BGSU biologists lead project to protect Sandusky city water supply

BOWLING GREEN, O.—Bowling Green State University biologists will launch a study of harmful algal blooms in Sandusky Bay this spring as 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 leader Dr. George Bullerjahn, a professor of biological sciences.

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.

Even longer-term is solving the basic biological question of why these near-shore environments foster the microorganisms that produce the toxins.

“That’s a question I find very interesting,” Bullerjahn said. “It happens worldwide; we’re not alone in this. If we can understand why it happens, we may be able to take steps to mitigate the problem.”

Beginning in May, sensors deployed in the lake and the bay will gather 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 Dr. Michael McKay, the Ryan Professor of Biology and director of the Marine Program at BGSU; Dr. Joseph Ortiz and Dr. Darren Bade of Kent State, Justin Chaffin of OSU’s Stone Lab research center on Gibralter Island, and Dr. Douglas Kane of Defiance College.

Toledo’s water crisis of last summer drew headlines when an acute outbreak of toxic Microcystis cyanobacteria overwhelmed the water treatment system and residents had to bring water in from outside the city.

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

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.

The Ohio regents last November called upon state experts to contribute their expertise to the problem of water quality in Lake Erie and its impact on Ohio, allocating $2 million to address issues such as excessive nutrient loading, harmful algal blooms, the dead zone, drinking water, agricultural impact and human health.

Five committees established by the regents identified projects addressing these various aspects. The projects are to be completed within the next two years and produce meaningful results. Ohio Sea Grant is administering the grant process.

The lake — its water, inhabitants and surrounding habitat — has long been the topic of research by BGSU faculty and their students.

Bullerjahn and McKay are involved in multiple projects centered on the lake. Their research into dead zones in Lake Erie’s central basin, with Dr. Paul Morris, is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute. The information they are gaining from that study complements their National Science Foundation-funded study of nitrogen cycling in the Great Lakes. They have taken a particular interest in the winter environment of the lake, and were out auguring holes in the ice to collect samples as recently as Jan. 28. That work is presently supported by the National Science Foundation, with additional in-kind contributions from the U.S. Coast Guard and Environment Canada.

Other BGSU faculty study invasive species in the lake and its wetlands, as well as land-use issues impacting the lake and its feeder rivers and streams.