Better filters, effect on food supply among algae topics

[USA] Researchers from across Ohio and Michigan — and at least one from Maryland — gathered Thursday to share their ideas and news of technology advances concerning western Lake Erie algae.

The Ohio Sea Grant program was held at the Stranahan Theater & Great Hall, a few miles away off Heatherdowns Boulevard in the southwest part of the city.

Researchers took the podium one at a time and gave a series of short presentations to a packed room of nearly 250 attendees, flanked by big screens displaying their PowerPoint slides.

Subjects ranged from new advances in NASA satellite surveillance to growing evidence the deadly waterborne algal toxin known as microcystin may even have the potential of slipping into the human food supply in low concentrations.

Jason Huntley, an associate University of Toledo microbiology professor, said potential advances in bacteria research could indeed become a wave of the future for fighting microcystin with water-treatment plants globally.

For hundreds of years, humans have used bacteria to make cheese, yogurt, beer, and other items, Mr. Huntley said.

He gave a scientific explanation for how water-treatment filters might become more efficient someday as the technology to develop safe and common forms of bacteria into better biofilms improves.

Learning more about how bacteria can counteract microcystin could reduce costs for Toledo, which spends about three times more each summer to treat water than other times of the year, he said.

His comments came after a Blade article which discussed how Youngwoo Seo, UT associate professor of civil engineering and chemical & environmental engineering, landed a $224,937 National Science Foundation grant to help make filters at conventional water-treatment plants, including Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, operate more efficiently at removing algal toxins by better understanding how bacteria works.

The three-year grant was announced in a news release that morning by the office of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo).

Mr. Seo told The Blade a day earlier his project will also incorporate research from plants in Monroe, Bowling Green, and Oregon.

Moments after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its 20th harmful algal bloom bulletin of 2016 on Thursday morning, Rick Stumpf, a NOAA oceanographer from Maryland who heads up Lake Erie algae forecasting systems, said drought has made this year’s bloom the mildest since 2012, which also was a drought year.

A couple of hot spots remain, especially in Maumee and Sandusky bays. But what’s still out there now is expected to make this month the mildest September for western Lake Erie algae since 2007, he said.

“This bloom is going to be shorter-lived than ones in the last number of years,” Mr. Stumpf said.

Several people said that underscores the correlation between agricultural runoff and algae formation — adding it’s more important than ever, during this apparent one-year reprieve, to get farmers moving faster toward the region’s goal of reducing phosphorus inputs by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels.

That goal is highly achievable, speakers agreed, but gave mixed reviews on how well it’s being embraced.

Kevin King, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher, said he’s received promising results from the massive “edge-of-field” research project he has been overseeing in recent years, the most comprehensive effort to quantify how much runoff is actually coming from select farms.

The study includes some 21 farms and 84 sampling points, many in the western Lake Erie watershed.

About 30 percent of farm fields are now meeting recommendations aimed at getting them down to the 40 percent reduction. Another 60 to 65 percent are close, Mr. King said.

And while the state of Ohio has now certified 12,600 fertilizer applicators in best management practices, that’s only about half of those who could use that specialized training, Greg LaBarge, an OSU researcher, said.

Seventy-four percent of Ohio farmers recognize their nutrient management practices impact water quality, but only half have committed to making changes, Mr. LaBarge said.

The daylong seminar included a presentation by an OSU aquatic ecologist, Stu Ludsin. His presentation showed humans have the potential of being exposed to low levels of microcystin by ingesting things other than water.

The evidence isn’t clear on how much microcystin is getting into fish tissue.

But preliminary work shows it is getting into walleye, yellow perch, and white perch to some degree, according to Mr. Ludsin.

More surprising, he said, is research showing corn, soybeans, and other plants grown with irrigated water take up the toxin in their roots if there’s microcystin present in the river, stream, or pond where the water is drawn, he said.

Crop yields also are hurt when irrigated water contains microcystin, Mr. Ludsin said.

The waterborne toxin appears capable of surviving months in soil, he said.

Sixty-four percent of U.S. farms use irrigated water, according to Mr. Ludsin, who said he was not immediately sure what the percentage was for the western Lake Erie basin.


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