Kent State faculty, grad students offer solutions for rising toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie

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0914 Lake erie

Ashleigh Metzinger

Kent State researchers have spent over a year studying toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protective Agency, harmful algal blooms, or HABs, “sicken” and kill humans and animals. Drinking or swimming in water contaminated by HABs can cause “serious” health problems, including “rashes, stomach and liver illness, respiratory problems and neurological effects.”

HABs also create “dead zones,” areas of water where little oxygen is available. Aquatic life is forced to leave the contaminated area or die.

According to the website lakeerielgae.com, HABs are caused by excessive amounts of phosphorous in the water. The nutrient, primarily found in fertilizer, feeds the algae and bacteria so they grow at rapid rates.

A research team made up of Kent State faculty and staff, along with three graduate students from the College of Public Health, studied the current efforts and policies in place to combat the blooms and other water basin programs across the country. With over a year of research, the team gathered its findings and suggested policy tools into a report.

The project was funded by The Ohio State University Resource Center.

“The funding was based on a grant application submitted by our Center for Public Policy and Health,” said Joshua Filla, outreach coordinator for Kent State’s Center of Public Policy and Health and project team member. “The funding provided came from the United States Geological Survey, a federal government agency with water-related responsibilities.”

Kent State students can join in efforts to reduce nutrients overflow into Lake Erie.

According to the U.S. EPA, using phosphate-free detergents, soaps and household cleaners, cleaning up after your pet and limiting fertilizer use are all easy steps in helping reduce nutrients overflow. More tips are available on the U.S. EPA’s website.

“(Kent State) students and residents can be aware that how they manage their own properties and lifestyles can impact Lake Erie. Kent is in the Lake Erie Watershed, and the over-fertilization of yards or gardens, for example, can contribute to the problem,” said John Hoornbeek, director of Kent State’s Center for Public Policy and Health, said. “However, the major nutrient enrichment problems facing Lake Erie are in the Western Basin, while the Cuyahoga River Watershed … flows to the lake’s Central Basin. Significant sources of nutrients in Lake Erie’s western basin include agricultural runoff and wastewater flows from large urban sources.”

After reviewing 32 water basin programs, the research team picked three programs that compared to the Ohio Lake Erie basin policies for deeper investigation: The Chesapeake Bay Program, the Long Island Sound Study and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

“The three basin programs that we chose to focus on in some detail were ones that appeared most likely to yield useful insights for the Ohio Lake Erie basin based on these criteria, as well as evidence that they had developed nutrient management processes, which could inform efforts in Lake Erie,” Hoornbeek said.

Graduate students majoring in public health, Anisha Akella Naga Venkata, Saurabh Kalla and Edward Chiyaka, played a large role in researching the 32 other programs.

“I was initially involved in compiling summaries of the 32 basin-wide nutrient reduction programs in the U.S. and identifying programs that could be used to draw policy (insights),” Venkata said.

Venkata said it took her the entire last spring semester to complete the research.

After analyzing the different programs’ strategies, project members suggested multiple approaches they believe should be considered for possible policies. According to the report, the team suggested for state and local involvement in reducing nutrient flow to the Ohio Lake Erie basin.

Chiyaka, who joined the team in July 2015 to learn more about “research and working in a team,” believes the research results can promote further awareness.

“Sharing of study results is always as important as doing the study, for it allows the community to know what has been, and is, going on,” Chiyaka said. “Kent State students and the Kent community can help by sharing the results from our study and also lobbying for policies that (reduce) fertilizer use in the state and locally.”

Not only did Hoornbeek and his team want to provide potential policy tools, according to the report, they hope their findings “(contribute) to productive dialogue and concrete progress.”

Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Canada are all stakeholders in the issue, as they all surround the freshwater lake. The states have conflicting views on ways to approach reducing the toxic blooms.

“There is an ongoing dialogue between the various state, federal and international jurisdictions that exist in the Lake Erie basin about how to address the nutrient enrichment and resulting algal blooms,” Filla said. “We hope that we have been able to establish a menu of options, in the form of policy tools and programs being implemented in other states, to help guide those discussions.”

Not only did the project provide extensive research about the epidemic, it also provided Kent State students with an opportunity to work in a professional setting.

“Working on this project was a great opportunity for me to work and interact with other researchers in trying to solve a real problem,” Chiyaka said. “It was interesting just how individuals with diverse backgrounds can work on a common cause with the great guidance of the principal investigator, (Hoornbeek).”

Kalla, who previously worked on water quality in India, was eager to gain more experience.

“When I heard of this project, I thought it would provide me a different dimension of bringing in policy tools in order to improve water quality,” Kalla said. “This opportunity has given me much exposure with academics, as well as with professional point of view.”

The future of Lake Erie may depend on the efforts of nutrients reduction.

“The future depends on how much we take care of our natural resources,” Kalla said. “I am really afraid if the situation is not getting better, one of the … Great Lakes would see some bad days pretty soon.”

However, there is still hope for the freshwater lake to be a place of leisure and sustainability.

“Lake Erie has faced these kinds of challenges before, and water quality improvements have been made,” Filla said. “If systematic and collaborative efforts are made to address the current nutrient enrichment problem in Lake Erie, the experiences of the other programs we investigated suggest that it is likely that improvements can be made to lake water quality.”

Ashleigh Metzinger is a health reporter, contact her at [email protected]