Last week Rebecca North, Assistant Professor of Water Quality at the University of Missouri, traveled from Columbia, Missouri to frigid Sakatah Lake in Minnesota to collect water samples. The samples are a part of her work with the Reservoir Observer Student Scientists or ROSS program funded through the North Central Region Water Network. Through the program, students at four schools in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and Missouri are collecting water samples this school year to help determine if potentially toxic cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms or CyanoHABs are occurring in the winter, spring and fall months- in addition to the summer, the typical bloom season. As a part of their work, Dr. North and Emily Kinzinger, a Graduate Research Assistant at the University of Missouri, are doing side-by-side comparison sampling of the lakes to help validate the students results.
The ROSS program provides an opportunity for students to learn about the field of limnology and the importance of water quality monitoring. The students then get hands-on training on how to collect water samples and with the guidance of their teacher collect water samples from their local lake or reservoir on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Kinzinger and Dr. North then collect the samples, analyze the results and use this data to explore an important, but currently under-researched, question – are CyanoHABs occurring ‘off-season’ in the fall, winter and spring?
According to Dr. North, accurate estimates of the timing and impact of CyanoHABs is important for public health protection, a stable recreational economy, and sound resource management. CyanoHABs can pose serious human health and livestock risks as they can produce toxins that affect recreation, agriculture, fisheries, and drinking water. Currently, monitoring for HABs is more common in the summer months when use of water for recreational purposes is higher and when the presence of HABs can be commonly seen on many lakes, but limited information is known about the colder months of the year.
Graduate student Emily Kinzinger is leading the analysis of the student’s samples and while her results are still preliminary, already she is finding evidence that CyanoHAB toxins are present in the winter and fall months. Through her work, Emily is also finding that trends in chlorophyll do not appear to correlate with toxin trends as we might expect, which has important ramifications when it comes to predicting and warning the public of these toxins in their local water bodies.
While this project is leading to important research findings, it is also providing a key youth water education opportunity to the students participating. Student exit surveys from the 2018-2019 school year demonstrate that 76% of students answered limnology questions correctly after participating.
Students have also had an opportunity present their knowledge. Students at Maize High School outside of Wichita, Kansas traveled to the Great Plains Limnology Conference in Ames, Iowa in the fall of last year to present their results from the project. In recognition for their hard work and their compelling presentation, the students were awarded the conference’s Best Undergraduate Student Oral Presentation Award.
For more information on the ROSS project, visit their project webpage.