Researchers at OSU Stone Lab use Lake Erie as an outdoor laboratory to study biology and ecology. Credit: Courtesy of OSU

From restoring a burning river to researching algal blooms in Lake Erie, many of Ohio State’s scientists have been at the forefront of water quality efforts across the state. But future achievements might be in trouble.

Part of President Donald Trump’s proposed Environmental Protection Agency budget cuts include a 97 percent reduction in great lakes funding, which in the past has received significant bipartisan support. Decreasing funds from $300 million to a mere $10 million places the Ohio Sea Grant program’s work at stake.

The Ohio Sea Grant — a research program administered by Ohio State and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration run through OSU’s Stone Lab, located on Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie — focuses on restoring the lake and its coast back to their natural habitats as well as educating the public on a variety of environmental issues.

“When the Great Lakes funding gets cut, our ability to efficiently and rapidly make changes is more difficult,” said Christopher Winslow, director of both the Ohio Sea Grant Program and Stone Laboratory.

One of those changes is reducing the frequency and intensity of harmful algal blooms — overgrown algae colonies fueled by excess nutrients from manure and fertilizer runoff used on surrounding farms.

In 2014, record levels of microcystin, a poisonous toxin created by Lake Erie’s blue-green algae, forced officials to shut down the city of Toledo’s water supply, leaving nearly half a million people without clean water for two days.

Cutting funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would mean less funds for all five Great Lakes regions, according to a copy of the budget plan obtained by The National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

A cut this large would affect more than just the lakes, though.

Steel towns across the Great Lakes region would see some of the greatest impacts, Winslow said. Before the EPA, industries polluted waterways by dumping waste into them, he said.

Before the EPA, industries polluted waterways by dumping waste into them, Winslow said. Most communities, he added, aren’t creating the problems caused by that waste themselves, yet they still suffer from the effects of industrial pollution in the lake.

But because of the remediation efforts by programs such as the Ohio Sea Grant, which helps inform scientific policy through its research, much of that pollution has been regulated to safer levels.

“If you’ve been to Cleveland lately, people have been coming back because of ecosystem improvement,” said Winslow. “Without the GLRI, it’s hard to achieve that.”

A boat sits in an algae-filled Lake Erie at Stone Lab. Credit: Courtesy of Christopher Winslow

Although Stone Lab doesn’t apply for GLRI funds directly, the institution often works with researchers who do.

Tory Gabriel, extension specialist and program manager for Ohio Sea Grant, helps educate outdoor recreators on how to prevent the spread of invasive species and works toward improving wetland habitats. Gabriel said without the GLRI funding, issues like harmful algal blooms, invasive species and loss of wildlife in Lake Erie will continue to be problems for not only the environment but also the economy.

“Clean water means good fishing, good beaches and nice boating that boosts the economy,” Gabriel said. “They go hand in hand.”

In terms of its economic impact, tourism in and around Lake Erie generates more than $1.8 billion in yearly sales with an estimated 9 million people who visit the region for boating, fishing and other outdoor recreation opportunities.

During the 2011 harmful algal bloom, the Lake Erie region suffered a $20 million decrease in tourism revenue because toxic algae, which can cause liver damage, prevented tourists from entering the lake.

Winslow said that as budget cuts begin to affect research labs and universities across the nation, Stone Lab and the Ohio Sea Grant will have to adapt and locate new funding sources.

“This isn’t going to shut down the island at Stone Lab,” he said. “But (it) makes the things we need to do for the health of the lake and the economy associated with the lake harder.”