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UWO research team receives $1.6 million grant for study on toxic algae

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Posted at 4:34 PM, Sep 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-03 10:07:33-04

OSHKOSH (NBC 26) — For more than a decade, scientists say we've been seeing rapid algae bloom growth in the Northeast Wisconsin region.

Stephanie Spehar, UW-Oshkosh Sustainability Institute for Regional Transformations director, said the harmful algal blooms, or blue-green algae, occurring in Lake Winnebago and other waterways is caused by what's called "nutrient loading" in lakes.

"So basically more nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen are getting into lakes, but it's also things like increased temperatures due to climate change," Spehar said.

The blooms can be toxic.

"They can actually kill pets if pets go in the water," Spehar said. "They can make people sick. They can make the water undrinkable. There have been some cases - not in our lake in Lake Winnebago, but elsewhere - where cities and municipalities have actually had to stop drawing water from lakes because these blooms have become such a problem."

That's where a new study comes to play: a sustainability research team at UWO received a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the conditions that might cause algae blooms in freshwater systems like Lake Winnebago.

It's a partnership between the university, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and the Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance. The four-year study will include data collection, as well as public perception and response to the blooms.

"The idea here is that, yeah, we can understand that sort of ecology-biology side, which is really important to addressing it," Spehar said. "But if we don't understand that human side, we're not going to make much headway on the problem. So what we're trying to do is bring together those understandings, that ecology-biology side, that human side, and try to figure out okay, what does all this together tell us about the blooms, why they're happening, and how we can address them."

UWO students will also get to work alongside researchers on the project as a field study.

Toward the end of the study, Spehar said they hope to have public workshops, a multimedia pop-up exhibit, educational materials for kids, and develop a citizen science program.