Heidelberg’s water quality lab celebrating 50 years

Barbara Merryfield, a lab technician since 1978, filters water samples in 2013.

Before the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, Heidelberg University’s water quality lab was collecting water samples from the Sandusky River and creating a database.

Before the first Earth Day in 1970 and before the Clean Water Act was passed by Congress in 1972, biology professor David Baker and his students were learning about water quality in the river.

Little did they know how important that ongoing collecting of water samples would be to future research.

This week, the water quality lab — known since 2002 as the National Center for Water Quality Research — is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Laura Johnson, who’s been director for three years, said the staff decided to choose 1969 as the official start of the water quality lab.

“It was interesting trying to figure out what the first year was,” she said. “1969 was a transition between an introductory biology lab into a funded research lab. That felt like it was a great beginning point.”

In addition, Johnson said 1969 was the year water quality gained national attention when TIME Magazine published a photo of the Cuyahoga River on fire near Cleveland, sparking a media outcry.

“Of course, it had been on fire many times before that,” she said. “It just got national attention that time.”

The water quality lab got its start in the years just before the idea of water quality came to the national forefront.

“All of these things started happening after we started monitoring,” Johnson said.

The ongoing collection of samples since 1969 — actually a year or two before — makes NCWQR’s database the oldest water quality record in the nation and it’s been used as the basis for much scientific research through the years — by the local lab and by scientists throughout the United States.

In 1969, the lab received its first grant of $47,650 from the U.S. Federal Water Quality Administration and Baker was able to hire a full-time staff member, Jack Kramer, and some part-time student workers as well as buy new equipment and set up a dedicated space in Laird Science Hall for river laboratory research.

In 1973, Baker and Kramer published their first research paper, “Phosphorus Sources and Transport in an Agricultural River Basin of Lake Erie,” which said data collected from the River Lab showed the largest portion – as much as 75% – of phosphorus entering the Sandusky River originated from rural farm land sources, rather than sewage treatment plants or industry.

“The big finding from those early studies was that the majority of phosphorous, 70% or more, was coming into the Sandusky River were from non-point sources,” Johnson said. “Back then, the focus was on wastewater.”

In the mid-1970s, the lab received three grants totaling more than $200,000 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a Lake Erie Wastewater Management Study, which set up a system of collecting and analyzing water samples from eight Lake Erie tributaries – the Sandusky, Maumee, Portage and Huron rivers, and secondary tributaries including Tymochtee, Honey, Broken Sword and Wolf creeks.

Monitoring has continued and expanded ever since.

“That was started in the 1975 water year,” Johnson said. “We just entered the 2020 water year, so we also have 45 years in the tributary monitoring program.”

In the early 1980s, she said monitoring was started locally on Rock and Honey creeks and also on the Cuyahoga and Raisin rivers.

In the mid-1990s, it was expanded further to include tributaries of the Ohio River.

“And we started at Grand Lake when that was becoming an issue,” Johnson said. “Our most recent additions to monitoring have been Huron and small watersheds.”

She said the goal of monitoring small watersheds within the larger watershed is to determine which agricultural practices are the most effective in reducing nutrient loading into streams, which eventually end of up in Lake Erie.

“We’re trying to find out if the practices the state is suggesting are reaching the goals,” she said. “That’s a hard thing to do. We have to have lots of partnership for all that.”

Partnership has been the name of the game in recent years, as many schools of higher education have joined with state and federal agencies to study various aspects of how to reduce nutrient loading into Lake Erie and, therefore, reduce the harmful algal bloom each year.

In the midst of its growth, the lab got a new name in 2002 and became known as the National Center for Water Quality Research. Then-Congressman Paul Gillmor introduced the name change, which was approved by a resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives.

However, the name change didn’t include federal funds and the center continues to rely on grants and donations to continue its work.

Today, NCWQR relies on longtime scientists and technicians as well as newer people and student interns.

Technicians Jack Kramer, Ellen Ewing and Barbara Merryfield have each worked at the lab for more than 40 years. Business Manager Nancy Miller and researchers Ken Krieger and Pete Richards each have been there for more than 30 years. Richards and Krieger each served as directors after David Baker retired in 1999 (for the first time).

“But there are many others, not the least of which would be the legions of undergraduate research assistants who, throughout the Lab’s history, have worked during the academic year and/or the summer months-collecting samples from the field, running chemical analyses, sorting macroinvertebrates and washing, washing, washing untold numbers of bottles,” said Angie Giles, senior writer in Heidelberg’s Marketing & Communication Services Office, in a history for Heidelberg’s alumni magazine.

In 2016, Laura Johnson became the lab’s sixth director.

“Seventh if you count Dave Baker’s two-year return as interim director in 2005,” Giles said. “Of the crew from the 1980s, only Ellen, Barb and Nancy still show up for work each day. But along with these stalwarts, the lab’s present staff also includes researchers Rem Confesor, Tian Guo, Nate Manning and Aaron Roerdink (part time), as well as research assistants Jake Boehler and Nicole Kuhn.”

As it focused on its history this week, NCWQR hosted a 50th-anniversary workshop, “Advancing Adaptive Management and Science for a Better Lake Erie,” and a celebratory dinner in Heidelberg’s Wickham Great Hall.

Speaker Ken Baker reviewed the history and Johnson talked about the center’s future and the creation of a strategic plan to guide future growth.

Johnson said part of the future involves testing sensors that have the potential for make sample collection easier, and continuing to look at ways to improve data collection.

“The other side of what we do is education and service,” she said.

To expand on that portion, she said Heidelberg is offering a new watershed science specialization next fall.

“It’s a natural fit for chemistry, biology and other science majors,” she said. But the specialization also can fit with majors such as business or education for people who want to specialize in watersheds.

“Everyone in the lab who can teach is going to teach,” she said. Some classes already are offered such as Rem Confesor’s GIS class, and others are to be added.

Johnson is particularly interested in offering advanced topics in environmental science.

“The exciting things about that is that it’s a way to get variation in the courses offered to students,” she said. “It’s the most up-to-date, coolest subjects, so that should be fun.”

Another new idea has been the creation of the Ohio Partnership for Water, Industrial and Cyber Security, a partnership between Heidelberg, Tiffin University and Terra State Community College.

Johnson said the partnership pulls together people with expertise in different areas to develop more in-depth relationships, research and student education.

For example, she said Terra State offers classes on agricultural and Heidelberg has the latest data on agriculture.

“If we share that information, we can expose students at Terra with Heidelberg research,” she said.

She said the idea came from state Rep. Bill Reineke (R-Tiffin) and David Zak, president of Tiffin-Seneca Economic Partnership, and is designed to draw state funding.

Funding continues to be a major challenge for the center, Johnson said.

“We’ve been doing an awful lot on essentially short-term funding,” she said.

The lab works mainly on grants, which are usually two-year programs at best.

“Think what we could do if we had more secure, long-term funding,” she said. She said the lab could expand into new areas and research new areas.

“That’s where the real challenge is,” she said.