April 15, 2022 – Ames, Iowa – An Iowa Water Center research project funded in 2020-2021 sought to understand the role of food webs as an adaptive management tool to mitigate harmful algal blooms. Investigators Tyler Butts, Grace Wilkinson, and Robert Johnson conducted the research at the Iowa State University Horticultural Research Station in Ames, Iowa.

Harmful algal blooms contain toxin-producing cyanobacteria, which can lead to poor drinking water quality and fish kills within the aquatic environment. Reducing the occurrence of harmful algal blooms is a critical priority for lake managers. Living organisms within the aquatic environment can also intensify nutrient loading within the lakes, but also have the potential to serve as a solution to nutrient impairments.

A food web is a framework to understand who eats who or what within a habitat. Adding or removing a species can affect the overall health of the ecosystem. Researchers in this project sought to examine the relationship between the food web structure and ecosystem health to determine a potential adaptive strategy for harmful algal blooms.

Results indicate that food web structures with more connections between food chains in the shallow and deeper areas of the lake resulted in greater resilience to pulse nutrient loading. As a result, the food web structures were found to affect the differences in algal biomass response across the ponds, and therefore, have differences in ecosystem resilience to harmful algal blooms. This research indicates that lake managers could incorporate food web structures into adaptive lake management to address the challenges that storm-driven nutrient loading poses to shallow lakes across Iowa.

Read the full research findings here.


The Iowa Water Center: The Iowa Water Center is a federally funded organization, part of the National Institutes for Water Resources. Located on the Iowa State University campus, it is one of 54 institutes located throughout the United States and U.S territories. The purpose of the Iowa Water Center is to identify water-related research needs, provide outreach and education opportunities, and disseminate information about Iowa’s water resources to the public to form better policies and everyday practices.