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Geography department receives EPA grant to help protect Great Lakes

The University of Toledo is looking for ways to restore and protect the Great Lakes, and the Department of Geography and Planning received a grant to do the research that will help.

Paul Lenos, left, a student majoring in environmental sciences, Scott Denham, center, a student at Youngstown State University who will attend graduate school at UT this fall, and Robert Hanlon, a student majoring in engineering and environmental sciences, prepared a mesocosm — an experimental soil enclosure to simulate an agricultural field to monitor runoff at Stranahan Arboretum.

Paul Lenos, left, a student majoring in environmental sciences, Scott Denham, center, a student at Youngstown State University who will attend graduate school at UT this fall, and Robert Hanlon, a student majoring in engineering and environmental sciences, prepared a mesocosm — an experimental soil enclosure to simulate an agricultural field to monitor runoff at Stranahan Arboretum.

The University was awarded a $550,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop ways to reduce the impact of sewage sludge on surface water in the Great Lakes.

Various UT departments have been studying for years the impact biosolids have on Lake Erie, and this grant will help to continue that work. The research funding through this grant will look at the extent to which biosolids applied to farm fields have an impact on the lake, and what can be done to decrease this impact while restoring natural areas and protecting future generations.

“The artificial drainage used on farm fields may allow rain to carry fertilizer and other contaminants into drainage ditches that end up in the receiving water bodies. These contaminants really should stay on the fields and away from humans,” said Dr. Kevin Czajkowski, professor of geography and planning, and lead investigator on the project.

Biosolids are great for agriculture because they can provide nutrients and structure to farm soils. The biosolids used in this region come from wastewater treatment plants. While most bacteria are killed during the water treatment process, in some cases, pathogenic organisms, nutrients and personal care products aren’t broken down and can make it onto farm fields through the fertilizer, according to Dr. Daryl Dwyer, professor of environmental sciences, who also is involved in the research.

“The potential then exists for these substances and bacteria to be carried from the fields and into the drainage ditches that eventually flow into Lake Erie,” Dwyer said. “One possible outcome is the production of algal blooms caused by excess nutrient addition. This may contribute to areas in the lake with no oxygen — virtual dead zones where fish can’t survive.”

Therefore, one goal of the research is to keep nutrients on the fields and reduce the amount of contaminants entering Lake Erie. One way to do this is by restoring wetlands in northwest Ohio, a strategy being pursued by University researchers for drainage ditches near Lake Erie.

“Wetlands act as filters to remove bacteria before they reach the lake,” Dwyer said. “Thus, wetlands might stop pathogens from reaching Lake Erie, which will benefit not only the environment, but the public’s health.”

The project also is good for the economy because it ensures the lake will continue to be safe for recreation and fishing, he added.

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