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Research / Discovery

Holy Toledo: CSU researchers battling toxic algae blooms like one that plagued the Ohio city

August 20, 2014
Kortny Rolston

A new CSU research center is finding ways to reduce the flow of nutrients and pollutants into the nation's water supplies.

For three days in August, experts deemed the tap water in Toledo, Ohio, unusable. Residents were forced to drink bottled water and use it for cooking, washing dishes and even bathing.

Nutrients and pollutants caused algae to build up in Lake Erie, the city’s primary water source. The algae “bloomed” during a heat wave and released toxins into Toledo’s drinking supply.

And while the green sludge was removed and Toledo residents can use tap water again, the incident spotlighted a major issue vexing lakes, streams, estuaries and groundwater sources across the country.Toledo residents recently went without tap water for three days after algae in Lake Erie

Runoff from wastewater plants, agricultural operations, stormwater drains and other industrial systems are causing nutrients to build up in the nation’s water supplies and create algae-filled “dead zones.” The algae chokes out normal aquatic life but can also turn toxic if the temperature gets hot enough to cause it to bloom like Toledo.

“This isn’t just a problem in Lake Erie,” said Mazdak Arabi, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. “This is a problem in Chesapeake Bay, other Great Lakes and even in Colorado.”

Finding solutions

The problem is so widespread that in January 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began funding a new center at CSU to research ways to remove and control the release of nutrients into water supplies.

CSU leads CLEAN - the Center for Comprehensive, Optimal and Effective Abatement of Nutrients - but government agencies, industry partners and other universities also are involved,  including the city of Fort Collins, University of Colorado-Boulder, North Carolina State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CLEAN has assembled teams of researchers to find better ways to remove and recover nutrients from various waste streams before they enter the water supply; identify incentives for companies and agencies to adopt better nutrient management methods; create a nutrient credit trading program; and develop new data and modeling tools.

According to Arabi, principal investigator of the $2 million center, CLEAN is focused on finding viable solutions rather than studying the problem.

“We already know what the problem is,” he said. “We need to find ways to mitigate it or fix it.”