Re­searchers cre­at­ing warn­ing sys­tem for toxic al­gae dis­cov­ered in lakes

R.I., Mass among EPA test sites

Woonsocket Call - - Region/obituaries -

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Satel­lites in space and a ro­bot un­der Lake Erie's sur­face are part of a net­work of sci­en­tific tools try­ing to keep al­gae tox­ins out of drink­ing wa­ter sup­plies in the shal­low­est of the Great Lakes.

It's one of the most widerang­ing fresh­wa­ter mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems in the U.S., re­searchers say, and some of its pieces soon will be watch­ing for harm­ful al­gae on hun­dreds of lakes na­tion­wide.

Re­searchers are cre­at­ing an early warn­ing sys­tem us­ing real-time data from satel­lites that in re­cent years have tracked al­gae bloom hot­pots such as Florida's Lake Okee­chobee and the East Coast's Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

The plan is to have it in place within two years so that states in the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. can be alerted to where toxic al­gae is ap­pear­ing be­fore they might de­tect it on the sur­face, said Blake Scha­ef­fer, a re­searcher with U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

"You don't have to wait un­til some­one gets sick," said Scha­ef­fer, one of the lead­ers of the project.

Across the na­tion, farm runoff, sewage over­flows and lawn fer­til­iz­ers have washed into lakes and rivers and left be­hind un­sightly al­gae blooms that can sicken peo­ple and pets and harm wildlife.

But of­ten the first re­ports of harm­ful al­gae on a lake come from boaters see­ing some­thing strange in the wa­ter, said Rick Stumpf, of the Na­tional Oceano­graphic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He be­gan us­ing satel­lites in 2008 to mon­i­tor al­gae on Lake Erie. That work took on a new ur­gency af­ter a bloom near Toledo's shore­line con­tam­i­nated the drink­ing wa­ter for more than 400,000 peo­ple three years ago.

The EPA in re­cent years has been test­ing us­ing the satel­lite data to watch for al­gae in lakes in Cal­i­for­nia, Ver­mont, New Hamp­shire, Mas­sachusetts, Con­necti­cut and Rhode Is­land.

Ear­lier this year, the data helped de­tect an al­gae bloom in a Utah Lake near Salt Lake City be­fore of­fi­cials on the ground knew about it.

"That's ex­actly what we we're try­ing to ac­com­plish," Scha­ef­fer said.

The sys­tem in de­vel­op­ment will cast a wider net at a time when many states can't af­ford to mon­i­tor every lake threat­ened by harm­ful al­gae. The goal is to use the satel­lite data to watch for al­gae on 1,800 lakes across the na­tion and pro­vide four dif­fer­ent types of wa­ter qual­ity mea­sure­ments on close to 170,000 lakes.

What satel­lites can't mea­sure is the amount of tox­ins in the wa­ter. That's where sam­ples gath­ered by re­searchers come into play. That too can be ex­pen­sive so re­searchers have de­vel­oped an un­der­wa­ter lab that sits at the bot­tom of Lake Erie and both col­lects wa­ter and tests the lev­els of tox­ins be­fore send­ing the re­sults back re­motely.

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