Below are descriptions of some of our major on-going and past projects, aside from the Heidelberg Tributary Loading Program. Click the title for more information (where available)!

On-going Research Projects

Assessing the watershed scale effects of implementing conservation management practices.

Over the past two decades, the western basin of Lake Erie has been experiencing re-eutrophication with some of the largest harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the past 11 years. The HABs in Lake Erie are closely associated with bioavailable phosphorus (P) loading, specifically dissolved P, from Maumee River during the period of March through July and the primary source of this loading is agricultural runoff. To reduce the frequency of severe blooms, a target of 40% reduction in total P and dissolved P loads from the Maumee River and other western Lake Erie tributaries was set in 2015. Current modeling approaches indicate that widespread adoption of practices (over 70% of the watershed) focused on reducing dissolved P will be needed to reach that target. To test the model results and demonstrate how to achieve the reduction targets, Jay Martin at OSU is leading a pilot watershed study aimed to implement conservation practices on over 70% of a small watershed (<10,000 acres) in the headwaters of the Maumee River. The pilot watershed is an on-going paired watershed project that we began in 2018 to establish a baseline comparison between the treatment and control watersheds and to also receive prioritized EQIP funded implementation of BMPs in 2020. Implementation of practices for this project is funded by USDA-NRCS RCPP AFA and includes a wide array of project partners to achieve the ambitious implementation goal.  Our funding for continued monitoring of the pilot watershed and additional control watershed (i.e., “business as usual” watershed) is through the USDA-NRCS CEAP Watershed Assessment program. Practice implementation is scheduled to start in fall 2023 for the 2024 growing season and focus on practices such as subsurface fertilizer placement, variable rate nutrient application, drainage water management, wetland construction, and soil health optimization.    

H2Ohio ODNR Wetland Monitoring Program

We are part of a large monitoring team organized through the Lake Erie Area Research Network (LEARN) to monitor wetlands being constructed throughout the state of Ohio as part of the H2Ohio program. The goal of the H2Ohio Wetland Monitoring Program is to assess nutrient removal of wetland restoration and enhancement projects implemented by the ODNR as part of Governor Mike DeWine’s statewide H2Ohio Initiative. The H2Ohio Wetland Monitoring Program is assessing how wetland restoration can improve water quality, with a focus on phosphorus and nitrogen, key nutrients that fuel eutrophication and harmful algal blooms across Ohio. The ODNR-implemented wetland projects, part of the H2Ohio Initiative, represent a wide range of wetland types, restoration and construction approaches, and complexity. This monitoring effort is being led by Lauren Kinsman-Costello at Kent State University and includes researchers from Bowling Green State University, University of Toledo, Ohio State University, Wright State University, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, along with Heidelberg University.

Evaluating the effect of colloidal-phosphorus on phosphorus exports, bioavailability, and transformation from the edge-of-field to Lake Erie. 

The chemical composition of dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) can be spatiotemporally variable and have large consequences for P cycling and the bioavailability of P loads to Lake Erie. River and Richardson (2019) showed that ~50% of the DRP in the Maumee River (at Waterville, OH) was likely bound with colloidal–iron and thus not bioavailable under oxic conditions. Unfortunately, River and Richardson’s measurements of colloidal-P:DRP ratios were limited to February 2017 and the spatiotemporal dynamics of colloidal-P within the Lake Erie basin is poorly understood. This represents a critical knowledge gap because it challenges a fundamental assumption used by scientists and managers in the Lake Erie basin as well as how we interpret DRP measurements taken from edge of field sites, wetlands, rivers, and Lake Erie. The objectives of this project are to determine spatial and temporal patterns in colloidal-P:DRP ratios in streams and rivers, wetlands, and western Lake Erie; quantify the bioavailability of DRP loads to Lake Erie; and quantify P interactions within the “dissolved” fraction (i.e., < 0.45 µm) between colloidal-P and noncolloidal-P. This project is being lead by Dr. Jim Hood at The Ohio State University and is in collaboration with Michael Brooker, Vinayak Shedekar, John Lenhart, and Justin Chaffin- all at OSU, and Ben Colman at University of Montana.

Tracking reductions in nutrient loads from Lake Erie tributaries. 

The Lake Erie watershed has a uniquely long-running, high-frequency, and dense network of stream and river water-quality monitoring compared to anywhere else around the globe.  This has been immensely useful in assessing the changes in nutrient input to the lake over time and determining appropriate management on the landscape to improve lake health.  However, since monitoring is conducted across multiple agencies and groups, it can be challenging to collate this information in a useful manner to an provide up-to-date status on tributary trends. This is especially true in the Ohio portion of the Lake Erie watershed where monitoring stations from the USGS and Heidelberg University are interspersed throughout the same watershed.  Hence, the overall goal of this project is to assess trends in nutrient loads from tributaries to Lake Erie in a cohesive manner using new methods and approaches. This project is in collaboration with the Tanja Williamson at USGS.

Occurrence and sources of veterinary pharmaceuticals in Lake Erie tributaries.

This project is using in-situ passive sampling (POCIS) coupled with liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry to measure veterinary and mixed-use pharmaceuticals at trace levels to determine occurrence and potential sources related to human and animal use in the Sandusky River watershed. There is scarce information on the spatial and temporal occurrence of the pharmaceuticals in this region, especially at low concentrations, and the use of passive sampling provides for low detection limits and ability to estimate time-weighted mean concentrations (TWMC). The environmental occurrence of antibiotics could have significant human health concerns due to the emergence of antibiotic resistance and ecological impacts by interfering with nutrient transformations. Because some pharmaceuticals are specific to certain uses, they may also be useful as a tracer for estimating sources of nutrients and wastewater inputs. This project is in collaboration with the Water Science Laboratory at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (Co-PIs Dan Snow and Tania Biswas).

COMPASS – Field, Measurements, and Experiments and Great Lakes Modeling

We recently became part of a newly-funded project being led by the Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) titled “Coastal Observations, Mechanisms, and Predictions Across Systems and Scales (COMPASS)”, which includes the development of new coastal observations in the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie as well as multi-scale modeling in the Great Lakes Region. We’ll be assisting the large project team on observations in the Lake Erie area, as well as providing data from our existing tributary monitoring, and assisting with regional connections.

Long-Term Agro-Ecosystem Research Program (LTAR)
In January 2014, the NCWQR formally joined with two research laboratories operated by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS): the Soil Drainage Research Unit at The Ohio State University and the National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory at Purdue University.  The three entities form the Eastern Corn Belt node of the LTAR network, one of eighteen nodes across the U.S.  The goal of LTAR is to ensure sustained crop and livestock production and ecosystem services from agro-ecosystems, and to forecast and verify the effects of environmental trends, public policies, and emerging technologies. A key expectation of the LTAR Network is the application of research results to solve critical challenges facing agriculture including: 1) a safe and plentiful food supply; 2) climate change adaptation/mitigation; 3) supplying sources of bioenergy; 4) improving water/air/soil quality; and 5) maintaining biodiversity.  Funding for collaboration among the three laboratories was still pending from USDA ARS as of December 2015.  (Drs. Confesor, Johnson, Krieger and Baker)

Forecasting Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie’s Western Basin
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) were a feature of the impaired Lake Erie of the 1970s, largely disappeared in the late 1980s and 1990s, but re-appeared in the 2000s, generally getting more severe as the decade progressed.  Because of the negative economic impact of HABs on recreation, tourism, and drinking water production, and potential toxic effects in humans and animals, predicting the severity of a year’s algal bloom early in the year is very beneficial.  Currently, the NCWQR’s Maumee River data are the basis for ongoing seasonal HAB forecasts for Lake Erie produced by NOAA.  Dr. Richard Stumpf of NOAA uses a model linking March through July Maumee River discharge and phosphorus loads with the severity of HABs determined from satellite imagery and Dr. Thomas Bridgeman’s (University of Toledo) measurements of Microcystis biovolume from western Lake Erie.  In addition, our data are used in Dr. Daniel Obenour’s (NC State University) Bayesian model that forecasts HABs using a similar time frame and by LimnoTech in their Western Lake Erie Ecosystem Model (WLEEM). In 2015, NCWQR staff worked with NOAA to produce weekly early season projections to inform the public of current Maumee loading and the possible influence on bloom size.  (Drs. Baker and Johnson)

Past Research

Evaluating the impact of rivers on phosphorus delivery to western Lake Erie.

Cyanobacteria blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie (WBLE) have resulted in considerable ecological, cultural, and economic losses for the region. The primary determinant of cyanobacteria bloom extent in WBLE is P loading from the Maumee River watershed in which more than 80% of annual P exports are believed to originate from lands dominated by agriculture. The impacts of various agricultural land-use practices on P exports from fields are beginning to be well understood as are the general impact of P on cyanobacteria blooms and hypoxia within the lake. Yet, it is unknown whether rivers have a net positive, negative, or neutral impact on P loading to WBLE. This represents a critical knowledge gap because river networks can alter the magnitude, timing, and form of P export. For instance, Jarvie et al. (2011) showed that instream processes in the Sandusky River watershed may reduce annual P loads by up to 48%, while Casillas-Ituarte et al. (in press) argued that instream processes might increase P loading to WBLE. Thus, our overarching goals are to: (a) Determine when and where rivers are P sources or sinks. (b) Understand how instream processing affects policy recommendations about the extent of agricultural conservation required to reach target loads. This project is being lead by Dr. Jim Hood at The Ohio State University and is in collaboration with Margaret Kalcic (OSU), Christopher Spiese (ONU), and Rebecca Kreiling (USGS).

Enhancing the accessibility of the Heidelberg Tributary Loading Program through real-time water quality data and integration into Great Lakes Observing System.

Understanding tributary inputs to Lake Erie is essential to managing and improving the overall health of the lake.  Luckily, high frequency sediment and nutrient concentration monitoring has been on-going for up to 46 years for some tributaries as part of the Heidelberg Tributary Loading Program (HTLP).  Although this program has provided very high quality data for decades, the HTLP could be improved and enhanced by the addition of a telecommunication network to provide online, real-time data from water quality sensors. The goals of this project are to connect new and existing water quality sensors to a telecommunication network at all the HTLP sampling stations in the Lake Erie watershed and work with Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) to integrate both sensor data and the existing long-term sediment and nutrient concentration data into the Seagull platform. By including this data in the GLOS platform, we will be able to link tributary inputs to Lake Erie water quality in new ways and hopefully provide insight into how to improve the health of this vital ecosystem. 

Glyphosate runoff dynamics in tributaries draining into Lake Erie.

Glyphosate is a broad spectrum, non-selective herbicide that is widely used in agriculture and urban watersheds. According to National Agriculture Statistics Service, glyphosate use in agriculture in the state of Ohio has increased over 20 times from 150 metric tons in 1990 to 3100 metric tons in 2015. Due to its increasing use throughout the world, and potential ecological risks, new high throughput methods are needed to better understand and characterize runoff patterns in agricultural and suburban watersheds. There are few existing methods that can rapidly measure glyphosate and its primary degradation product aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) at environmental concentrations. We used a newly developed method for glyphosate and AMPA analyses using direct injection ion chromatography inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (IC-ICP-MS) with a detection limit of 5 µg/L. This method required little sample preparation, no derivatization, and provided high sensitivity at low cost.  The method provided a good alternative to more elaborate procedures requiring derivatization. Samples were collected from two subwatersheds in the Sandusky River Watershed, Rock Creek and Honey Creek, and one subwatershed in the Maumee River watershed, Wolf Creek starting in September of 2018 and ending in November 2020.  While Rock and Honey Creeks watersheds are dominated by row-crop agriculture (>80%), Wolf Creek is primarily residential (43% urban).  This project is in collaboration with the Water Science Laboratory at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (Co-PIs Dan Snow and Tania Biswas).

Identifying the Best Strategy to Reduce Phosphorus Loads to Lake Erie from Agricultural Watersheds

In the western Lake Erie basin, the current strategy to reduce P exports from agricultural lands is to target hotspots in the watershed (e.g. the GLRI priority watersheds) that are a major source of dissolved P runoff. Yet, increasing evidence suggests we need a basin-wide management change because most farms are leaking a moderate amount of dissolved P that differs each year depending on precipitation and crop rotation. This project will confirm which strategy is the most appropriate in identifying management practices that effectively decrease the total nutrient and sediment exports out of the watershed. In addition, our project will provide a better fundamental understanding of how differing P sources and locations may contribute to dissolved P runoff from the WLEB watersheds. Ultimately, while part of this project will be focused in smaller watersheds of the WLEB, these data will be essential to improving existing watershed models that are required to predict the effects of best management practices as well as climate change across the entire WLEB. (Dr. Confesor)

Verification and Enhancement of NRCS-USDA Nutrient Tracking Tool with a Suite of Best Management Practices (BMPs)

The best way to entice producers to adopt and implement best management practices (BMPs) is for them to independently verify the effectiveness of BMPs in their own fields and on demonstration farms, in part using innovative user-friendly models (e.g., the web-based Nutrient Tracking Tool, NTT). The overall goal of this three-year project, funded by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service starting in October 2013, is to improve soil health and reduce nutrient and sediment exports from agricultural farms. The specific objectives are: 1) demonstrate and quantify the economic and environmental benefits of a suite of  BMPs through edge-of-field studies, 2) calibrate and verify the Agricultural Policy Environmental eXtender (APEX) model and the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) and examine the BMP effects at different spatial scales in northwest Ohio, 3) calibrate and verify the Nutrient Tracking Tool (NTT) for the Great Lakes basin, and 4) promote and train the producers and stakeholders of NTT to estimate farm yield and nutrient loss.  Project collaborators subcontracted through Heidelberg University are the Sandusky River Watershed Coalition, Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research (TIAER) at Tarleton State University, IPM Institute of North America, five Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) in the Sandusky River watershed, USDA Agricultural Research Service, and local farmers/producers.  Rem Confesor is the project director.

Evaluating the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Concept and Certification Program in the Western Lake Erie Basin

Over the past two to three years, educational programs directed at growers and nutrient service providers (e.g., agricultural retailers, crop advisers) have emphasized the principles of 4R Nutrient Stewardship, which incorporate applying fertilizer using the right source at the right rate at the right time at the right place.  A 4R certification program for nutrient service providers in the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) was implemented in March 2014 with 49 applications by the end of June, and three retailers had completed certification by October 2014.  The overall goal of the proposed project is to evaluate the specific impacts of the adoption of practices associated with 4R Nutrient Stewardship, and the impact of the WLEB 4R Certification Program itself, on crop productivity and profitability, water quality, and perceptions of growers, nutrient service providers, and residents in the WLEB.  A multidisciplinary approach is being used for evaluation involving monitoring, modeling, and measurement of the impacts at the field, watershed, and lake scales.  Funding for the project comes from the 4R Research Fund, which is supported in part by members of The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), the Canadian Fertilizer Institute (CFI) and multiple additional agricultural stakeholders.  The fund is currently managed by the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI).  See more here:  The project is directed by Dr. Kevin King of the USDA ARS Soil Drainage Research Unit, and collaborators are  LimnoTech, Ohio State University, USDA-ARS National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory, The Nature Conservancy, Heidelberg University (Drs. Laura Johnson and Rem Confesor), and International Plant Nutrition Institute.

An Online Tributary Loading Tool to Support Harmful Algal Bloom Forecasting in Lake Erie

As a part of the Heidelberg Tributary Loading Program (HTLP), the National Center for Water Quality Research (NCWQR) has been collecting samples for nutrient and sediment analysis 1-3 times a day, year round for up to 41 years. Samples are currently collected from 18 tributaries throughout Ohio and Michigan, but the longest-term data have been collected from the major external inputs to Lake Erie: the Sandusky, Maumee, Cuyahoga, and Raisin rivers. Although HTLP data are posted on the NCWQR website, to expand accessibility we have partnered with the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) and LimnoTech to provide HTLP’s Lake Erie tributary data on GLOS for download and visualization, updated quarterly. Because the Maumee River is the largest external input to Lake Erie and current seasonal western Lake Erie harmful algal bloom (HAB) forecasts are based on spring Maumee River phosphorus loads, we developed an expedited process to provide weekly data from the Maumee River from March through August. In addition to being available for download, these data can be visualized on GLOS using a new online tool that facilitates tracking spring loads from the Maumee River and comparisons with past years as well as other Lake Erie tributaries.  (Dr. Johnson)

Phosphorus Management Scenarios: Western Basin of Lake Erie

Six groups (University of Michigan, The Ohio State University, LimnoTech, Heidelberg University, The Nature Conservancy/USDA-ARS, USGS) collaborated in a multi-modeling approach to help policy advocates identify potential solutions to elevated phosphorus loads, and consequently harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie.  Five of the modeling groups independently set up and calibrated the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) for the Maumee Basin.  The USGS with its calibrated SPARROW (SPAtially Referenced Regressions On Watershed attributes) model will help identify hotspots.  The calibrated SWAT models were validated and established baseline conditions using the same meteorological and point source data from 2005-2014.  Next steps include identifying and running “extreme” and “optimal” suite of BMPs  into SWAT.  (Dr. Confesor)

Agricultural Pesticides – Data Analysis and Development of Analytical Methods

Our new postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Tania Biswas, who joined our staff in January 2015, initiated two areas of investigation.  (1) Tania began to review and analyze NCWQR’s long-term data set on agricultural pesticides dating back to 1983.  She constructed numerous tables and graphs and performed statistical analyses as she began to develop a technical report on NCWQR’s analytical methods and the pesticide patterns and trends revealed by the data.  (2) Tania also began to develop expertise on NCWQR’s Bruker EVOQTM triple quadrupole mass spectrometer (LC-TQ-MS) and started to develop analytical methods for herbicides such as dicamba, 2,4,D and glyphosate, which have not previously been analyzed by the NCWQR.  Tania received hands-on training on an identical instrument at the Bruker facility in Fremont, California, in July 2015.  (Dr. Biswas)

Oligochaete Worm Species Distributions and Abundances in the Great Lakes

Differences in the co-occurrence of oligochaete worm species and their abundances relative to one another can serve as a useful indicator of the degree of environmental degradation of lakes and changes in lake quality over time.  In the deep, sometime oxygen-poor areas of many lakes, oligochaetes are the primary or only macroinvertebrates living in the bottom sediments.  For these reasons, it is important to characterize oligochaete communities.  Beginning in the fall of 2014, the NCWQR began to identify and count thousands of oligochaetes in sediment samples collected from parts of the Laurentian Great Lakes under a subcontract to the Great Lakes Center of Buffalo State College (SUNY).  The Buffalo scientists collected the samples as part of their Lake Erie and Lake Michigan Benthos: Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative multi-year project funded by the USEPA Great Lakes National Program Office.  (Jake Boehler)

Responses of Aquatic Biological Communities to Land-Use and Ditch Maintenance Practices in Agricultural Landscapes

As part of the Honey Creek-Sandusky River Targeted Watershed Project (see a description in the 2013-2014 annual report), this study was aimed at understanding how quickly, and to what extent, the aquatic habitats of maintained agricultural ditches become more complex and develop beneficial fish and macroinvertebrate communities in response to a variety of best management practices (BMPs).  Each summer and fall from 2008 through 2011, biologists surveyed fish and macroinvertebrates in 20 segments of maintained ditches in the Sandusky and nearby watersheds.  Fish were sampled by University of Toledo biologists (headed by Dr. Hans Gottgens), and NCWQR biologists (including student assistants) sampled invertebrates.  We submitted a final report on the macroinvertebrates in March 2014 and are presently developing a manuscript based on that work. (Jake Boehler, Drs. Krieger and Johnson)