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Scientists hope to predict toxic algae

Size of bloom does not correlate

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    Kevin Corbin, University of Toledo senior, left; Ryan Jackwood, UT PhD student, and Jessica Reker of the Stark County Health Department gather lake water samples.

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Much like Ohio Nowcast — a cutting-edge effort to predict bacteria outbreaks at Ohio beaches — scientists hope they will eventually be able to predict when and where toxic algal blooms are forming.

They feel a little more confident each year about predicting the size of blooms, through NASA satellite imagery and data-crunching led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But the toxin concentration is the great unknown.

The size of a bloom does not correlate to its toxicity. Last year’s bloom, for example, was western Lake Erie’s largest on record but wasn’t especially toxic.

Led by the U.S. Geological Survey, a team of scientists is trying to develop a method for predicting waterborne toxins, based on environmental and weather conditions.

Microcystis, Lake Erie’s dominant form of toxic algae, is 3.5 billion years old. But little is known how it and at least two other Lake Erie algae species, plantothrix and anabaena, produce microcystin, the algal toxin at the center of the 2014 Toledo water crisis.

Donna S. Francy, a USGS microbiologist and water-quality specialist coordinating the project, said researchers are trying “just to understand what triggers it better.”

Seven water-treatment plant intakes, including Oregon’s, and four recreation areas including Maumee Bay State Park are part of that developing research. Other area sampling sites include ones throughout Ottawa County.

This is the third consecutive year the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center has drawn lake water samples from Maumee Bay State Park. It will continue to do so into October.

The only other Ohio site with three years of sampling is Harsha Lake in East Fork State Park in Clermont County, 25 miles east of Cincinnati. The water intakes and several other sampling sites on other inland lakes and along waterways outside of Lake Erie, in southwest and northeast Ohio, were added this year.

Pamela Struffolino, the Lake Erie Center’s research operations manager, said the project is another offshoot of the water crisis that made tap water unsafe for nearly 500,000 Toledo area customers for parts of three days in early August, 2014.

She said the goal is to develop a predictive model for algal toxins that could be used anywhere in the country.

Information from Lake Erie buoy sensors will be part of the research, Ms. Francy said.

Several others are involved in the project, including Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, Ohio Sea Grant, NOAA, the village of Marblehead, the city of Oregon, Ottawa County, Carroll Township, Clermont County, the village of Cadiz, Ohio, the Stark County Health Department, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Ohio EPA grants have paid for much of the work.

Contact Tom Henry at:, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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