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Brockport professor works to fight algae

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 08:02


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Brockport professor Dr. Joseph Makarewicz says he will try to solve the algae problem in Lake Ontario with the resources granted to him.

Lake Ontario

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The grant, given by the United States Geological Survey, will be used to find the source of the Cladophora algae in the surrounding areas of Lake Ontario. Health concerns have been raised due to the harmful bacteria in the water.

In the last 50 years, things have been looking pretty murky around Lake Ontario’s shoreline and Dr. Joseph Makarewicz wants to know why.

Makarewicz has been studying the reason water around the shoreline is so murky and has been awarded a two-year $189,884 grant by the United States Geological Survey to aid in the continuation of his work. The grant will be divided between the college and contributing groups at RIT and Niagara University and will contribute to his latest study “Lake Ontario Nutrient Study.”

Makarewicz is a distinguished service professor in the department of environmental science and biology at the College at Brockport. During his last 39 years at Brockport, the college has been awarded millions of dollars in external research funding.

The grant will be used to find the source of the excessive algae presence in the near shore areas of Lake Ontario. The area primarily contains residential, recreational and commercial waterfront properties. Over the last 50 years, while massive cleaning efforts have been taken in the Great Lakes region, the improvement of water quality in the near shore has paled in comparison to that of the deeper waters of the lake. 

So what does this mean? In the summer, Cladophora algae quantities become so prevalent that it closed beaches and increased the presence of harmful bacteria in the water. As the near shore area is where all of the people are, this could raise some serious health concerns. Until recently, no one had any ideas as to why this phenomenon was occurring, especially since cleanup efforts on a herculean scale had been taking place.  

“In our research so far, we have been working to determine the chemistry of the water, and isolate a probable cause for the rampant growth of algae in the near shore,” Makarewicz said. “We had noticed a higher level of phosphorus in the near-shore areas of Lake Ontario, as opposed to the deeper parts of the lake where low phosphorus levels coincided with low algae levels.”

Makarewicz has spent the last few years developing a model of the region to help determine exactly why so much phosphorus is entering the river. 

“We know that the source of 60 to 65 percent of the phosphorous the enters the Genesee River can be traced to man-made sources. Sources such as waste water treatment plants, the manure from concentrated animal feeding centers and agriculture,” Makarewicz said. 

The only question now is, why is all of the phosphorus contained in such an isolated area of the lake?

One cause may be the rise of zebra mussel populations in the lake over the last 25 years. Zebra mussels are a filter feeder that each have the ability to process one gallon of water per day. And with infestations billions strong, this has led to some serious changes.

In Lake Erie for instance, water clarity has increased from 6 inch visibility to visibilities of 30 feet in some areas. In Lake Ontario, this cancels out something called the phosphorus shunt hypothesis. Where phosphorus was once diluted into the rest of the lake, it is now confined to a small area around the shoreline. 

While zebra mussel reduction has proven all but futile in the last few years, the only real solution for the near shore in sight is to reduce the levels of phosphorus that enter the Genesee. Makarewicz already has a head start on this, however. 

“We already have models made from a previous research project conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and all of the sources we have identified as prominent producers of phosphorus are, in fact, controllable,” Makarewicz said. 

The main goal now is to prove this hypothesis beyond a doubt and gain some sort of initiative for stricter regulations to be implemented on phosphorous producing areas around the Genesee. 

The significance of this research is proving vital for the near shore regions of Lake Ontario. Health concerns in the area have been elevated in response to the bacteria contained by the algae. 

“Essentially, we have an entire lakes worth of algae contained in density around the shores.” Makarewicz said. “This is obviously going to create some problems.” 

Assisting in this research are two students at the college: undergraduate Josh LaFontain and graduate student Joe Penisi.

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