University of Toledo Lake Erie Center is a place to learn about the lake

Melissa Burden

        The Lake Erie Center is the University of Toledo’s freshwater research and science education campus. Located in the northwestern corner of Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, the LEC opened in October 1998.
        The LEC is focused on finding solutions to water quality issues that face the Great Lakes, including harmful algal blooms (HABs), invasive species and pollutants. The LEC does this by:
         • Conducting long-term research on environmental conditions and living and non-living aquatic resources in Maumee Bay and the western basin of Lake Erie;
         • Researching the relationship between land-use practices and water quality, habitat, economics, natural resources, sustainability, and environmental and public health;
        • Facilitating cutting-edge environmental research and education experiences for graduate and undergraduate students, and sponsoring research and collaborations by faculty from the University of Toledo as well as other universities, federal and state agencies and visiting scientists.
        The center just completed its second annual HABs Grab on Wednesday, August 7, according to Pam Struffolino, research operations manager at the center. Environmental scientists from the U.S. and Canada boarded research vessels and fanned out across the western Lake Erie to collect water samples at close to 200 locations in four hours.
        “There is a buoy system on the lake that monitors the lake consistently,” Struffolino said. “There is a HABs Data Portal, which is a network of sensors in the western basin. They are hoping to create a high-resolution picture of this summer’s harmful algal bloom  and ultimately protect the public drinking water supply.”
        The event brought together researchers from UT, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, Bowling Green State University, Wayne State University, Michigan Technological University, Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research and Limno Tech. Canadian partners included the University of Windsor, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
        A major goal is to estimate the mass of total microcystin toxin for one day during the peak of algal bloom season, as well as to characterize the different forms of microcystin and the genes that produce them.
        Heading the HABs Grab was Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, director of the center and professor of ecology. Bridgeman’s research lab, Western Lake Erie Limnology, studies inland aquatic ecosystems.
        “Collaboration is critical in our efforts to understand a harmful algal bloom as large as Lake Erie’s,” said Bridgeman.  “The lake is simply too large for one organization to handle. This massive one-day sampling event allows us to not only analyze the current bloom, but focus on unraveling the mystery of why some algal blooms are highly toxic, while others are less so.”
International issue
        Bridgeman, who has studied algae in the Great Lakes for nearly two decades, and his research team  collects samples and tracks cyanobacteria - a blue green algae that produces microcystin - throughout Lake Erie’s western basin once a week every summer during algal bloom season.
        “Harmful algal blooms are an international issue,” Bridgeman said. “The ultimate solution is to prevent blooms from growing in the first place by preventing water pollution. In the meantime, discovering what triggers a bloom to start producing toxins would be a large step toward protecting people, pets and wildlife.”
        Since 2002, Bridgeman has been involved with conducting monitoring cruises at 10 to 14 day intervals between April and October with the objective of establishing baseline water-quality conditions in Maumee Bay and western Lake Erie. 
        “What is really great about the HABs Grab and the buoy system in general is that anyone can go to the website and see the information gathered in real time,” Struffolino said.
        Other research labs at the LEC include the Environmental Remediation and Restoration Lab led by Dr. Daryl Dwyer. The research projects focus on investigating and modeling the interactions of soil, water, microorganisms and plants for the purpose of protecting the environment, mitigating pollution, and restoring degraded sites, ideally by incorporating native plants. 
        The lab has been funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, National Resource Conservation Service, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Lake Erie Protection Fund, and Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.
        Dwyer’s lab group, in association with the Ohio Department of Health, has taken samples of water both lakeside and at the inland lake at the state park.
        Several years ago, Dwyer was awarded $1 million in U.S. EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding to construct a passive treatment wetland in Maumee Bay State Park. The terraced wetland, which acts as a filter for contaminants before they hit the lake, is located at the front of Maumee Bay State Park, Struffolino said, adding that there is also an upstream sedimentation pond. This provides a two stage remediation system.
Public education
        The LEC is involved in public education. Tours of the LEC are offered by appointment. Those who do visit will find iPads and a computer kiosk that showcase LEC research labs and resources. Visitors will also receive information about algae, Lake Erie trivia and a live feed from the LEC weather station. There is also a 3-D interactive model of a terraced wetland, displays on native fish, algae and insects, an exhibit on rocks, fossils and minerals and a kids’ corner offering hands-on learning with animal furs, 3-D models, books, puzzles and more.
        “We do get a lot of home school students going through the center,” said Struffolino. “In the summer, we have science camps for students in grades four, five, seven and eight. “
        The LEC is hosting a Farmer’s Market on Friday, September 6, from 3-6 pm.
        “The farmer’s market gives us all a chance to interact with area farmers,” she said. “We can all build good relationships with our farmers and the community.”
        As part of its education and outreach mission, the center also hosts monthly public lectures in the fall and spring.
        An LEC Public Lecture will be held Thursday, September 16, at 7p.m, in LEC Room 155. Dr. William Hintz, Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Toledo, will give a lecture on, "Losing our fresh water: Finding a balance between human safety and the impact of road salts."
        To see the schedule of upcoming topics in the series, visit the center’s website at
        To learn more about the Lake Erie Center or to get information on touring the center, call 419-530-8360. It also has its own Facebook page, and can be followed on twitter @lakeeriecenter.
        Visitors to the website may make a tax-deductible contribution to help support research, education and outreach at the LEC.


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