Algae bloom initiative a step in the right direction

Columbus — Ohio Sea Grant, on behalf of The Ohio State University, The University of Toledo and the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE), has released the third-year research findings update for the statewide Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative (HABRI), which seeks solutions for harmful algal blooms in Ohio.

The initiative consists of more than 50 science teams working on different critical knowledge gaps identified by front-line state agencies that include the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), Ohio Department of Health (ODH), and Ohio DNR.

The third-year report reveals that the state of Ohio continues to benefit from the initiative:

Early warning systems and forecasts of bloom size and location are giving water treatment plants a high-resolution picture of what could be affecting the drinking water they draw from Lake Erie.

Researchers are working directly with water treatment plant operators to provide practical guidance about producing safe drinking water for cities and towns dealing with algal toxins.

OEPA modified its permit procedure to better safeguard Ohioans when HABRI projects showed that crops might take in microcystins from water treatment residuals used on farm fields. New HABRI research is now helping OEPA refine the methods they use to analyze these byproducts of water treatment and better assess exposure risk.

OEPA sought out HABRI researchers to help develop a Lake Erie open water impairment listing policy and HABRI projects have helped collect data critical for refinement of this indicator. OEPA listed the open waters of the western Lake Erie basin as impaired based on NOAA data and have plans to update it based on HABRI researchers’ recommendations.

ODNR has changed the way that information is collected on algal toxin concentrations in sportfish fillets, sampling more frequently during the harmful algal bloom season and from a wider range of Lake Erie locations to better understand how harmful algal blooms affect sportfish.

HABRI has driven information-sharing and priority-setting between universities and agencies, positioning Ohio to better prevent and manage future crises through ongoing collaborations.

“Having the collaboration with our sister agencies to coordinate research priorities and funding is critically important,” said Craig Butler, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “Likewise, having, through HABRI, a consortium of university experts to take our priorities and quickly do critical, practical research, with conclusions that we can immediately use to inform policy and the public, is invaluable.”

HABRI is funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education, with $7.5 million made available for four rounds of research funding (before matching funds by participating universities) since 2015. Ohio Sea Grant manages the projects, which also include a $500,000 match from OEPA in 2018. Results from the most recent 21 funded projects are expected in 2020.

“Colleges and universities around Ohio are making positive contributions to our state each and every day,” said ODHE Chancellor John Carey. “The Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative is a model of collaborative problem-solving that we should strive to replicate wherever possible. I am so encouraged to see how our higher education assets are being used, alongside other state and local partners, to address real issues that are facing Ohioans.”

We are currently at a critical juncture in algae bloom research and prevention in Ohio. Gov. John Kasich recently fired the Ohio Department of Agriculture director, apparently over a disagreement on how to handle phosphorus runoff in northwest Ohio. You can read all about that story in the Nov. 9 print edition of Ohio Outdoor News.

It may fall to the next governor to make a final determination, but the eight watersheds in question in northwest Ohio that Kasich has deemed as distressed should be labeled just that – distressed. This would kick into gear more efforts to reduce phosphorus runoff from farm fields in the region that directly contribute to the annual blooms.

The Lake Erie region got off easy this year, due to the less severe algae blooms that were seen. We can’t – and shouldn’t – count on the whims of Mother Nature to take care of this problem. It’s time for action now.

Categories: Ohio – Mike Moore

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