TOLEDO, Ohio – There’s a whole network of satellites, underwater robots and scientific tools watching for toxic algae on Lake Erie. But when it comes to predicting where and when harmful blooms will show up on the Ohio’s rivers and reservoirs, there’s still a lot of mystery.
Researchers now are beginning to look at how to determine which waterways around the state are at the greatest risk and when a crisis could be on the way. Doing that also could point the way to preventing it from happening and provide a model for states around the nation seeing an increasing number of waterways plagued by harmful algae.
Another project underway is aiming to set up a series of sensors along the Ohio River — from Wheeling, West Virginia, to Louisville, Kentucky — that would signal when there might be a problem.
Unlike the annual blooms that spread unsightly shades of green across western Lake Erie, algae outbreaks on rivers and lakes are less predictable and can surprise cities that rely on the water for drinking and recreation.
Two years ago, a plume of algae twisted more than 600 miles down the Ohio River — its first toxic bloom in seven years, though that one was much smaller. The question is whether that bloom was a rare occurrence or a sign of things to come.
Researchers at Ohio State University are starting a multi-year project that will try to sort out how often and when rivers, lakes and reservoirs are likely to see algae outbreaks in the future and how intense those blooms might be.
The idea would be to create a classification system for the waterways to say what areas are at risk, said Mazeika Sullivan, an Ohio State environment and natural resources professor leading the research.
His team will be collecting and analyzing water samples and studying land-use in the Ohio River’s upper basin in southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southern Indiana.
The next step will be to use the classification system to help land and water managers to come up with a treatment plan for the individual rivers, streams and lakes and monitor what works best at lessening the algae, he said.
“It’s almost like developing a health plan for the watershed,” Sullivan said.
Unlike the weekly algae updates that federal scientists issue for Lake Erie in the summer, the classification system for rivers and lakes would be a long-range forecast for potential trouble spots.
“We can’t stop there,” Sullivan said, adding that what’s important is trying out and monitoring efforts to slow the algae. “We really need to know if these are working.”
The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, which watches over the Ohio River’s health, is working with University of Cincinnati researchers to set up sensors that will be able to detect potentially harmful algae, help direct researchers where to concentrate testing and allow them to alert drinking water utilities.
The system should be ready in time for this year’s algae season, said Greg Youngstrom, an environmental specialist with the commission.
“It will allow us not to be surprised,” he said.