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Algae warning system tried out in Lake Erie

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Microcystis is one of the Great Lakes' most prevalent forms of summertime algae. It has been arriving earlier and staying later.

Hires / Blade Enlarge

Staying one step ahead of algae.

That's the goal of a $269,500 initiative the federal government launched this summer for Lake Erie's western basin, the warmest and shallowest part of the Great Lakes.

Stretching approximately from Monroe to Sandusky, Lake Erie's western basin also is the area hit hardest by farm and street runoff.

All of those factors combine to make it the Great Lakes region's biggest breeding ground for both fish and algae, the sad irony being that the latter are choking the former by robbing fish of oxygen in the water.

That's one of many reasons scientists are trying to get to the bottom of the algae problem. Great Lakes fishing is a multibillion-dollar industry for the United States and Canada.

But there also are direct human-health impacts.

One of the most prevalent forms of summertime algae in the Great Lakes has been a toxic one called microcystis. Its toxin, mycrocystin, killed 75 people in a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1996.

Microcystis has been found almost annually in western Lake Erie and Michigan's Saginaw Bay since the mid 1990s; in fact, it has been arriving earlier and staying longer the past few years. Scientists believe that could be the beginning of one of many long-term consequences from the Earth's changing climate.

It hadn't been found in large quantities in vast, open-body waters of the Great Lakes since the early 1970s.

But now the pea-green alga appears to have become an annual fixture in the lakes again, officials said.

So the government is ramping up its efforts to understand it.

The ultimate goal is to better manage the beast, if not eradicate it.

Coordinated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the new initiative seeks to refine methods of forecasting where algae blooms will flow so that managers of public drinking water plants can be better prepared to deal with them.

Most municipalities that draw water from Lake Erie now have carbon-activated filtration systems that have been shown to be effective at filtering out the algae, said Rick Stumpf, NOAA's lead oceanographer on the project.

Operators still appreciate a heads up, though, because the systems are expensive to run.

By refining the forecasting techniques, the government should be able to give them more notice, said Sonia Joseph, Michigan Sea Grant outreach coordinator for the NOAA Center of Excellence for Great Lakes and Human Health in Ann Arbor.

This summer's bloom in western Lake Erie started in June and is expected to break up by the end of September.

Juli Dyble, a NOAA aquatic biologist, described it last week as an "impressive bloom" that encompassed several square miles - which made it easier for researchers to track, albeit the massive growth of algae wasn't so great for the lake.

The new initiative has reliably forecasted general areas where the bloom has been expected to flow, based on wind and weather patterns, as well as other variables, Mr. Stumpf said.

It's not exactly real-time information, but is more specific than what's seen via satellite because satellites take about nine days to circle the Earth, he said.

Project leaders integrate data from satellites, computer models, and water samples to make their predictions, Mr. Stumpf said.

"We confirm with water samples and then run computer models at NOAA's Great Lakes lab in Ann Arbor to predict where the bloom will occur," he said. "We're establishing systematic processing with the goal of doing this every summer."

NOAA is interested in applying the research method to other parts of the United States if it succeeds here, Mr. Stumpf said.

The next step, ideally, will be developing a way to better predict when and where algae blooms will start showing up instead of just tracking them once they have, Mr. Stumpf said.

NASA has recently funded $1.2 million for such research, which is to include climatological work via satellite of algae in the Great Lakes region, Florida, and possible other locales, he said.

Scientists have long known that light, warm water, and nutrients are major ingredients for algae, Ms. Dyble said.

The Maumee River is the Great Lakes region's largest natural tributary. Its massive farm runoff between Fort Wayne and Toledo makes it the greatest supplier of nutrients to western Lake Erie.

"But we need to better understand how changes will affect the bloom," she said.

Others benefiting from such forecasting are park managers, who seek to keep the toxic algae away from wildlife and pet dogs that visitors walk at their facilities.

About 50 parties at the city, township, county, and park district level were apprised via e-mail, as were a number of environmental consulting agencies, Mr. Stumpf said.

Algae can affect people in ways other than public health or fishing and boating.

Officials have said it's a costly nuisance to homeowners because it can drive down shoreline property values. It also has the potential to keep Lake Erie from reaching its potential for tourism.

The Great Lakes project, which officials plan to repeat next year, is part of $882,778 of similar coastline research that NOAA directs nationally each year. The CDC's contribution has been $197,000 each of the past two years, including $99,000 for the Great Lakes program.

The NOAA-CDC initiative augments years of Great Lakes algae research by university scientists, as well as a new project under way that includes images taken from an unmanned, blimplike Army device called an aerostat.

The latter hovered 1,000 feet above Maumee Bay and other parts of western Lake Erie for much of the summer, gathering information for researchers from the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center and the University of Cincinnati.

The low-altitude satellite, about the size of a two-story house, was brought into the region in mid-August at the request of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who is trying to assist scientists in their pursuit of solutions to the ongoing algae problem. It is owned by the Army's Space & Missile Defense Battle Lab in Colorado.

Researchers expect to have it re-tethered to a barge and snapping photographs of the basin's algae again next summer, too.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.

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