Helping Ohio make water quality a priority

When nearly half a million Toledo residents were left without drinking water for days in August 2014, Lake Erie water quality received international attention as it became an issue that affected not only fishermen and beach users, but the general public as well. To address the problem, Ohio State and its academic and agency partners launched several research initiatives to help ensure clean drinking water for Ohio residents.

Soon after Toledo’s water crisis, Ohio State’s Provost Bruce McPheron — then vice president of agricultural administration and dean of CFAES — launched the Field to Faucet initiative, focusing on “end to end” solutions to sustain food production and improve water quality. To help achieve that goal, we have developed partnerships with agricultural and commodity groups while seeking to reduce nutrient inputs and harmful algal blooms (HABs) across Ohio.

Training for more than 12,000 Ohio farmers

Two other goals of the program are to advance HABs research and improve collaboration to accelerate the movement of knowledge from academia to the field. Five projects funded under this initiative with an initial investment of $1 million from CFAES focus on improving the detection of blooms, removing nutrients from manure and improving management of agricultural data so that producers can optimize fertilizer application. We’ve found that collaborations between academic researchers, Extension personnel, governmental agencies and agricultural organizations allow research-tested management methods to be used more quickly by producers. A great example is the Fertilizer Certification training in which OSU Extension, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation collaborate to highlight the latest methods for fertilizer application to more than 12,000 Ohio farmers.

Algal bloom research initiative

In early 2015, representatives from Ohio State and the University of Toledo worked with Ohio Sea Grant to establish the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative (HABRI). This brought 10 universities across the state together with $3.9 million in funding from the Ohio Department of Higher Education to address Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom problem.

Phosphorus enters Ohio waters from agriculture, suburban and urban sources, and many HABRI projects focus on better understanding of how this runoff can be reduced without negative impacts on farmers and municipalities. The toxins produced by these algal blooms cause damage to the liver and nervous system, and have killed dogs playing in waters with blooms. HABRI projects also are working to ensure public health by identifying better ways to detect and remove toxins from drinking water and making it a high priority for water treatment plants. Further, we believe another helpful strategy in producing potable water is to avoid lake water with toxins in the first place. Finding water that doesn’t have to be treated is cheaper and easier. A number of HABRI projects track and predict the location of blooms to address this need.

Lake Erie algal bloom forecast

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been working on forecasting Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom and issued its fifth annual forecast from Ohio State’s Stone Lab on July 7. Understanding the likely size and timing of the bloom helps local businesses, residents and government officials plan for its impact. It also ensures that visitors not only understand where the bloom is located, but where the water is safe for recreational activities. An accompanying webinar allows members of the public to ask questions and get a better understanding of the issue.

In 2015, researchers at 10 universities received the first round of HABRI and Field to Faucet funding. As a result, projects are already providing needed answers that help water treatment plant operators, regulators, farmers and government officials deal with harmful algal blooms in the present, better predict the situation for coming years and lay the foundation for longer-term mitigation and prevention activities.

Early warning system

For example, an early-warning system for algal blooms placed in Sandusky Bay last year was able to alert the water treatment plant of a spike in algae coming into the water intake. It also showed that the algae were not the type that produces toxins. This helped plant operators adjust water treatment accordingly to maintain the production of safe, potable water.

And, because agencies like the Ohio EPA, Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Department of Health have been involved with project selection and prioritizing from the beginning, researchers can know that their findings will be used to actively improve the lives of people living in the Lake Erie watershed and throughout Ohio.—Jay Martin of the Field to Faucet initiative and Chris Winslow, Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab, writing on Ohio State’s Buckeye Voices website