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Winter means work for Lake Erie's algae warriors, too

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    A University of Toledo water quality monitoring buoy on Lake Erie, Tuesday, July 11, 2017.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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    NASA satellite images of the lagae bloom.

    NASA

Winter may seem like off-season for algae warriors, but it’s not.

Much of the number-crunching from last summer’s bloom is done during the winter. And on Wednesday, a dozen people — a combination of Great Lakes scientists and water-treatment plant operators — met at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center to clean, re-calibrate, and reset sensors that will be used on buoys in the lake next summer.

Algae will likely grow in the frigid water beneath Lake Erie’s ice this winter, too, but it’s not the type that produces toxin. It’s not incredibly unique, it’s not hard for water-treatment plant operators to remove, and it’s not anything new.

In fact, it’s a good thing. Of the dozens upon dozens of algae in the lake, most — including the hardy class of organic matter known as diatoms — are healthy plants, and contribute to the food chain for fish.

The question is, how much of the healthy algae will be pushed aside next summer by Lake Erie’s three monsters: algae imitators that scientists refer to as cyanobacteria because they have a distinctive blue-green hue and are technically bacteria.

The dastardly trio — microcystis, planktothrix, and  dolichospermum — look and act like algae, so people normally call them that. Each can form large mats of scum on the surface known as harmful algal blooms when the water warms up. And each produce the toxin called microcystin that can make people violently ill or potentially kill them if they take in a huge amount of it.

Also during the winter, sensors for fixed locations intake cribs where area water-treatment operators draw raw lake water into their plants — are being put back into service right away. Their purpose this time of year is to give operators a heads up when lake conditions change, such as when winds kick up and make the water more turbid. It’s not nearly the same threat as summertime, but that information allows operators to make the adjustments necessary to keep diatoms out in the water for Lake Erie fish to graze on.

“This gives [water-treatment plant operators] a 15-hour head start,” Eddie Verhamme, a project engineer for Ann Arbor-based Limno Tech, said of the year-round surveillance. “These sensors are helping to track trends.”

If not removed, diatoms could make tap water cloudy and cause taste and odor problems, Jeff Kukay, Ottawa County Regional Water Treatment Plant chief operator, said.

In all, 23 sensors were cleaned and re-calibrated Wednesday. Each are high-tech wonders, capable of transmitting real-time water quality data to labs. They collectively represent more than $500,000 worth of equipment. Each sensor costs $20,000 to $25,000, Justin Chaffin, Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University Stone Laboratory research director, said.

George Bullerjahn, a Bowling Green State University algae expert, explained how he and his colleague, Mike McKay, focus on Lake Erie’s Sandusky Bay, where planktothrix is the dominant form of harmful algae.

Unlike microcystis, the main form of harmful algae in most other parts of western Lake Erie, planktothrix arrives in May and is in full bloom by Memorial Day. Microcystis usually blooms in July or August. Both, as well as dolichospermum, remain a threat well into October.

Cleaning and re-calibrating the sensors is tedious. But the past couple of years, scientists have done the chore together at UT’s Lake Erie Center to have more face-to-face contact with each other.

“This has been a really great partnership,” Mr. Bulllerjahn said. “In the winter, the lake doesn’t go dormant.”

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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