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UT researchers to lead 38% of Ohio’s new water quality research projects, including ‘impairment’ criteria

The University of Toledo is slated to lead eight out of the 21 new research projects to be funded with $3.5 million from the state of Ohio to address water quality and algal bloom toxicity.

UT, situated on the western basin of Lake Erie, is to receive nearly $1 million of the $3.5 million dedicated by the Ohio Department of Higher Education for these additional projects in the ongoing, statewide Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, which began three years ago after the city of Toledo issued a Do Not Drink advisory for half a million water customers due to the level of microcystin detected in the water.

Dr. Tom Bridgeman, UT algae researcher and professor of ecology, examines a water sample aboard the UT Lake Erie Center research vessel.

UT is one of the lead universities in the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, which consists of 10 Ohio universities and five state agencies.

The selected projects focus on reducing nutrient loading to Lake Erie; investigating algal toxin formation and human health impacts; studying bloom dynamics; better informing water treatment plants how to remove toxin; and aiding the efforts of state agencies.

Dr. Tom Bridgeman, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, will lead a project to develop sampling protocols and collect samples to assess listing criteria that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency may use to monitor the water quality of the open waters of the western basin of Lake Erie and to potentially assign official designations such as “impaired” or “unimpaired.”

“Although it is obvious to nearly everyone that harmful algal blooms are impairing Lake Erie each summer, we need to develop objective scientific criteria that can be used to list the open waters of the lake as officially ‘impaired,’ and to remove an ‘impairment’ designation in the future if conditions improve sufficiently,” Bridgeman said.

UT researchers also to receive some of the $988,829 in state funding for their projects are:

• Dr. Jason Huntley, associate professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, will be developing and testing biofilters — water filters containing specialized bacteria that degrade microcystin toxins from lake water as it flows through the filter. These biofilter studies are aimed to develop cost-effective, efficient and safe drinking water treatment alternatives for the city of Toledo and other Lake Erie water municipalities.

• Dr. Steven Haller and Dr. David Kennedy, assistant professors in the Department of Medicine, will investigate how cyanotoxins such as microcystin damage organs not only in healthy settings, but in settings that may increase susceptibility such as diabetes, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. Their research teams are working in concert with experts in medicine, pathology, physiology, pharmacology and chemistry to not only learn how microcystin affects organ function in these settings, but also to create new therapies to prevent and treat organ damage, especially in vulnerable patient populations.

• Dr. Patrick Lawrence, UT professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, will use a transportation model to simulate potential distribution of volume of agricultural manure from permitted livestock facilities to surrounding farmland for application as a nutrient. The results will assist in determining the estimated acreage of land within the Lake Erie western basin where manure application could be undertaken and examine associated crop types, farming practices, soil types, drainage and other environmental conditions in those areas.

• Dr. Saatvika Rai, assistant professor of environmental policy in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, and Dr. Kevin Czajkowski, professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, will use GIS and remote sensing to assess the implementation of agricultural and farming practices in three sub-watersheds of the Maumee River Basin — Auglaize, Blanchard and St. Joseph — to identify where best management practices are being implemented. These maps will then be correlated with perceptions of farmers through surveys and interviews to identify hotspots and priority areas for policy intervention in the region.

• Dr. April Ames, assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Services, will apply an industrial hygiene technique to the exploration of the presence of microcystin in the air using research boats on Lake Erie. Simultaneously, residents who live on or near Lake Erie will be surveyed about their recreational use and self-reported health.

“I am proud of the work that is being done, and that researchers from our public and private higher education institutions continue to work together to address this issue,” said Ohio Department of Higher Education Chancellor John Carey. “Using the talent of Ohio’s researchers and students to solve pressing problems makes perfect sense.”

The Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative is funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education with $7.1 million made available for four rounds of research funding since 2015. Matching funding from participating Ohio universities increases the total investment to almost $15.5 million for more than 50 projects, demonstrating the state’s overall commitment to solving the harmful algal bloom problem.

Water quality is a major research focus at UT. With more than $14 million in active grants underway, UT experts are studying algal blooms, invasive species such as Asian carp, and pollutants. Researchers are looking for pathways to restore our greatest natural resource for future generations to ensure our communities continue to have access to safe drinking water.

The UT Water Task Force, which is composed of faculty and researchers in diverse fields spanning the University, serves as a resource for government officials and the public looking for expertise on investigating the causes and effects of algal blooms, the health of Lake Erie, and the health of the communities depending on its water. The task force includes experts in economics, engineering, environmental sciences, business, pharmacy, law, chemistry and biochemistry, geography and planning, and medical microbiology and immunology.