Dr. George Bullerjahn, center, professor of biological science at BGSU, works with Timothy Davis, left, research scientist with NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, and Taylor Tuttle, right, master’s student in biological science, as they study incubated water samples from Lake Erie for harmful algal blooms.

Would You Drink This?

Dr. George Bullerjahn, center, professor of biological science at BGSU, works with Timothy Davis, left, research scientist with NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, and Taylor Tuttle, right, master’s student in biological science, as they study incubated water samples from Lake Erie for harmful algal blooms.

In August 2014, the city of Toledo issued a “do not drink” advisory on its water supply that directly affected more than 500,000 people throughout northwest Ohio. A toxic algal bloom had polluted the water near the city’s intake in Lake Erie.

This problem is not unique to Lake Erie, but is, in fact, a global phenomenon that affects millions of people across the world.

In freshwater lakes around the globe, this blue-green slick is often seen floating on the water. These algae blooms result from an overabundance of what’s known as cyanobacteria, which may be toxic to humans and other animals.

Since the Toledo water crisis, biologists at Bowling Green State University, who have long studied the ecology of Lake Erie, are now turning their research to focus more on these harmful algal blooms, or HAB, and what makes them turn toxic.

The University hosted an international workshop on April 13–14, 2015, featuring researchers from around the world. During “Global Solutions to Regional Problems: Collecting Global Expertise to Address the Problem of Harmful Algal Blooms,” attendees from five countries and 15 states discussed the current science on algae blooms and identified knowledge gaps in bloom prevention and mitigation. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sponsored the workshop.

Meeting topics included the biology of bloom-forming species, environmental factors underlying bloom formation, sensor development in bloom detection, prediction of blooms and best practices for control.

“The workshop successfully brought together experts who often do not have the opportunity to share ideas on how cyanobacterial blooms form and can be mitigated,” said Dr. George Bullerjahn, a professor of biology at BGSU and co-organizer of the workshop.

“The event really put BGSU on the map in terms of this globally important issue,” said co-organizer Dr. Mike McKay, Ryan Professor of Biological Sciences at BGSU. “Devastating, large-scale harmful algae bloom events are becoming increasingly frequent, and in part because of the success of this workshop and the networking opportunities that it provided, BGSU will be looked upon to help lead the fight to mitigate and prevent harmful algae blooms in the future.”

“As a scientific community we have made great strides in what we know about the cyanobacteria and what produces the toxins. We know much about the who, the what, the where and when, but we know less about the why. We are still trying to understand why they produce these toxic compounds,” said Dr. Tim Davis, a molecular HAB ecologist at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab.

“Harmful algal blooms, while they are an issue, they are the symptom of a larger issue, which is excess nutrients going into our system,” he said.

The complex chain that leads to algae blooms in freshwater begins not in lakes, but on land. Farmers often overfertilize their fields. The excess fertilizer, laden with nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, washes into creeks and rivers, where it’s eventually carried to lakes.

For example, only a fraction of the nitrogen applied to soils ends up in crops; in some regions, it’s less than 20 percent. When the excess eventually reaches freshwater, phosphorus and nitrogen fertilize aquatic algae such as cyanobacteria—just as it encourages plants on land to grow. The algae proliferate, becoming massive blooms.

“In order to mitigate and reduce the blooms in our lakes all over the world, we have to take great strides in reducing our footprint. This is a long-term solution and the only long-term solution that we recognize as a community. If we reduce the nutrient load, then we will reduce the blooms,” Davis explained.

While the green color of waves on Lake Erie’s beaches may hint at turquoise tropical waters, the discoloration is an indicator of unhealthy levels of toxic algae.

During an open forum about algae held at BGSU Firelands, Scudder Mackey, chief of the Ohio Office of Coastal Management in Sandusky, said the state of Ohio has been concerned about algal blooms for many years, but that the focus was on tourism.

“You have green water, people don’t want to go fishing or bring their boats. What happened in Toledo, that was a slap in the face for the state. It changed from an economic tourist issue to a public health issue and that caught a lot of attention. Unfortunately, we had to have an event like that to get the appropriate resources allocated to address the problem.

“Agriculture is a big business. Before the Toledo crisis, there was proposed legislation that had strong controls for the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture to regulate fertilizer,” Mackey explained. “As it went through the general assembly it became watered down primarily because of ‘Big Ag.’ In this case it was the economics of agribusiness. They have to make a living as well. It wasn’t until public health and safety came into play that now we can do the things we wanted to do several years ago.”

Since the Toledo crisis, more than $40 million has been allocated to the Western Lake Erie basin to help address the toxic algae problem.

Ohio Senate Bill 1, which was recently signed into law, bans the application of fertilizer and manure on rain-covered, frozen and snow-covered ground and also takes other steps to deal with the nutrient problem.

“I think it’s a good first step,” Bullerjahn said. “I know people out there that think it should have gone further, but these days it’s so hard to get any agreement at the legislative level that any step is a good one. It covers more than just application of fertilizer; it’s fairly comprehensive.”

During BGSU’s workshop, NOAA hosted an event to collect comments from the public to submit to Congress in June as part of the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2014.

NOAA representatives asked the attendees for their input on:

  • Regional priorities for ecological, economic and social research on the causes and impacts of HABs and low oxygen;
  • Improved monitoring and early warning, and new approaches to prevention, control and mitigation;
  • Communication and information dissemination methods that state and local governments may use to educate and inform the public;
  • An action strategy for managing future situations.

Many of the attendees expressed a need for better reporting mechanisms, even going as far as to say that reports about the health of Lake Erie should be included in daily weather reports on local television newscasts. One business owner said the dissemination of information must be simpler.

“I want to log in to a website and see if it’s safe to swim in the water, is it safe to go fishing or take my kids into the lake. I don’t think the forecast at present can do that right now.”

BGSU hosted an international workshop for researchers from five countries and 15 states who share an urgent concern about the global proliferation of algal blooms.

Another stakeholder mentioned a lack of accountability. “Is the lake getting healthier, or sicker?” she asked. “That’s what I want to know. How do we measure that? We need to say what you are doing is or isn’t working.”

This summer, Bullerjahn and McKay are leading a team studying harmful algal blooms in Sandusky Bay to help answer that question. It’s part of an overall $2 million Lake Erie water quality initiative by the Ohio Board of Regents.

The $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 Kent State University and The Ohio State University’s Stone Lab. The endeavor has several goals, said Bullerjahn.

The first is to provide early warning of toxic cyanobacteria outbreaks to area water plant managers so they can respond quickly and appropriately to the intensity and extent of the toxic bloom. Algae blooms in the bay are capable of being carried eastward along the shore of Lake Erie near the water intake.

The longer-term goal is to better understand these blooms by monitoring water conditions and measuring and mapping toxin levels. These data will be used to develop models that can predict the conditions under which blooms become toxic and pose a health concern.

In May 2015, sensors deployed in the lake and the bay began gathering data, which will be uploaded by satellite link and sent directly to the team’s cell phones, for real-time information.

The project team includes McKay, Dr. Joseph Ortiz and Dr. Darren Bade of Kent State, Dr. Justin Chaffin of OSU’s Stone Lab research center on Gibralter Island, and Dr. Douglas Kane of Defiance College.

The project will be run out of Sandusky’s Big Island Water Works, which will serve as a research and teaching facility for both the Bowling Green and BGSU Firelands campuses.

“I got involved so our students can participate in this research,” said Dr. Ram Veerapaneni, an assistant professor of biology at BGSU Firelands. “Being a branch campus, we don’t have the same research opportunities as the main campus. Now, because we will be working here with Dr. Bullerjahn, and possibly other faculty members, hopefully the students will enjoy it and maybe transfer to the main campus to work with him on a bachelor’s and get graduate degrees as well.”

“This is a big project and we need the help. It works for both of us. It provides research opportunities for Firelands students and I get support on the weekly samples we’ll be doing,” said Bullerjahn. “We will have to map the blooms with satellites and test for nutrients and toxins. This will happen weekly from May until the middle of November.”

Sandusky Bay contains the same toxin, although a different organism, Planktothrix, produces it, Bullerjahn said. Microcystis blooms occur in the open waters of the lake, whereas Planktothrix thrive in near-shore environments around Sandusky.

With support from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, BGSU is a global leader in the fight to mitigate and prevent harmful algae blooms.

Unlike Microcystis, whose blooms are intense but short-lived, generally beginning in July and lasting only a matter of days, Planktothrix is present at a lower level in Sandusky Bay from May to November, and can increase dangerously at times. “You can take a glass of water from Sandusky at about any time during those months and it will be greenish in color,” Bullerjahn said. Managing the bay’s algae situation is different from those of Maumee Bay and Lake Erie’s western basin, he said.

During the open forum at Firelands, the superintendent of Sandusky’s water supply talked about the challenges he faces every year.

Doug Keller said his focus this summer is trying to “survive the 2015 algal bloom season and be able to supply the water and make sure we can handle all the algae toxins that do come in and remove them.”

Keller also said the Toledo crisis spurred them to create an emergency response plan if there is a HAB breakthrough. “It’s lose sleep time sometimes in the summer,” he said.

It’s not only people surrounding Lake Erie who lose sleep every summer. Researchers and residents around the world are also dealing with a similar problem.

McKay and Bullerjahn oversaw a group of undergraduate students on a study abroad trip to Lake Balaton in Hungary over spring break. The lake is the largest in central Europe and has many of the same characteristics as Lake Erie.

In winter 2014, both researchers visited the Balaton Limnological Research Institute, which studies the algal blooms on the lake, and saw an opportunity for student research.

“It’s a shallow lake. They have similar summers as we do and the lake gets warm,” McKay explained. “The lake is also surrounded by an area dominated by agriculture with the same concerns about nutrient runoff.”

Ten students traveled to the lake and participated in a sampling trip on the water and spent time analyzing those samples. They also traveled to the Kis-Balaton Reservoir, a geo-engineered wetlands area that helps reduce the amount of nutrients that travel into the lake.

Water choked with the Microcystis toxin resulted in a “do not drink” advisory that affected more than 500,000 people in northwest Ohio and captured national media attention in August 2014.

“The main flow into Lake Balaton is from a river on the western end, which drains a lot of agricultural land, similar to Lake Erie,” said McKay. “But, they’ve engineered a wetlands for the river to go through so the nutrients can be sequestered. A lot of cyanobacterial bloom problems they’ve had have been addressed fairly effectively through the wetland.

“They’ve demonstrated that this kind of response can be very effective, and the students got to see this firsthand.”

Once back on campus, the students were tasked with looking at nutrient control in Lake Erie versus Lake Balaton. “Students know we have these recurring algal blooms in Lake Erie, but this trip had them look more deeply at why they occur and how to mitigate them. It took a visit to a foreign country to help many of them recognize what is happening in our own backyard,” McKay said.

Both researchers will give incoming freshmen an up-close and personal look at the problems facing the Western Basin this fall with a new BGSU seminar called “When the Water Is Undrinkable.”

Their first class meeting will include a trip to the lake to experience the toxic blooms firsthand, take samples and explore the threat to the water supply from various angles, both scientific and socially.

“A lot of students will be familiar with the lake’s algal blooms and maybe there will be another crisis before school starts, but perhaps some of them won’t have given it much thought. This could help them place a value on our water supply,” said McKay.

Throughout the workshop and open forums, the message was clear: this problem took years to create and will take years to fix. However, researchers are confident significant improvements can and will be made.

“We want to give a message of hope that we are moving in the right direction. We’ve made great strides in understanding HABs and are continuing to do that as a collective body,” said Davis. 

“We know why these blooms occur; however, given the socio-economic landscape in which we live, addressing the problem will be long-term and will require creative solutions,” said McKay.