Thomas More president aims to make Greater Cincinnati the nation's water research capital

Thomas More president aims to make Greater Cincinnati the nation's water research capital
Posted at 5:00 AM, Sep 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-19 05:00:50-04

CALIFORNIA, Ky. -- Chris Lorentz is holding his own trying to prevent toxic bacterial outbreaks and to restore wildlife in the Ohio River.

But he could use some help.

The Thomas More College biology professor oversees the college's Ohio River field station -- the only one on the long, winding river.

Thomas More College Biology Professor C.N. "Chris" Lorentz points out algae that he and colleagues are breeding to feed native, endangered mussels. Photo by Bob Driehaus | WCPO

If Thomas More President David Armstrong has his way, Lorentz's efforts will soon become part of a collaboration that makes Greater Cincinnati the epicenter of water research in the country.

"I want to start with the big, audacious idea. I don't want to limit ourselves," Armstrong said. "Getting the faculty and researchers from the corporate side in the same room is key."

Armstrong plans to roll out his idea to break down division among Tri-State schools and businesses when he takes over as chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Consortium of Colleges and Universities later this month.

Thomas More President David Armstrong

He envisions enlisting corporate partners like Duke Energy and the Newport Aquarium. Armstrong has had informal conversations with leaders from both organizations.

"Whatever we do it has to be about creating jobs and new ventures," he said.

Why Greater Cincinnati?

Lorentz points to existing centers for water research that are excelling separately already, including:

  • Greater Cincinnati Water Works, which has been credited as a leader in designing state-of-the-art filtration systems.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's aquatic research and development center adjacent to University of Cincinnati's main campus. It's the largest EPA facility of its kind, he said.
  • UC's water technology cluster, a coalition of UC colleges that is working toward commercial solutions to water issues.

Greater Cincinnati is also in the thick of some of the great challenges older parts of the country face, including:

  • Aging water lines, including lead pipes that pose a health risk to children and others.
  • Combined sewer and storm water lines that dump raw sewage into rivers and streams during heavy rainfall.
  • Bacterial outbreaks that release toxins into rivers and lakes. Toledo's water was undrinkable for parts of three days in 2014 because of an outbreak, and Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky had to temporarily shut down intake valves in the Ohio River last October to avoid the same fate. In both cases, the outbreaks were referred to as blue-green algae blooms, but blue-green "algae" is actually bacteria, Lorentz said.

Early warning system

Lorentz and colleagues monitor water quality 10 miles upriver of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky's intake valves. They offer warnings hours in advance of a contaminant hitting the intake valves, using water samples and a novel techniques developed by a Northern Kentucky University professor. Dr. Michael Waters' app uses inexpensive cameras to detect a bacterial outbreaks through changes in the color of the river's surface.

Field station researchers are working on ways to better predict when a bacterial outbreak is imminent and ways to eliminate or alleviate them.

"The time is ripe for a lot of focus on water," Lorentz said.

The field station also raises endangered mussels and is seeking new understanding on how they breed and what they eat. The clam-like natives to the Ohio River, researchers have found, rely on fish to help develop their larvae, actually blasting eggs into the gills of unsuspecting fish.

Trouble is, scientists have only scratched the surface figuring out which mussels use which fish to propagate.

It's more than an academic exercise, since mussels help clean pollution from the river and contribute to its overall health.

Building on existing cooperation

Thomas More already partners with Newport Aquarium and its WAVE Foundation, using the facilities to help train students who are studying in the college's marine biology track. 

“Our missions are so aligned that it only makes sense to work together to help advance water quality research, conservation of natural resources and creating a better environment for everyone," Eric Rose, executive director of Newport Aquarium, said. 

The field station, housed in a solid brick building constructed as the Kentucky end of a defunct dam, already hosts students and researchers from UC, Xavier University, NKU and the EPA as well as a number of elementary and high school students.

It attracts college interns from around the country every summer.

The proposed formal coalition, Lorentz said, would enable the group to pursue much larger federal and private grants that the individual members can't now hope to land.

"Ohio hasn't historically gotten that big money," he said. "We're all doing well individually, but I think by having this formal collaboration the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

A related effort was announced this month to make Greater Cincinnati the "silicon valley" of water research, starting with a business incubator at Hamilton Mills in Hamilton, Ohio.

Lorentz said there is plenty of room for both efforts.

Armstrong agreed.

"My ultimate goal is to have great water quality for our country. I just want to gather all the smart minds together," he said.

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