Researchers at Hope College are running in high gear in pinpointing the sources of pollution entering Lake Macatawa, hoping within a year to 18 months to have answers that will enable the community to start finding solutions.

Their efforts are focusing on the large quantities of sediment pouring into the lake and the high levels of E. coli bacteria.  The research is being conducted with funding from a major grant to the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway, announced earlier this week, that is engaging multiple organizations, including Hope, in resolving problems that have plagued the lake for years.

Led by faculty members Dr. Graham Peaslee and Dr. Michael Pikaart, the work at Hope is involving more than a dozen current students, two recent graduates, a high school teacher and two high school students, a post-doctoral researcher and a cohort of approximately eight community volunteers collecting samples.  The research is spread across seven laboratories in two buildings, taking the process from organizing and storing samples gathered at the lake and its tributaries, to running a variety of tests, to collecting and analyzing the resulting data.

"The scale of this project is big for Hope, but it's appropriate for this project," said Peaslee, who is the Hartgerink professor of chemistry and chairperson of the chemistry department as well as a professor of geology and environmental science.

"We're going to get data out of it that nobody else has dreamed of obtaining, and that's pretty exciting, and it's going to have a really unique outcome," he said.  "It's intense, it's fun, and it's a great educational experience for our students."

The effort to better understand and ultimately address the lake's pollution is a collaborative effort that is supported through a $500,000 grant to the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway from a group of private donors led by the Dick and Betsy DeVos family and the Jim and Donna Brooks family.  In addition to the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway and Hope, the partnership includes the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council, the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University and Dr. Joan Rose from Michigan State University.

The Hope researchers are collecting samples from throughout the watershed to help provide a detailed understanding of where the pollution is entering the lake.  There are 43 sites for collecting sediment samples, and 11 sites for collecting E. coli samples.  Advanced testing techniques are further helping the researchers zero in on where the pollution might have come from in the first place, by identifying components within the sediment and E. coli.

The researchers plan to rank-order the sources to help community leaders decide which should be given priority.  "If you have a finite amount of money to fix it, where should you put the money?" Peaslee said.

Peaslee, who has been studying the local watershed since 1998 and edited the 2008 book "An Environmental History of The Lake Macatawa Watershed," described the sediment run-off as a problem more than a century in the making.  He noted that development in the area since the region was settled in the 1840s has reduced the quantity of wetlands and forest, leading to increased run-off into the lake.  The sediment carries with it excess nutrients that in turn lead to developments such as a high volume of algae which, when it decomposes, reduces the oxygen level and kills fish.  "You get this continual cycle because it's a stressed lake," he said.

The E. coli problem is more recent, arising, Peaslee said, within the past decade and getting worse.  In 2010, high levels of the bacteria led to the closing of the beach at Dunton Park near the east side of the lake nearly 70 percent of the time.

The E. coli-related research is being led by Dr. Michael Pikaart, associate professor of chemistry, using a DNA-identification technique developed by Rose at Michigan State University.  The problem with the E. coli in the lake, Pikaart said, is the fact that this particular species of bacteria indicates the presence of fecal matter, which poses a potential health hazard.

"We're not interested in E. coli per se," he said.  "We're using it as a marker mechanism for fecal material."

One major question the researchers are seeking to answer is from what sort of waste the E. coli originates - until now, it is not clear whether these high fecal bacteria levels are coming from human sewage, from domestic livestock or from wildlife.  Information about the source of the bacteria, Pikaart said, will not only better clarify the risk level but also offer clues as to the starting point and ways to prevent the problems.

"There's a difference in the bacteria that inhabit humans and cows, and these are differences that can be identified," he said.  "There's a lot of fine detail about not only which organism does it come from, but where is it from."

The research team hopes to have completed the E. coli investigations within a year, and the sediment research within a year to 18 months.

Hope and the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway established a formal partnership in 2009 that provides learning experiences and research opportunities for students and faculty, including a field station at the preserve that serves as a classroom, lab facility and research station.  Hope and the center had previously worked together on an informal basis on programs, writing grants and providing educational opportunities to Hope students and for research since the center was founded in 2000.  The center's founding executive director, Travis Williams, is a 1998 Hope graduate.