Buoys to help find causes of algal blooms

Scientists from Bowling Green State University have been on the lake in recent weeks sampling water at the mouths of seven tributary streams and four locations in the lake. Later in September, the scientists, with the help of the Chautauqua Lake Partnership, will deploy two sensors — one each in the north and south basins of the lake — that will provide real-time monitoring of phosphorus. That data will then be downloaded and reviewed by the team of scientists.

JoDee Johnson, Chautauqua Lake Partnership secretary, said the buoys will test phosphorus at different levels every four hours. That data will be dropped into a file and downloaded. The Bowling Green State University scientists will then download the data, process and evaluate it. The data will not only help diagnose exactly where the bulk of the phosphorus in Chautauqua Lake is coming from, but will help policy makers create more responsive plans for Chautauqua Lake.

“It’s actually measuring quite a few things around phosphorus,” Johnson said. “Phosphorus is the main nutrient basically for weeds and for blue-green algae. So if you can determine where you have hot spots, then you can focus on treating those areas first and develop a plan around that. With everyone having limited money right now, the places that are the worst are where we should be focusing. It’s working smarter, not harder, in trying to figure out where these hot spots are and develop solutions and strategies around that. It’s related to everything we’re doing in the lake and everything we potentially could do in the future.”

According to the 2012 Total Minimum Daily Load for Phosphorus in Chautauqua Lake, it was estimated 80,828.7 pounds of phosphorus were entering the lake each year — 27,930.1 in the north basin and 52,898.6 pounds a year in the south basin

The largest sources were estimated to be groundwater and internal loading in both basins.

In the north basin, point sources, hay and pasture, cropland and septic systems were the next leading causes of phosphorus.

Point sources, cropland, hay and pasture and septic systems were the next leading sources in the south basin as well as 8,094 pounds a year from the north basin.

While there are many ways phosphorus makes its way into Chautauqua Lake, the work the Bowling Green scientists are undertaking will identify sources that can’t be seen with the naked eye.

“That’s what George Bullerjahn and Bowling Green are trying to figure out,” Johnson said. “Is it coming from creeks or the lake itself? They did soil samples, did water samples, did all kinds of samples this past week already. They’ll do another one when they come and deploy the sensors. You have to look at all of it. What you see upstream may not be reflective of what you see downstream once it settles out.”


Bowling Green State University is one of 11 organizations collaborating on national research of toxic algal blooms. The university’s Lake Erie Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health, founded with a $5.2 million federal grant, is researching harmful algal blooms that pose a threat to the health of humans and wildlife. Bowling Green is one of four universities the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are funding with a total of $30 million in grants to study the effects of harmful algal blooms on oceans, estuaries and the Great Lakes. Along with Bowling Green, partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ohio Sea Grant, The Ohio State University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, the University of Tennessee, the University of Toledo and Michigan State University.

Earlier this year, Dr. Timothy Davis, a member of Bowling Green’s harmful algal bloom team was honored with the Gears of Government President’s Award for deploying robotic Environmental Sample Processors. Davis and two other scientists, Drs. Gregory Doucette and Stephanie Moore, are being recognized for their work with members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The scientists deployed robotic Environmental Sample Processors (ESPs) for the first time, transmitting near-real-time measurements of toxins in Lake Erie and off the coast of Washington state.

The deployments were the first ever to report toxin levels at surface and drinking water intake depths in near-real-time, ensuring safe drinking water for millions of customers and preventing the loss of millions of dollars due to water supply shutdowns. The deployments enabled the first near-real-time monitoring of the offshore sources of toxins that contaminate wild and farmed shellfish on the Washington coast. In 2017, these data contributed to an increase in the daily catch of razor clams, injecting more than $5.3 million into the local economy.

Cyanobacteria are a group of single-celled aquatic organisms that have been around for billions of years. They are photosynthetic, drawing energy from sunlight, and play an important role in the environment by converting atmospheric nitrogen into chemical forms that plants require to grow. Under the right conditions, however, some cyanobacteria can reproduce massively, resulting in a bloom. Many factors can contribute to the severity of a bloom, but they typically result from excess nutrients in the water, specifically phosphorus and nitrogen, and warmer water temperatures, which some cyanobacteria favor. When they occur, blooms can turn fresh water into “pea soup” and create thick mats of slime on the water and shoreline. Blooms can smother aquatic plant life and suffocate fish, leading to die-offs. Some species of cyanobacteria also produce toxins that can be harmful to fish, wildlife and humans. In the United States, harmful algal blooms result in losses of recreational, drinking and agricultural water resources that are worth more than $2 billion annually.

Bowling Green’s work has also resulted in the creation of a framework to determine lake-specific criteria so that a waterbody can be designated as impaired by cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms on an annual basis as long as long-term monitoring data and satellite imagery are available. The scientists published an article in the journal Harmful Algae in 2018 showing how their the use of remote sensing buoys, like those that will be used on Chautauqua Lake, allows scientists to estimate the harmful algal bloom for an entire lake, allowing better understanding of a bloom’s location and projected movement. The models developed then allow scientists to arrive at a target phosphorus reduction to reduce algal blooms.

“These guys all have their doctorate and are specialists in their field,” Johnson said. “Bowling Green is studying Lake Erie, and they’ve added Chautauqua Lake onto that. They’re the only one of the 11 universities that are actually studying fresh water. The rest are all studying estuaries or the ocean. It’s huge for Chautauqua Lake to have them look at this. That’s in part due to their work that they’re doing on Lake Erie. I think it’s great. I think it’s really important having a university in that group invested in this. We’ve got a lot of expertise in the lake, but I’m not sure we have that expertise in blue-green algae.”


One of the conclusions the Bowling Green scientists reached is the importance of long-term in-lake monitoring programs.

“It was only through several years of in-lake monitoring and acquiring remote sensing data that this framework could be developed,” the scientists wrote in the 2018 Harmful Algae article. “While an impairment designation could have been declared in 2010, the reality is that the data did not exist at that time to be able to build a robust database from which to generate the impairment criteria.”

While the state DEC has created NYHAB, a website that tracks harmful algal blooms, Johnson said more monitoring and information may be needed in order to make informed decisions for Chautauqua Lake’s future.

“I was surprised, honestly, when I looked at the website on the DEC related to blue-green algae blooms,” Johnson said. “I was surprised to see Chautauqua Lake didn’t have more because of how green the lake was and what I saw just in the south basin. It doesn’t seem like the DEC has as much on its website as what’s even out there right now. Maybe as a county we can do a better job tracking that. Not just the CLP, everybody. That my be something we should be focusing on in the future.”


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