I-Team Testing the Waters for algae problems this summer

TOLEDO (13abc Action News) - It’s the water crisis few will forget in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan. Half a million people were left without safe drinking water for nearly 3 full days. All because of toxic algae in Lake Erie.

Since that time, 13abc has been digging for answers and tracking what's being done to make sure it doesn't happen again. Now the 13abc I-Team takes you behind the scenes with the people who are tracking the source of the problem. The I-Team has spent months uncovering the research, prevention and the results. Many of those issues start in our area rivers.

Lines of people, lines of cars, lots of empty shelves inside grocery stores are a few ways people will remember the 2014 water crisis. All because of Lake Erie that looked more like green pea soup.

The 13abc I-Team wanted to know if people are worried about problems this year:

“Depends on if they took care of the problem from last year," said Toledo water customer Larry Nearwood.

“I'm not worried at all," said Toledo water customer Kelvin Peals.

“Well it's always a concern," said Toledo water customer Eric Klinger.

Causing that concern was the algal bloom in Lake Erie. Those water conditions are tracked by the staff at Heidelberg University since the 70s. It’s all part of the University's National Center for Water Quality Research.

The I-Team spent months to take you inside testing on numerous rivers that feed the Lake Erie. We began in mid-March at the Maumee River near Waterville.

"If the soluble or dissolved phosphorous levels this week are elevated from last week, we'll be aware of that. Almost instantly," said Ewing.

Phosphorous is one of the major nutrients fueling an algal bloom. That's always on the radar of these researchers. Algae feeds off phosphorous and nitrogen. It's what we saw last summer. This team's work is now more front and center.

“On one hand it's a terrible thing that happened but on the other hand maybe it will get us moving forward from here on out," said Laura Johnson with Heidelberg University.

The I-Team followed the testing team to the Blanchard River near County Road 140 in Hancock County. A month later the I-Team makes a visit to the Sandusky River testing station in Fremont. All that before a stop inside the Heidelberg labs where researchers analyze the samples.

“Quality control has always been extremely important" said Ewing. Each samples winds through an intricate web of wires, tubes and computers. This technology was non-existent 40 years ago but is needed now more than ever.

“This is really the technology that allows us to process those thousands and thousands of samples that we do every year that are, in part, really necessary to maintain that long term database,” said Ewing.

While dissolved phosphorous can be hard to spot, sediment in our rivers is not. Tracking this is important because of the nutrients that might be attached. So what's the early forecast on the next bloom?

Through the end of April of 2015, the phosphorous numbers are actually lower than 2014. They play a big role in the algal bloom forecast. It's early but the bloom could be smaller this year.

Here's another wrinkle, one big rain just after farmers apply fertilizers to their fields could bring lots of problems into the water very quickly. Those fields are the biggest contributors of harmful material into the rivers and eventually Lake Erie.

Steps are underway to help the waterways. Experts have asked farmers to plant more cover crops and new state law signed by Governor John Kasich restricts when manure can be spread on fields.

All this work, research and eventually solutions, people don't usually think about.

“I think they learned some lessons last summer. So if they can implement that, keep using those tools, then I think they will be ok," said Nearhood.

The location of the bloom is just one more wildcard. The winds last summer moved the bloom right over the Toledo water intake, making the algae problems even worse.

The city of Toledo is getting a loan from the state of Ohio for improvements at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant. Those improvements include larger storage tanks to hold water longer for treatment and an upgrade that allows for water cleaning chemicals into the pipeline