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You might say LimnoTech serves as the eyes and ears for various governmental and other bodies that monitor environmental conditions in the Great Lakes, including those working to understand and resolve the recurring Lake Erie algal blooms.

The Ann Arbor-based environmental engineering and science firm — which provides water-related services to clients throughout the U.S. and internationally — is a key gatherer of information on Great Lakes water quality.

In addition to the conservation groups, universities and government organizations that are united to fight the Lake Erie algal blooms, LimnoTech and other Michigan businesses are rising to the mission. LimnoTech is contributing to research to improve the understanding of the causes and risks of blooms.

“Essentially, we’re decreasing uncertainty for knowing what to do in reaction to algal blooms,” said Ed Verhamme, a LimnoTech project engineer.

Probably the most visible evidence to Great Lakes boaters — and even internet surfers — of LimnoTech’s role is environmental data buoys and instruments in Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.

LimnoTech has helped public and private entities procure, deploy and maintain buoys at eight near-shore locations across the Great Lakes as well as an additional 10 sensors at water treatment plants in Lake Erie. The buoys and sensors provide environmental scientists, drinking water plant operators, boaters, weather forecasters, search-and-rescue crews and others with publicly available, real-time lake and weather conditions via the web. Data from those and other buoys throughout the Great Lakes are viewable at http://glbuoys.glos.us.

In addition to deploying smart sensors, LimnoTech supports a Michigan-based nonprofit, the Great Lakes Observing System, that aggregates environmental data and information from myriad federal, state, university and other Great Lakes organizations.

For the stations it’s directly involved with, LimnoTech maintains and calibrates the sophisticated sensors as necessary, as well as removes them each winter to avoid ice damage and then puts them back in place each spring when human activity on the Great Lakes resumes.

LimnoTech customizes each buoy in its Ann Arbor lab with sensing equipment needed to perform its mission. For example, LimnoTech was tasked with gathering information on bat populations in the vicinity of a proposed offshore wind turbine project near Cleveland. LimnoTech’s solution, said Senior Scientist John Bratton, was to attach a flagpole bearing a microphone that recorded bat activity to a buoy in Lake Erie.

Attuned to algae

On the Lake Erie algal bloom front, LimnoTech operates a buoy on behalf of Toledo’s Department of Public Utilities, Division of Water Treatment, near the water intake for the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, as well as monitors underwater sensors at the plant’s intake and pumping stations. The equipment provides early warnings to plant operators of water conditions in the lake, including any potentially harmful algal bloom formation, and helps ensure that they can react appropriately to keep the drinking water supply safe.

The buoys, however, are just one way LimnoTech is helping combat Lake Erie’s algal bloom problem. The company provides a host of other consulting services, including research on the toxicity of the blooms, forecasting their size and modeling and assessing the flow of bloom-causing nutrients — primarily phosphorous and nitrogen — throughout the rivers of the Western Lake Erie Basin.

LimnoTech has worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help understand how phosphorous is getting into Lake Erie and the effectiveness of techniques such as planting buffer strips and cover crops to reduce fertilizer runoff from farmers’ fields. Buffer strips are areas of land along waterways with permanent vegetation that are designed to reduce runoff from agricultural properties. Cover crops, generally non-cash crops planted in the fall after the main cash crops are harvested, can help stop soil erosion over the winter and spring, as well as provide other benefits such as enhancing soil fertility.

Overall, the algal blooms that have appeared on Lake Erie in recent years have presented a challenge to the researchers studying them and the communities near them. These blooms are marked by a rapid increase in algae populations that can become concentrated in the top several inches of water in the lake, and may produce toxins that are harmful to wildlife, pets and humans. The massive spring and summer blooms produce so much plant material (algae) that oxygen levels get depleted in the bottom waters of central Lake Erie as the algae decays. The lack of dissolved oxygen in the water results in a “dead zone” that can be harmful for fish and other aquatic life, as well as cause taste and odor problems that challenge drinking water plants in Cleveland and surrounding areas.  

In Michigan, governmental, environmental and private groups have responded by creating the Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie Through Action and Research (MI CLEAR) partnership, a coalition working to improve Lake Erie’s water quality. Their goal is to improve the long-term water quality through open discussion among regional leaders, coordination of existing efforts, support for research that builds understanding of science around water quality issues and actions that bring meaningful and lasting change.

This much is already clear: There’s no easy fix to the current algal bloom problem on Lake Erie. Bratton notes that phosphorous has built up in the soil of the Western Lake Erie Basin — particularly along the Maumee River system in Northeastern Ohio — over decades and that it will take years for crops to take up the extra legacy nutrients in the soil. “That doesn’t mean that you throw up your hands,” he said. “It’s just that it’s complicated, and that improvement won’t happen overnight.”

Ultimately, any resolution to the algal blooms will have roots in the types of data collection and analysis performed by LimnoTech and its partners, which helps direct resources and actions toward areas where the nutrient problems are most severe. Researchers are gaining access to more and more information, which in turn leads to better decisions.

There are now more than 300 monitoring sites, including transmitters attached to fish, which provide details about Lake Erie, Verhamme said as he pulled up a webpage with a map indicating their locations. “Ten years ago, the map would have had five dots,” he said. “I think 10 years from now it will be over 1,000. The amount of monitoring and sensing is growing extremely quickly, and with it comes a clearer picture of how to best restore the health of Lake Erie.”

More information on MI CLEAR and the efforts to improve Lake Erie’s water quality is available at facebook.com/MIClearPartnership.

Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.

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