Harmful Algal Blooms in the Ohio River

When present in domestic water sources, blooms of algae can negatively affect the public health, economy, and natural environmental processes of a given region. Thus, regions connected by tributaries to agriculture-laden geography like that of west and northwest Ohio, Indiana, and east Illinois are subject to excessive fertilizer concentrations by way of drainage infrastructure in these farmlands, tipping the nutrient balance in the aquatic ecosystem and causing these harmful algal blooms.

One such region and tributary, the Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky Tristate Area and the Ohio River, are particularly affected by this process. Therefore, rather than one algae bloom or instance, this project will focus primarily on the general occurrence and reoccurrence of this process, and furthermore, discuss a few of the environmental and public health impacts of these blooms on an already struggling Appalachian region. Ultimately, our final presentation will aim to convey that this water pollution is and will continue to be an issue for the area until sweeping mitigation techniques are implemented before, during, and after crop planting at farms across the Midwest.

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As previously stated, the algal blooms that we will be researching are from the result of fertilizer getting into the water. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus polluting the water results in rapid reproduction of algae. Runoff from farms and industrial areas has caused major issues for the ecosystems in the Ohio River Basin. Much of the area surrounding the Ohio river is rural farmland. This is not only due to the high-quality soil but because before trains and automobiles the best way to sell goods in different markets was by river travel. These farms have been here for centuries and with the demand to grow larger crops faster fertilizer has become prevalent. Therefore, rainfall and excess water from crop hydration allows the fertilizer to travel through the farm tile drains, into local water sheds, and, eventually, arrives in the river allowing algae to flourish.

While there is not an exact solution to this problem, there are still mitigation techniques to reduce it at the start and then once the pollutants have gotten into the water it is up to the water treatment plants to resolve the issue. One mitigation technique is planting trees, shrubs, and grasses also known as field buffers. Field buffers help prevent nutrient loss from fields by filtering out the nutrients before they reach the body of water. Additionally, other agricultural products (i.e. corn) can be used as a cover crop to effectively retain nutrients in the soil. These mitigation techniques will not directly stop all algal blooms in the Appalachian region, but they do offer a starting point until the algae (and ultimately the bacteria with which it comes) can be more efficiently removed before being deemed acceptable for domestic use, both commercial and domestic.

As previously mentioned, it is a goal of this project to convey that until sweeping mitigation techniques are implemented before, during, and after crop planting at farms across the Midwest, these algal blooms will continue to be a detriment to the people within the Tristate Area, and, more so, Appalachia as a whole. In doing so, we aim to evaluate the feasibility of these techniques on a regional scale, and, finally, propose alternatives if we to find the existing techniques to be inadequate.

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