New tool helps Great Lakes cities, businesses predict harmful algae
By Karen Schaefer
LEAD IN: Last year’s record-setting Lake Erie algae bloom hurt many tourism businesses like charter fishing and resorts that depend on clean water and beaches. The high concentrations of toxins from the blue-green algae also meant cities like Toledo had to spend more money to clean up drinking water. This summer, federal researchers unveiled a new tool for forecasting seasonal algae blooms. Independent producer Karen Schaefer reports that scientists are hoping it can help cities and businesses across the Great Lakes and the nation plan ahead.
SCHAEFER: This year, the thick ooze of green slime that coated docks and bays in western Lake Erie in 2011 is gone. That’s largely thanks to the drought, which reduced rainfall and nutrient runoff from farms and cities. But National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher Rick Stumpf was taking no chances back in July, when he tested the water near Put-in-Bay in Lake Erie for chorophyll and phycocyanin, the pigment that’s produced by toxic blue-green algae.
STUMPF: This is a porometer…We get a bucket, pour it in here and we get a reading…So first I’ll test for chlorophyll. And it’s reading. Reading…
SCHAEFER: Stumpf is demonstrating how local data collectors at Ohio State University’s Stone Lab will be testing the water for signs of the algae bloom in coming years.
STUMPF: We came up with one microgram of chlorophyll, which is low – which is not surprising considering how clear the water is. Now I’ll read for phycocyanin. Reading.. Reading…
SCHAEFER: Harmful algae has been once again plaguing Lake Erie. But last year’s bloom was literally off the charts, as bad or worse than the 1970′s, when Lake Erie was unofficially declared “dead.” Mark Monaco, director for NOAA’s Center of Coastal Monitoring and Marine Assessment, says blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, emits harmful toxins that last year exceeded public health warnings.
MONACO: Some of the concentrations we’ve seen in the lake last year, you probably wouldn’t want your dog swimming in it, based on World Health Organization recommendations. In addition to the economic impact of people not going to the beach and people not wanting to put their lure into the green slime. This isn’t just a fun little science study, these have real economic impacts on how people use the lake.
SCHAEFER: Using ten-years of water quality data from Heidelberg University in Ohio, along with satellite photos showing previous blooms, NOAA scientists predicted that this year’s Lake Erie algae would be only a tenth the size of the 2011 record. And they were right. Rick Stumpf says this is NOAA’s first national attempt at a seasonal algae forecast. He believes local businesses will benefit from the advance notice.
STUMPF: It provides an opportunity for planning, for governments to plan to decide what resources to use, if it’s a utility, if it’s a person planning for vacation, if it’s charter boat captains, so they have some idea what to expect in a season. And we’ve heard from various managers how it’s an incredibly important thing, because given the budget challenges that state and local governments have now.
SCHAEFER: Recreational businesses like Cedar Point, a Lake Erie amusement park, say they’re thrilled to have a tool that that lets them alert consumers to beach closings and swimming prohibitions. But Jeff Reutter, head of Ohio’s Sea Grant program, believes it’s equally important that the new forecasting tool applies to other algae-infested areas, from Traverse City, Michigan and Green Bay, Wisconsin, to the Potomac River, Chesapeake Bay, and parts of Florida and Texas.
REUTTER: There are many other places, not just in Ohio or across the country, but around the world, where the same information ought to be applicable. In some places…it will be where people like the NOAA guys can take their model, make a few tweaks to it, and make it work in a totally different ecosystem.
SCHAEFER: NOAA scientists say what will make this Lake Erie model work in different places, including smaller inland lakes, is the systematic collection of water quality data over a period of years. They believe that local data will not only help in assessing harmful algae blooms, but will also assist in monitoring other ecological impacts, such as climate change. For Great Lakes Echo, I’m Karen Schaefer.