New buoy could be part of Toledo’s water solutionWritten by Tom Konecny | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Lake Erie’s wind current generally pushes any impending water problem eastward, and Toledo officials may want to look closely in that direction at a water monitoring tool now being used near Gibraltar Island.
A new high-tech buoy deployed on Sept. 5 by researchers at Lake Erie’s Stone Laboratory
now has the ability, among other things, to monitor levels of green and blue-green algae almost instantaneously.
“Depending on how we track this, if it shows to be a predictive tool, I could see other municipalities purchasing these and deploying them,” said Chris Winslow, associate director for Ohio Sea Grant College Program and Stone Laboratory of The Ohio State University.
The buoy and its attached equipment came into Stone Lab’s possession two months ago through donations and grants, but because of the Aug. 2-4 water in Toledo crisis, its staff decided to take its capabilities one step further and install probes to measure chlorophyll and phycocyanin, pigments that indicate whether they’re seeing good green algae or harmful algae.
“It tangentially does have to do with the water crisis,” Winslow said. “It has a probe that measures water temperature, pH and other factors. But because we knew this was coming, we wrote a grant to buy additional things for that buoy. The base model was given to us, but because we received that grant, we had the ability to add stuff to it.”
“It’s helping us understand when the bloom reaches out by the island and by how much,” said Justin Chaffin, Stone Laboratory research coordinator. “It’s going to gather scientific information, but will also help people around the islands to know how thick the blooms are.”
Chaffin said data from the new buoy should be live on the Web as of this week, and one doesn’t need to be a research scientist to interpret the information.
“If you can interpret a graph over time, you can understand it,” Chaffin said.
The new buoy offers cutting-edge”technology, according to Winslow.
It has its own solar panels to provide power to the laser optic reader, cellular uplinks and real-time data upload, all of which offer fine-resolution data every 30 minutes. Its base must be also be strong enough to withstand harsh Lake Erie weather. It is secured with a concrete block the size of a dinner table and chain links the width of index fingers.
The top of the buoy houses weather sensors that indicate wind speed, wind direction, precipitation and air temperature. Water sensors gauge temperature both at the surface and at one meter down. They can also determine pH level, turbidty (a measure of water cloudiness), and chlorophyll and phycocyanin.
There is no buoy sensor available to measure microcystin, but in most cases when those algal blooms appearthere is some level of the toxin associated with them. It’s then that the Stone Lab would warn island residents.
The new buoy is the work of Fondriest Environmental near Dayton, which distributes and integrates equipment for natural resource professionals. According to Winslow, the company’s team is “a big fan of what we do.” Fondriest donated the equipment to Stone Laboratory to help further their research.
“It was a project we worked on last fall,” said Paul Nieberding, Fondriest general manager. “It’s something where we can provide a platform to deploy their research tools from.”
Buoys generally serve a navigational purpose, directing boaters where to go. Scientific buoys are few and far between, mainly due to cost. Winslow said the extra sensors cost around $12,000-$15,000 alone, so combined with the cost of the buoy, anchoring mechanisms and concrete slab, it boosts the total price tag for this entire buoy around $55,000-$65,000.
Buoys also require considerable maintenance: Every three weeks the underwater probes need to be cleaned and calibrated.
As with all buoys, Winslow said the laboratory had to contact the Coast Guard for approval before it could even touch the water, which was part of the reason for the two-month wait.
Most buoys are set near shore, with some close to academic settings, including colleges around the Great Lakes. Stone Laboratory was established in 1929 by Ohio State University for research and instruction along Lake Erie, though its work began in other nearby locations in 1895.
Winslow said this new buoy was intentionally put in view of one of their laboratory cameras so they can watch out for it as much as the buoy watches out for them.
The island area’s new tool is one to watch, as all water systems remain connected. Ninety percent of the water in Lake Erie flows there from the Detroit River via Lake Huron, and the rest of it comes from direct precipitation and smaller rivers, according to Chaffin.
“It’s helping us understand when the bloom reaches out by the island and how much,” Chaffin said. “It’s going to gather scientific info, but will also help people around the islands as to how thick the blooms are.”
There are 37 such buoys in all of the Great Lakes combined, with six of them on Lake Erie.
Lake Erie’s bad rap
When the water crisis sprung up overnight, so too did the outcry against all things Lake Erie. If there was already a perception that Lake Erie water was bad or unsafe, it was certainly magnified following the crisis.
Both Winslow and Chaffin said this view is unfair. Before the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, of course, there were many pollutants in the water, but it’s a Great Lake by more than just size alone, they said.
“The reason why we’re green is because we’re so shallow and we have a lot of nutrients, because plants need to grow,” Winslow said. “We have algae, but algae is the base of the food web. The green you see in Lake Erie is tons of food that feeds tons of organisms and fish. This is why Lake Erie is the walleye capital of the world.”
Finding the right balance is key, because too much algae creates blooms, which can produce the dreaded microcystin. But since fish love the algae so much, why not simply add more fish to Lake Erie?
Easier said than done, according to Chaffin, who said there are two ways to manage a lake: top-down management and bottom-up management, with plenty of studies abounding on each.
Regarding the former, you can add more fish from the “top” of the food chain, but they will likely eat down the smaller fish and organisms needed to eat algae. The “bottom-up method” works by altering the amount of nutrients, and this is how Lake Erie operates.
“We clearly see Lake Erie as a bottom-up system,” Chaffin said.
Indeed, not every Great Lake is the same. Lake Michigan and Lake Superior often receive adoration for their natural color and swimming potential, but Lake Erie has its own qualities, too.
“Fifty percent of the water in all the Great Lakes is in Lake Superior, but 2 percent of the living material is there,” Winslow said. “In Lake Erie it’s just about the opposite. We’re battling to keep it productive.”
“I think it’s getting a bad rap now because of the bad blooms,” Chaffin said. “Lake Erie never has been or never will be Lake Michigan, but Lake Michigan will never have the walleye or perch. When you get too much algae it becomes bad, so there’s a tipping point.”
While the original impetus for the new buoy is education, this is the time of year when the bad bacteria rules, and Stone Laboratory plans to monitor it.
“As you get into late summer, that’s when cyanobacteria dominates,” Winslow said. “Now is a good chance that’s when the bad bacteria is around.”
So researchers plan to wait, watch and learn.
“This buoy is going to be an educational tool for us,” Chaffin said.