Spring 2023 eNewsletter

Ten Years of Data: Documenting Water Quality in Western Lake Erie

One of CIGLR’s primary functions is to use Great Lakes science to protect communities affected by environmental issues. With our partners at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), we are at the forefront of monitoring and forecasting harmful algal blooms (HABs), a widely recognized plight in the Great Lakes region. Together, we produce a suite of HABs monitoring products for Lake Erie each field year, ultimately leading to large, comprehensive datasets.

MODIS satellite image of Lake Erie. Credit: NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch.

“The western basin of Lake Erie has a decades-long history with HABs,” says Dr. Anna Boegehold, CIGLR Algal Toxin & Ecology Research Specialist. “Aside from aesthetic concerns, these HABs are often composed of toxin producing cyanobacteria and can be detrimental to human and environmental health.” 

In the 1960s, seasonal Lake Erie HABs and other water quality issues within the Great Lakes had reached a tipping point. To address these issues, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972, and the U.S. implemented its own Clean Water Act (CWA) in the same year. These legislative actions sought to reduce pollution in navigable waters and regulated phosphorus inputs into Lake Erie. As excess phosphorus was the primary factor found to be causing the HAB issue at the time, limiting this nutrient input into the lake resulted in a period of restoration and a reprieve from HABs. 

“While these nutrient limiting measures were successful throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, eventually the annual HAB events resumed by the mid to late 1990s,” says Boegehold. “The question then became, why was this happening? The phosphorus pollution from sources like wastewater treatment plants and industrial effluents had been stable since the 1980s – in other words, the pollution reduction that resulted from the GLWQA and the CWA had not changed. Something else was going on in the lake to cause this resurgence of HABs, but this time the solution wouldn’t be as simple as controlling one key nutrient. By the 1990s, an increase in agricultural runoff containing large amounts of biologically available phosphorus and nitrogen, invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels, and climate change were thought to be the primary reasons for the HABs comeback.” 

In order to specifically focus on HABs issues in U.S. waterways, the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act (HABHRCA) was signed in 1998 and mandated NOAA to “advance the scientific understanding and ability to detect, monitor, assess, and predict HAB and hypoxia events.” 

Location of western Lake Erie water quality monitoring stations. Image credit: NOAA.

“Under HABHRCA, NOAA GLERL and CIGLR began to develop ecological forecast models to predict HAB events in Lake Erie and started using remote sensing algorithms to monitor seasonal HABs,” says Boegehold. “To validate and calibrate these models and algorithms, direct sampling of the lake during HAB events was necessary and the NOAA GLERL and CIGLR routine water quality monitoring program in western Lake Erie was born. Samples were taken from multiple set sampling points and analyzed for nutrients, phytoplankton pigments, and the cyanobacterial toxin microcystin.” 

“Data from this program used to be compiled in spreadsheets and distributed informally to a network of Great Lakes researchers,” says Boegehold. “In 2019, the dataset was published online with a permanent web address, thanks to massive efforts by Ashley Burtner (CIGLR Research Lab Specialist Intermediate) and Lacey Mason (NOAA GLERL).” 

The dataset “Physical, chemical, and biological water quality monitoring data to support detection of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in western Lake Erie, collected by the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research since 2012” contains data from these sampling efforts from 2012-2021 and is archived and freely available through NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) at https://doi.org/10.25921/11da-3×54

“Although the dataset has been available online, there are unique advantages to publishing the details of this program in a journal dedicated to describing datasets,” says Boegehold. “Our team recently completed a data description paper of the western Lake Erie monitoring program titled Routine monitoring of western Lake Erie to track water quality changes associated with cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms. It’s currently in preprint form and open for public comment and discussion until May 24th, 2023. This type of publication is called a “living data paper” because it can be continuously updated as data are added to the dataset, or if sampling parameters are changed and updated. It also describes the sampling and analytical methods used so that other researchers can accurately interpret, analyze, and reference this data. The cool thing about published datasets like this is that anyone can use them, so it’s important to give proper context to the history and methods of the program. In fact, there are over 30 peer-reviewed scientific articles that use some portion of this dataset, including research from NOAA GLERL and CIGLR and from researchers outside these organizations. Now that a decade of water quality monitoring data for western Lake Erie is published, we can focus on investigating long-term trends and patterns that impact HABs.” 

Dr. Anna Boegehold works with Dr. Casey Godwin, Dr. Reagan Errera (NOAA GLERL) and the Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) monitoring team to study seasonal patterns in the ecology and toxins of the bloom. Anna uses historical and novel datasets to examine short-term environmental and physiological changes that can potentially impact the long-term trajectory of a bloom, such as fluctuations in biomass, toxin & metabolite concentrations, and other characteristics.

Related Articles & Resources:

Boegehold, A.G., Burtner, A.M., Camilleri, A.C., Carter, G., DenUyl, P., Fanslow, D., Fyffe Semenyuk, D., Godwin, C.M., Gossiaux, D., Johengen, T.H., Kelchner, H., Kitchens, C., Mason, L.A., McCabe, K., Palladino, D., Stuart, D., Vanderploeg, H. and Errera, R. Routine monitoring of western Lake Erie to track water quality changes associated with cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms. Earth System Science Data Discuss. [preprint], (DOI:10.5194/essd-2023-62). in review, 2023.