Water Quality, Cyanobacteria, and Environmental Factors and Their Relations to Microcystin Concentrations for Use in Predictive Models at Ohio Lake Erie and Inland Lake Recreational Sites, 2013-14

Scientific Investigations Report 2015-5120

Prepared in cooperation with the Ohio Water Development Authority
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Harmful cyanobacterial “algal” blooms (cyanoHABs) and associated toxins, such as microcystin, are a major water-quality issue for Lake Erie and inland lakes in Ohio. Predicting when and where a bloom may occur is important to protect the public that uses and consumes a water resource; however, predictions are complicated and likely site specific because of the many factors affecting toxin production. Monitoring for a variety of environmental and water-quality factors, for concentrations of cyanobacteria by molecular methods, and for algal pigments such as chlorophyll and phycocyanin by using optical sensors may provide data that can be used to predict the occurrence of cyanoHABs.

To test these monitoring approaches, water-quality samples were collected at Ohio recreational sites during May–November in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, samples were collected monthly at eight sites at eight lakes to facilitate an initial assessment and select sites for more intensive sampling during 2014. In 2014, samples were collected approximately weekly at five sites at three lakes. Physical water-quality parameters were measured at the time of sampling. Composite samples were preserved and analyzed for dissolved and total nutrients, toxins, phytoplankton abundance and biovolume, and cyanobacterial genes by molecular methods. Molecular assays were done to enumerate (1) general cyanobacteria, (2) general Microcystis and Dolichospermum (Anabaena), (3) mcyE genes forMicrocystisDolichospermum (Anabaena), and Planktothrix targeting deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and (4) mcyE transcripts for MicrocystisDolichospermum (Anabaena), and Planktothrix targeting ribonucleic acid (RNA).The DNA assays for the mcyE gene provide data on cyanobacteria that have the potential to produce microcystin, whereas the RNA assays provide data on cyanobacteria that are actively transcribing the toxin gene. Environmental data were obtained from available online sources. Quality-control (QC) samples were collected and analyzed for all constituents to characterize bias and variability; however, QC data for molecular assays were examined in more detail than for the other constituents. The QC data for molecular assays suggested that sampling variability and qPCR variability were small in comparison with the combined variability associated with sample filtering, extraction and purification, and the matrix itself.

A total of 46 water-quality samples were collected during 2013 at 8 beach sites—Buck Creek, Buckeye Crystal, Deer Creek, Harsha Main, Maumee Bay State Park (MBSP) Inland (negative control site), MBSP Lake Erie, Port Clinton, and Sandusky Bay. Microcystin was detected in 67–100 percent of samples at all sites except for MBSP Inland, where microcystin was detected in only 20 percent of samples. Microcystin concentrations ranged from <0.10 to 48 micrograms per liter (µ/L), with the widest range found at MBSP Lake Erie and the highest concentrations found at Buckeye Crystal. Saxitoxin was detected in five samples, and cylindrospermopsin was not detected in any samples.

A total of 65 water-quality samples were collected during 2014 at 5 sites on 3 lakes—Buckeye Fairfield and Onion Island, Harsha Main and Campers, and MBSP Lake Erie beach. Four of the sites were bathing beaches and one site, Onion Island, was an offshore boater swim area. Concentrations of microcystin ranged from <0.10 to 240 µ/L and, as in 2013, the widest range was found at MBSP Lake Erie. At Buckeye Lake, microcystin concentrations were consistently high (greater than 20 µ/L), ranging from 23 to 81 µ/L. At Harsha Main and Campers, microcystin concentrations ranged from <0.10 to 15 µ/L. Saxitoxin was detected in four samples collected at MBSP Lake Erie. Throughout the 2014 season, the cyanobacterial community, as determined by molecular and microscopy methods, and the dominance associated with the highest microcystin concentrations were unique to individual lakes. At Buckeye Lake, Planktothrix dominated the cyanobacterial community throughout the season and Planktothrix DNA and RNA were found in 100 percent of samples; Microcystis mcyE DNA was found in low concentrations. At Harsha Lake, Dolichospermum and Microcystis were a substantial percentage of the community from late May through August, and the highest microcystin concentrations occurred in June and July. At MBSP Lake Erie, Microcystis generally dominated from mid-July through early November, and the highest microcystin concentrations occurred in August.

Spearman’s correlation coefficient (rho) was computed to determine the relations between environmental and water-quality factors and microcystin concentrations at four sites—Buckeye Fairfield, Buckeye Onion Island, Harsha Main, and MBSP Lake Erie. Factors were evaluated for use as potential independent variables in two types of predictive models—daily and long-term models. Easily or continuously measured water-quality factors and available environmental data are used for daily predictions that do not require a site visit. Data from factors used in daily predictions and results from samples collected and analyzed in a laboratory are used for long-term predictions (a few days to several weeks). A few statistically significant correlations (p ≤ 0.05) between microcystin concentrations and factors for both daily and long-term predictions were found at Buckeye Onion Island, and many were found at Harsha Main and MBSP Lake Erie. There were only a few statistically significant factors for daily predictions at Buckeye Fairfield, likely because of the lack of variability in microcystin concentrations. Among factors for daily predictions, phycocyanin had the highest Spearman’s correlation to microcystin concentrations (rho = 0.79 to 0.93) at all sites except for Buckeye Fairfield. Turbidity, pH, algae category, and Secchi depth were significantly correlated to microcystin concentrations at Harsha Main and MBSP Lake Erie. Algae categories were observational categories from 0 (none) to 4 (extreme). Several discharge variables (Maumee River at Waterville, river mouth is approximately 3.5 miles from the beach) at MBSP Lake Erie were promising environmental factors for daily predictions. In addition to discrete water-quality measurements recorded at Harsha Main at the time of sampling, many manipulated measurements (factors derived from mathematical manipulation of time-series data) available from a nearby continuous monitor were strongly correlated to microcystin concentrations; the highest correlation was found for the relation between microcystin concentrations and the antecedent 7-day average phycocyanin (rho = 0.98). For long-term predictions, the most highly correlated molecular assays were Planktothrix mcyE DNA at Buckeye Onion Island and Microcystis mcyE DNA at Harsha Main and MBSP Lake Erie. Concentrations of several nutrient constituents were significantly correlated to microcystin concentrations including total nitrogen at Buckeye Onion Island, ammonia and nitrate plus nitrite (both negatively correlated) at Harsha Main and MBSP Lake Erie, and total phosphorus at MBSP Lake Erie.

The results of this study showed that water-quality and environmental variables are promising for use in site-specific daily or long-term predictive models. In order to develop more accurate models to predict toxin concentrations at freshwater lake sites, data need to be collected more frequently and for consecutive days in future studies.

Suggested Citation

Francy, D.S., Graham, J.L., Stelzer, E.A., Ecker, C.D., Brady, A.M.G., Struffolino, Pamela, and Loftin, K.A., 2015, Water quality, cyanobacteria, and environmental factors and their relations to microcystin concentrations for use in predictive models at Ohio Lake Erie and inland lake recreational sites, 2013–14: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2015–5120, 58 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Purpose and Scope
  • Methods of Study
  • Quality-Control Measures of Bias and Variability
  • A General Survey of Toxin Concentrations, Water-Quality Factors, and Cyanobacteria at Eight Sites in 2013 and Site Selection for 2014
  • Toxins, Water-Quality Factors, and Cyanobacteria at Three Recreational Lakes, 2014
  • Relations between Cyanobacterial Gene Concentrations and Community Composition
  • Factors Affecting Toxin Concentrations, Cyanobacterial Community Composition, and Cyanobacterial Gene Concentrations at Four Recreational Sites, 2013–14
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Definitions

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Water Quality, Cyanobacteria, and Environmental Factors and Their Relations to Microcystin Concentrations for Use in Predictive Models at Ohio Lake Erie and Inland Lake Recreational Sites, 2013-14
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Ohio Water Science Center
Report: vii, 58 p.; Appendix
Time Range Start:
Time Range End:
United States
Other Geospatial:
Buck Creek State Park, Buckeye Lake State Park, Deer Creek State Park, East Fork State Park, Lake Erie
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):