohio, April 13 (UPI) -- While NASA satellites monitor algae blooms from above, scientists in Ohio will keep an eye on the toxic blooms from ground level -- or more accurately, from water level.

Last summer, the people of Toledo and northwest Ohio went without tap water and showers for two days. Health officials were forced to shut off the water supply from Lake Erie after an algae bloom threatened to leak a liver toxin into the system. Residents had to rely on bottled water. Restaurants were shut down during the height of tourist season.

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This year, researchers and health officials are on the lookout for the makings of another episode. As spring rains continue to wash fertilizers off farmlands and into the streams and rivers that funnel into Lake Erie, mats of algae are likely to grow in size.

While environmental groups, scientists and policy makers fight to curb agricultural runoff, researchers on the water will be monitoring what seems like the inevitable. Using a series of algae-sensing buoys, researchers will keep an eye on chemical changes in the water. The floating sensors will feed water quality information to local water treatment plants and area science labs.

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The algae-detectors will measure factors like dissolved oxygen, temperature, turbidity, wind speed and weather, allowing scientists to not just monitor growing algae mats but predict where they're going and whether they're likely to leach threatening toxins.

"We know what causes these blooms: It's nutrients from farm runoff. What we don't fully understand is what determines whether these cyanobacterial [blue-green algae] blooms are highly toxic or not," Gregory J. Dick, a marine microbiologist at the University of Michigan, told the Toledo Blade.

While public health officials and area scientists say sensors and improved predictions are a step in the right direction, some question the wisdom in accepting the status quo. Improved monitoring does little to address the reality that this summer will feature another toxic algae bloom.

"If everything stays the same, we'll probably have a pretty average year, although why should we be OK with the harmful algal blooms that we had last year?" Kristy Meyer, director of agricultural, health and clean-water programs at the advocacy group Ohio Environmental Council, told the Columbus Dispatch.

Few are OK with that reality, but reducing fertilizer runoff has been difficult -- even as more and more people, including farmers, acknowledge the problem.

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"The question is how do we do that? What is the way that we do our best to ensure clean water for all and protect that incomparable natural resource and also continue to provide food?" asked Bruce McPheron, dean for agricultural administration at Ohio State University.

"When we think about our water, we also need to worry about our food supply and vice versa. They're not incompatible."

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