Return of the Rapids: Restoration Success on the St. Marys River

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

new bridge sugar island under construction
A new bridge to Sugar Island was under construction in 2016 at the St. Marys River. The bridge replaced an aging causeway. Credit: Chippewa County Road Commission 

A portion of the St. Marys River has been restored as fish spawning habitat and recreational space, with a new bridge that provides access to Sugar Island. The work has removed one more obstacle toward delisting the river as an Area of Concern (AOC) by Canada and the United States.

The St. Marys River is a binational waterway that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron between Michigan and Ontario. Following construction of the Soo Locks in the 1850s to help ships traverse the river, pollution and a variety of changes to the river led to it being designated an AOC by the two nations in 1987. That designation tasked the two nations with restoring the river to a healthy state.

The portion of the river known as the “Little Rapids” was degraded when a mile-long causeway was installed in 1865 with only two 6-foot (2 meter) culverts to allow water to continue flowing. Effectively this turned it into more of an embayment with little water movement, degrading what had been an example of rare rapids habitat, according to a fact sheet from the Great Lakes Commission (GLC).

GLC Program Manager Heather Braun says the new bridge restores the flow through the rapids and should provide greatly improved spawning and foraging habitat for walleye, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, yellow perch, northern pike, cisco, Pacific and Atlantic salmon, along with forage fish such as suckers and minnows and the invertebrates they feed on.

Swift-water rapids habitat historically could be found throughout the St. Marys River, but is now relatively rare. Upwards of 90 percent of this habitat was lost due to past construction activities such as building the Soo Locks and causeways, dredging and urban development, all of which destroyed three of the four St. Marys River rapids. Restoring the rapids has been a priority of a Binational Public Advisory Council which coordinates activities necessary to delist the AOC. Rapids habitat, characterized by high velocity, shallow depth and a rocky substrate provides optimal spawning conditions for critical populations of fish species in the St. Marys River. According to the GLC, of the four original rapids areas on the river, only a portion of the main rapids has continued to serve as habitat, though gate upgrades by the US Army Corps of Engineers are expected to improve those as well.

Around 20 years ago, members of the Soo Area Sportsmen’s Club started talking about improving the fishing in that part of the river, according to Alicia Krouth, engineer with the Chippewa County Road Commission in Michigan. There had been talk of installing fresh culverts that would have improved water flows at the time, but without funding it went nowhere. Over time, the culverts continued to degrade, making it more vital to either replace the culverts or the causeway. Since the culverts were typically submerged, they also were hazardous to people on the water upstream, Krouth said.

“What we had before were two failing and debris-filled culverts that didn’t allow much for flow,” she said. “It acted more like a weir than a free-flowing culvert.”

Fast forwarding to 2013, the GLC received Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding through a regional partnership with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to support habitat restoration in the St. Marys River, said Braun. Other rapids restoration sites along the St. Marys River had been evaluated, she said, but this one was the only feasible site where rapids habitat could be restored.

“In addition to the historic alteration to the natural flow of the river (in the past), the causeway was beginning to fail and the road commission anticipated some improvements were needed over the next several years,” Braun said.

earthen causeway removed
The earthen causeway was removed in favor of a bridge. In addition, the approach to the bridge was reconstructed to improve the side slopes to improve safety shown here in the construction process. Credit: Great Lakes Commission

Through the bidding process, Krouth said contractors indicated it would be less expensive to build a bridge rather than construct new culverts large enough to achieve the ideal water flow and repair the causeway in the process. The causeway was originally built to direct water toward the shipping channel, but changes to the river since the 1860s rendered it obsolete.

Thanks to funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and NOAA by way of the GLC, the Chippewa County Road Commission completed the construction of a bridge to replace the causeway in 2016. About $9.4 million was provided through the GLRI. The work was completed almost entirely within the year, with only some additional paving left to do in 2017.

Before and after shots of the Sugar Island crossing and its effect on the water
Before and after shots of the Sugar Island crossing and its effect on the water. Credit: Great Lakes Commission

Lake Superior State University has taken on ecological monitoring duties before, during and after construction and restoration to determine what sort of ecological changes have taken place since the bridge was completed, Braun said. The university is focused on native fish species and invertebrates, the algae didymo (Didymosphenia geminata), which has seen nuisance blooms in the St. Marys River) and invasive species.

Krouth said she’s heard local residents remark on seeing more fish in the water and that fishing has improved this year. More mayflies and other invertebrates integral to the food web have shown up in the Little Rapids area, she added, which also serve as a good indicator of water quality.

Braun said this project was likely the last habitat restoration project needed on the US side of the St. Marys River to remove the “loss of fish and wildlife habitat” beneficial use impairment (BUI) for the river. A draft BUI removal recommendation for the dredging restrictions BUI from Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) notes that aside from habitat and dredging, the United States still has to resolve four other BUIs: restrictions in fish and wildlife consumption, fish tumors or other deformities, degradation of benthos, and degradation of fish and wildlife populations.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), regulatory changes in how industrial wastewater is treated and handled and upgrades at the local municipal wastewater plant have dramatically reduced water quality issues on Canada’s side of the river, along with changes to a local steel mill’s practices. Restoration along the Bar River tributary using trees to reduce sedimentation and improve habitat has been completed, and planning is underway for additional habitat restoration work. ECCC also has been developing a plan alongside Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change to manage contaminated sediments in the river. ECCC anticipates that all restoration work on the Canadian side of the river should be completed sometime after 2020, said Jon Gee, manager for ECCC’s Great Lakes AOC program.

The latest Michigan DEQ remedial action plan document from 2012 doesn’t estimate how long overall US work will continue. But based on the best information available, the GLC believes the Little Rapids restoration work was the final on-the-ground project required on the US side to delist the St. Marys River Area of Concern.

In a river that has lost upwards of 90 percent of the rapids habitat, Braun said restoring up to 70 acres with the bridge’s completion is a major victory for those rare fish that need it to spawn, and for the river as a whole.

See a presentation below on “Restoring the Little Rapids in the St. Marys River” by Mike Ripley of the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Lessons Learned from Reef Restoration Efforts in Huron-Erie Corridor

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Researchers hold up a lake sturgeon, a species that has suffered a loss of spawning habitat in the Huron-Erie corridor over the past century. Credit: Justin Chiotti, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Since 2004, nine artificial reefs have been constructed in the St. Clair and Detroit rivers. These reefs have aimed to replace fish spawning habitat destroyed decades ago when shipping channels were created. Even though there have been unexpected problems along the way, people involved with these projects say they’ve learned what worked and what didn’t and have applied those lessons to new projects.

The initial test reef was built in 2004 near Belle Isle on the Detroit River, with an eye toward boosting native fish populations – particularly lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, northern madtom and walleye, according to a report released in 2015. Since the 2004 project, the people behind those reefs now go through a more thorough process for siting and placement. This includes advice from sea lamprey control experts to make sure that habitat isn’t built for those species to spawn too, said James Boase, fish biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Fortunately, sea lampreys ignored the test reef, and have since been found favoring the natural reef near the headwaters of the St. Clair River.

The test reef also consisted of three kinds of rock. Based on monitoring data of fish spawning, successive reefs have settled on using 4-8 inch (10-20 centimeter) pieces of limestone for construction materials, being the most useful to native species. Limestone is also what the natural reefs consisted of along the rivers prior to the channels being dug out.

Siting is an important factor that has been refined over the course of several projects. Reefs have been built parallel to the water flow to reduce the risk of being disrupted from water or sediments washing downstream. But a 2012 artificial reef at the St. Clair River’s middle channel has been largely filled in by sediment in the years since it was built. Boase said about two-thirds of the reef there has been buried, though madtom catfish are continuing to use the remaining portions. Another reef built at Fighting Island in 2008 has seen similar problems with sediment on its eastern section.

Researcher James Boase pulls up a gill net on the Detroit River
Researcher James Boase pulls up a gill net on the Detroit River. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

“We’ve integrated (river expert) scientists from the University of Michigan and from the (US Geological Survey) folks out in Denver, Colorado, to assist with siting design, and looking at different reef shapes and locations within the corridor to prevent that (loss) from happening,” Boase said.

Ed Roseman, a USGS research fishery biologist, said those two reefs were constructed to go across the channel from shoreline to shoreline, in a bid to make sure that fish noticed they were there. Due to sediment plumes out of the Thames River in Ontario, however, silt was deposited in portions of the reefs.

The Fighting Island reef was expanded in 2013 toward the island side where sedimentation wasn’t an issue, following successful spawning of lake sturgeon, whitefish and walleye, said Claire Sanders, remedial action plan coordinator at the Essex Region Conservation Authority.

“It was successful almost immediately,” Sanders said. “It was an exciting project, with a huge number of partners, and was something that hadn’t been done before – at least on the Canadian side.”

Lake sturgeon require fast-flowing water and specific cobbled reef conditions for their eggs to stay oxygenated without being washed away. But moreover, fast-flowing water helps keep sediment from settling on the reef. Other native species that have been found spawning or using the reefs include white bass, suckers, smallmouth bass and trout.

Roseman said they’ve learned to study the hydrodynamics of the system to make sure the water won’t end up depositing silt or otherwise damage the reefs. There are ongoing studies to see if there is a way to affordably maintain and clean those buried Middle Channel and Fighting Island reefs on a regular basis – perhaps every two years – to give fish the opportunity to use them again, Roseman added. Scientists at the University of Michigan are researching if using high-pressure water jets to blast the sediment away would work, similar to technology used by ocean treasure hunters.

“There are a lot of reefs in the Great lakes and even beyond that could benefit from this,” Roseman said.

Money also needs to be taken into account on siting. The US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has provided funds in the past for reef restoration projects, but those grants are only available for the work if the reef has been constructed within the US side of the waterway, Boase said.

The learning process continues, too – work is underway on a new reef near Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit. A test reef had been built in 2015, and is now being expanded to include another four acres. Boase said it’s a high-flow, deep segment of the river relative to other areas – about 40-55 feet deep – and freighter traffic periodically passes by overhead. That work should begin in fall 2017.

Boase said there were concerns initially that the ships passing by could cause the Fort Wayne reef to dislodge, but the test reef has remained intact and in great shape. US Geological Survey has been the lead agency in determining how water flows over that section of the river and the impact it has on silt and rock movement over time, while the US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) has focused on how to best attract target species like sturgeon. USFWS also is providing money through its coastal program to purchase additional rocks for the reef. Once construction is complete, two years of assessments on how well it’s working are planned.

Looking ahead, there aren’t any other Detroit River reefs in the works, but Boase said habitat restoration lessons from those built so far are providing guidance for shoreline restoration around Celeron Island and Stony Island on the lower Detroit River.

Roseman said the lessons from the Detroit River also are being used in other locations. GLRI funds are being directed toward restoration of the Maumee River to restore lake sturgeon habitat there, first by restoring wetlands at the lower Maumee, building up a rearing facility to raise sturgeon fry and potentially adding artificial reefs. Veterans of the Detroit River projects are working with the US Army Corps of Engineers to help inform restoration work in the St. Marys River, helping determine the best way to release water through the Compensating Works (large gates that help make sure there’s ample water for ships to pass through the river) to promote fish spawning in the Main Rapids. And scientists around the Niagara River and even in the Baltics region of Europe have been in touch to see what worked in the Huron-Erie corridor for their own restoration projects, Roseman said.

Above all, he added, consistently checking the situation in the water before and after restoring reefs has potentially been the most vital lesson of all. There are dozens of other artificial reefs in the Great Lakes basin that weren’t monitored, and researchers don’t know what shape they’re in or if fish are even using them.

“The key thing is having a willingness to make a risky experiment,” Roseman said. “We didn’t know if fish were going to use these piles of rock material. The only way to figure out if they did was to monitor it.”

The work was done through the partnership of more than a dozen organizations and agencies, Sanders said, known as the St. Clair-Detroit River System Initiative. These include the IJC along with USGS, USFWS, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, environmental agencies for Ontario, Michigan and Ohio, the Essex Region Conservation Authority, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and Environment and Climate Change Canada. Other partners include the Walpole Island First Nation, The Nature Conservancy, Wayne State University and the University of Toledo.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

University of Windsor Research Studies Beach Testing, Enlists Citizen Scientists

By Daniel Heath, GLIER

The Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) at the University of Windsor is a multidisciplinary research facility located on the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Researchers at GLIER address complex environmental problems such as the effects of multiple environmental stressors on large lakes and their watersheds. One of the major concerns for public health around the Great Lakes basin is microbial (bacterial and algal) contamination in recreational and drinking water. The greatest health concern associated with recreational water use is gastrointestinal illness resulting from exposure to bacteria, viruses or protozoa from human or animal fecal sources.

Aside from the direct public health risks, microbial contamination has enormous economic impacts, including beach closures, commercial and recreational fisheries losses, increased water treatment costs and loss of productivity due to illness and imposed protective measures. Water for recreation is a top tourist attraction in North America, which contributes billions annually to the Canadian and US economies. In Canada, Great Lakes recreational water use injected $12.3 billion into the Ontario economy in 2010, while the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that a third of all US recreational boaters are based in the Great Lakes

Limitations in current monitoring

Public health agencies in Canada and US have used fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) cultures, especially Escherichia coli (EC) for freshwater and enterococci (ENT) for salt water, as indicators of fecal contamination and associated risks to human health. However, there is growing evidence that these cultures may not necessarily correlate well with actual pathogen presence or abundance.

There is also evidence that EC and ENT can survive, grow and establish populations in natural environments such as freshwater lakes and streams, soils and sediments. Culture-based measurements of EC and ENT don’t indicate their potential sources and therefore are of limited value for identifying significant pollution sources and determining most cost-effective mitigation measures.

Further, the approved standard culture methods for measurements of EC and ENT require a minimum of 18 hours for the results to become available, although the state of Michigan recently initiated a rapid genetic test for E. coli.

Studies have shown FIB numbers to be quite dynamic with no correlations observed from one day to the next, which is also true in the Windsor/Essex region of Ontario. These types of fluctuations can result in false positive and false negative errors in beach warnings and closures; false negative errors pose a health risk to beach users.

A example of beach water quality monitoring by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.
A example of beach water quality monitoring by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.

Role of Citizen Scientists

Given the limitations in culture-based water testing, GLIER researchers are developing rapid, culture free, genomic-based tools (by amplifying the DNA) to provide fast and accurate identification of the microbial community and the probable source of contamination (human, animal or sediment).

To maximize the geographic coverage of the testing, GLIER researchers organized a water quality testing event on Aug. 19. Water samples were collected at 450 locations along Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, as well as other small river and stream tributaries with the help of citizen scientists.

Without this involvement, such broad-scale water sampling is close to impossible. Beach testing results using the developed methods in a commercial lab or test facility will take less than six hours. As a research facility, GLIER is developing these techniques and hopes to have the process optimized for use by health departments and other agencies before the end of the year.

volunteer filters water sample lasalle
A volunteer filters a water sample in LaSalle, Ontario.

Future monitoring

In addition to pathogen identification, the GLIER research team is working on models to allow managers and public health officials to identify probable sources of microbial outbreaks and make decisions based on accurate predictions, ahead of time. The developed tools and methodology in this project can be applied seamlessly in other jurisdictions around the Great Lakes, across Canada and around the world.

Dr. Daniel Heath is an evolutionary and conservation genomics professor at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario.

New Institute Bridges Disciplines and Institutions Across the Great Lakes

By Mary Ogdahl, University of Michigan CIGLR

A new Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) was formed by the University of Michigan to infuse social science, engineering, and landscape design into ongoing natural science research across the lakes.

ciglr logoA five-year grant from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) supports a research institute at the University of Michigan and a binational regional consortium spanning all five lakes. CIGLR research is in partnership with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) in Ann Arbor, where CIGLR research institute staff are housed. CIGLR is one of 16 NOAA Cooperative Institutes across the US that link academic institutions with NOAA research laboratories to expand NOAA’s research capabilities.

The Great Lakes are too vast, and the problems too complex, for any one university to tackle alone. The CIGLR regional consortium broadens the intellectual expertise, research capacity, and geographic scope of NOAA’s Great Lakes research programs. More than 200 principal investigators at partner universities are sharing their intellectual and research capabilities. That includes 10 field stations, a fleet of 12 research vessels, more than a dozen engineering and design labs, a well-coordinated system of 38 mooring stations, mobile platforms and remote-sensing systems, and specialty labs in genomics, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), high-performance computing, and physical-chemical analyses.

Consortium members include universities, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, NOAA programs, government centers, and national and international commissions, including the International Joint Commission. Primary academic partners are: Central Michigan University, Cornell University, Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota-Duluth, University of Windsor, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

ciglr regional consortium great lakes
The CIGLR regional consortium consists of nine university partners, 25 university affiliates, five private-sector partners, and numerous NOAA-related programs and supporting initiatives, including the IJC, that span all five Great Lakes.

The new institute supersedes the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER), a NOAA-funded collaboration between University of Michigan and NOAA GLERL established in 1989. The name change reflects the increasing breadth of the institute’s research, which originally focused on natural science but is evolving to interdisciplinary work including social sciences, engineering, and landscape design. CIGLR is focusing more heavily on the co-design of research programs, forging partnerships between research scientists and data users who will work side-by-side to define the original questions and prioritize the products needed to solve problems. By partnering with technology development companies, Great Lakes industries, nongovernmental organizations and organizations like IJC, the new institute will help accelerate the transition of NOAA research into applications for society.

buoys ciglr lake erie
Real-time water quality monitoring buoys in western Lake Erie measure oxygen conditions that help inform hypoxia forecast models. CIGLR Research Scientist Tom Johengen is pictured, performing monthly service on the sensors. Credit: Heather Miller

Nearly half of the investigators in the regional consortium are social or engineering and design scientists. CIGLR recently hired two social scientists to work within the research institute, focusing on stakeholder engagement and the human dimensions of Great Lakes water quality problems, such as harmful algal blooms and depleted oxygen, or hypoxia. These social scientists are working alongside physical scientists to involve water treatment managers in the design and implementation of a hypoxia forecast system for Lake Erie that will help predict changes to drinking water quality.

As a complement to CIGLR’s interdisciplinary and collaborative research, the institute’s ECO Program fosters the transfer of Great Lakes research and knowledge into actionable science. ECO Program goals include:

  • Engagement – Support informed decision making by advising local, state, and federal policymakers about the importance of Great Lakes’ ecosystem services
  • Career training – Promote a diverse, skilled workforce with career training for undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs who will be the next generation of Great Lakes and NOAA scientists
  • Outreach and communications – Advance environmental literacy by communicating the value, importance, and utility of NOAA’s Great Lakes research to the general public.

To learn more, subscribe to the CIGLR newsletter and follow CIGLR on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Mary Ogdahl is the CIGLR program manager at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

ciglr glerl harmful algal blooms erie
CIGLR is working with GLERL and other partners to predict the intensity and movement of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in western Lake Erie, which threaten drinking water quality. Credit: NOAA



Keeping Lake Invaders Out of New Harbors

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

freighter duluth
The freighter Paul R. Tregurtha moves through the Duluth shipping canal on Lake Superior. Credit: Pete Markham

The Great Lakes are already home to more than 180 species of nonnative or unknown origin introduced through a variety of pathways, including unmanaged ballast water discharges from ocean-going vessels. Yet not all these invaders have spread across the system as rapidly as quagga mussels or Phragmites have on their own. They can get an assist, however, from ships traveling within the Great Lakes.

These “lakers” move from port-to-port within the lakes, moving cargo and in the process, taking up and discharging ballast water within the region. This has the potential to spread invasive species to other ports and other vessels, including “salties,” that may be heading out to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Enforcement of ballast water management regulations implemented in Canada and the United States for oceangoing ships have led to zero new detected invasive species since 2006 from ballast water, according to Transport Canada (TC). One new non-indigenous species (Thermocyclops crassus) was discovered in western Lake Erie samples taken in 2014, though its method and timing of introduction is unknown. These regulations require oceangoing vessels to exchange their ballast water more than 200 miles from shore in a bid to kill freshwater hitchhikers, but what about those species that are already here?

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) researched lakers as a vector for invasive species from 2005-2007, and found examples where the ships were transferring species from one area to another, according to Dr. Sarah Bailey, research scientist with DFO’s Great Lakes Laboratory for Fisheries and Aquatic Species. In another study done by DFO between 2007-2009, scientists found that spiny waterflea, a nonnative species in Hamilton Harbour that’s been in the lakes since at least 1982, was present in ballast water headed for Lake Superior, where it previously hadn’t been detected, Bailey said. The same was true of native species that are only found in specific regions, such as Lake Ontario – the study found them in other Great Lakes harbors.

invasive spiny fishhook waterflea
Invasive spiny and fishhook waterflea were likely transported into the Great Lakes by overseas ballast water. Spiny waterflea was found in laker ballast tanks as well in a 2007-2009 study. Credit: Andrea Miehls

Under a national risk assessment comparing shipping activities across Canada, Bailey said, lakers were found to have one of the highest relative risks for spreading invasive species since they aren’t managed the same as marine vessels. For ships staying within Canadian waters in the lakes, there aren’t any ballast water regulations, meaning any nonnative species that enters Canadian waters in the St. Lawrence River could be inadvertently brought to the Great Lakes.

For those crossing between the US and Canada, they fall under the impending International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Ballast Water Management Convention that enters into force on Sept. 8 (Canada is a signatory, and though the United States is not its discharge rules use the IMO’s as a base). These have two methods of dealing with ballast water: the marine-freshwater exchanges that the US and Canadian governments have already put into place, or using water treatment technology to reduce the number of “viable organisms” in the ballast water. The rules suggest that ships within a single country’s waters aren’t required to meet these ballast treatment measures unless their activities are proven to pose harm to the ecosystem and human health.

“DFO is of the opinion that all ballast water can pose harm and should be considered under regulation, but that is a decision still in process,” Bailey said.

Canadian regulation will need to be amended to align with convention rules coming into effect, according to TC spokeswoman Marie-Anyk Cote, and discussions are ongoing with Canadian and American entities with a stake in the shipping business – including operators of lakers. Once proposed amendments have been decided on, they’ll be published for public comment. In the meantime, the current Canadian regulations will continue to stand.

Guidelines in the United States are less unified. The US Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency have each issued their own ballast water requirements under different legislative authorities, though they are largely identical. The Coast Guard requires ocean-going vessels to install water treatment technology following their first dry-dock from January 2016 and beyond, or otherwise conduct ballast water exchanges in the ocean; the EPA’s regulation follows those same standards.  The US rules exempt domestic Great Lakes vessels from water treatment, but require high-risk vessels entering the lakes to conduct additional management measures. States can issue their own permits under EPA requirements. Six of the eight Great Lakes states have guidelines that are harmonized with EPA’s. Pennsylvania has no state-level guidelines and Michigan’s are more stringent, requiring the use of one of four specific water treatment technologies for ocean-going vessels.

Despite the lack of regulation for lakers, the Canada-based Chamber of Marine Commerce and US-based Lake Carriers Association say they voluntarily follow a range of “best management practices” to limit the possibility of invasive species being spread within the Great Lakes by lakers. These include regularly inspecting ballast tanks and removing accumulated sediments, avoiding ballast uptake in areas where invasive species are present, minimizing ballast operations in shallow water and continuing to cooperate with research studies and testing new ballast treatment systems. These practices are consistent with EPA’s Vessel General Permit guidelines, according to an EPA spokesperson.

Bruce Burrows, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, said that while seawater regulations have prevented new invasive species from being detected in the Great Lakes since 2006 – and lakers pose little risk of introducing new species – shipowners are looking to additional ways to manage ballast water discharges to address those concerns that they could transfer species already here. Burrows said they’ve been working with Canada’s National Research Council to create a tool that would evaluate ballast treatment systems for suitability to lakers – which discharge water faster than marine ships and can be damaged by chlorine – trialing technologies under development, and conducting water quality studies at ports and harbors. A 2015 Transport Canada report identifies other specific challenges to ballast treatment in lakers, including their size, the different qualities of freshwater versus saltwater, and their shorter trip lengths.

“The (Chamber) also believes that more research is needed to better define and understand the risk of transfer,” Burrows said.

Lake Carriers Assocation President Jim Weakley wrote in a 2015 editorial that lakers are structurally different from ocean-going transport ships. They are capable of discharging ballast water more quickly and are designed around freshwater environments; whereas oceangoing water treatment equipment may be based around chlorine treatment and have slower ballast exchange rates. Therefore systems that are not suited for the unique operational needs of lakers could shorten the life of vessels.

A bill in the US Senate would end state standards in favor of a single federal standard, and place sole responsibility for regulating ballast discharges with the US Coast Guard rather than sharing responsibility with EPA. The bill would require a review by 2022 that the measures being used are limiting ballast-related introductions of invasives, and every 10 years after that. That bill has not come before the full Senate as of July 25, nor has a similar bill in the US House of Representatives. The Lake Carriers Association and the Chamber of Marine Commerce both support that bill, and Burrows noted that it is “extremely difficult” to comply with the patchwork of US regulations.

The Lake Carriers Association declined comment pending action on that legislation, but issued a statement supporting the bill in a 2016 Congressional session, arguing that current Coast Guard and EPA regulations already exempt lakers from ballast water treatment. The association instead advocates its voluntary best management practices, alongside the Chamber of Marine Commerce, as the preferred way forward, alongside federal standards for establishing water management technology, inspections and enforcement standards.

While the IJC doesn’t have a specific reference from governments on ballast water, in 2004 it made recommendations that the Parties implement the IMO ballast water convention. The IJC has continued to support efforts to make sure that regulators, industry, nongovernmental organizations and environmental groups are all part of the conversation.

callaway soo locks
The Cason J. Callaway passes through the Soo Locks with a cargo of taconite pellets in January 2013. Credit: Michelle Hill

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Get Involved: Asian Carp and Excess Algae

By Jeff Kart, IJC

You can make noise about Asian carp and excess algae this month.

A live Asian carp was caught earlier this year, nine miles from Lake Michigan and beyond a system of underwater electric barriers. The US Army Corps of Engineers is seeking public comment on a draft report related to preventing the spread of these invasive fish. Comments are being taken until Sept. 21 on proposed measures at the Brandon Road Lock & Dam in Illinois. The tentatively selected plan is called the “Technology Alternative – Complex Noise with Electric Barrier.”

Click the links above to learn more, and see other highlights below on ways to “get involved” in helping protect the Great Lakes.

map army corps plan
A map showing key features of the tentatively selected plan. Credit: USACE

More Asian Carp: The state of Michigan is offering up to $700,000 in cash awards for a Great Lakes Invasive Carp Challenge. Written proposals are being accepted through Oct. 31 “for innovative methods to prevent invasive (or Asian) carp from entering the Great Lakes.” Michigan officials note that they’re working with other states and Canadian provinces to keep silver and bighead carp – two species of Asian carp – from entering the Great Lakes.

Asian Carp Canada, by the way, is encouraging people to report sightings of Asian carp and other invasive species to EDD MapS (Early Detection & Distribution Mapping System), a binational program that includes Ontario.

Lake Erie: Until Sept. 29, the US Environmental Protection Agency is taking comment on a Draft Domestic Action Plan for Lake Erie. In 2016, as part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Canada and the US adopted phosphorus reduction targets for the lake, to address excess algae fed by nutrients. Each country is developing domestic action plans which outline strategies to meet the targets.

Canada received comments on its Draft Action Plan earlier this year. Plans for both countries are to be in place by 2018.

More: This is only a small sample of opportunities for public comment in the basin. See our Twitter and Facebook feeds for daily updates on Great Lakes news, and feel free to send “get involved” tips to Jeff Kart at

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.

Watermarks from Georgian Bay

By Jeff Kart, IJC

Watermarks are still rolling in. The IJC, in a partnership with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, is recording individual experiences about the Great Lakes as part of a Watermarks project. These are vignettes, in video and written form, about what makes the lakes special to people, and lasting memories they have.

For this month, we have new additions from the most-recent Great Lakes Public Forum in Toronto. Some of those from Georgian Bay, Ontario, include:

Anne Randell lives on Lake Ontario but spends extended summers on Georgian Bay. Her story: Georgian Bay has been the one constant in her family life, after moves and job changes, as “the place where we all come together.”

Dick Hibma has seen the bay change after living there for more than 60 years, from water levels to the landscape. But he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. “It’s like a tide that pulls me back.”

Jody Macdonald recalls learning how to look after the water source at her cottage. “We had to drill a well and we had to make sure that we were testing our water, which was new for me because I’m from Toronto and we just used to turn on the tap.”

Find other Watermarks from the forum here, and submit your own.

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.

Preparing for the Worst: Great Lakes Early Warning Systems, From Toxins to Invasive Species

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

herring gull eggs great lakes
Herring gulls and their eggs serve as a ’sentinel organism‘ that can be used to warn researchers of emerging toxic contaminants in the Great Lakes basin. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Changes can hit the Great Lakes as quickly as a pollutant accidentally entering a river or as slowly as the decades-long transformation brought about by invasive zebra and quagga mussels. Instead of simply reacting to these stressors, water managers and others are realizing the value of setting up early warning systems for long- and short-term dangers like pollutants, invasive species and climate change. These may allow them to head off the worst of the changes and impacts.

“Designing and implementing an early warning system is a proactive action that will give you more time for your reaction to a problem that arises,” says Tad Slawecki, engineer at Limnotech, an environmental engineering and science firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For example, Slawecki said, a former national defense system called the Distant Early Warning Line across the upper latitudes of Canada and the United States was designed to detect a missile or bomber attack with enough time that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) could evaluate its options and move to protect those nations.

The notion of a warning system in the Great Lakes isn’t quite so apocalyptic. One component already exists in the Huron-Erie Corridor, known as the HEC, in the form of a source water protection system. Water monitoring instruments are in place at different drinking water intakes along the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and Detroit River, which drains Lake Huron into Lake Erie. Some check pH levels and dissolved oxygen, while others monitor for unusual or unexpected organic compounds, Slawecki said. These were put in place because Sarnia, Ontario, is a major chemical production center, and people downstream are getting water from the St. Clair and Detroit rivers. If a spill is detected and causes problems beyond the ability of the water utilities to cope, for example, they’ll have ample time to respond.

The LEC warning system is a short-term “rapid onset” response system, focused on a quickly-developing accident. Yet the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system has numerous stressors that operate on longer time frames. The cumulative impact of decades and centuries of deforestation, overfishing, climate change, urban sprawl, nonnative and invasive species, water level regulation, nutrient enrichment, and toxic waste disposal has changed and is still affecting the lakes and the rivers that connect them. By knowing what is causing these changes, managers can communicate the inherent risks to the public, mitigate the worst impacts, try to adapt infrastructure to cope and maybe change course.

To address the need for an early warning system for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system, the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Regional Office has an ongoing project supported by members of the IJC Great Lakes Science Advisory Board and experts from the community who have formed a working group.

“The working group will review and consolidate current knowledge and approaches of environmental early warning systems and evaluate their applicability to the Great Lakes, develop a conceptual framework for a Great Lakes early warning system, and organize an experts workshop to generate a list of current and potential Great Lakes stressors and threats including their extent, likelihood and severity, and identify potential management process to address them,” said Michael Twiss, a Clarkson University professor and co-chair of the working group.

Twiss said the project will partially help the IJC fulfill its mandate related to proactive identification of emerging issues concerning water quality in the Great Lakes and its channels. The project’s results will be used to develop advice and recommendations to Canadian and US governments on emerging stressors and threats that warrant additional attention, as well as stressors and threats – individually or in combination – that are known but need more research and management attention. The process used to identify current stressors could be used and improved at regular intervals in the future to ensure that they are meeting current and anticipated needs for early warning, he said.

Sentinel Organisms

Developing an early warning system that can recognize or take these changes into account is more difficult. One way to do it, Slawecki said, is to look at “sentinel organisms” and ecological community structures. If the types of plankton along a shoreline, for example, are changing, that may ripple across the food web and impact the fish that eat them. Some fish don’t do well in warmer water or spaces where algal blooms are becoming prevalent. Top predators such as eagles, gulls, herons and turtles serve as sentinel organisms that readily indicate change in the aquatic environment, specifically with respect to changing concentrations of bioaccumulative toxins. People that consume fish and other foods from the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River system can reflect the health problems associated with these toxins, leading state and provincial authorities to set up consumption advisories, which makes these predators’ status as sentinel organisms an important early alarm for toxins that could be dangerous to people.

The biggest hurdles to overcome, however, are issues we don’t know about. While agencies can watch the distribution and amounts of chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Slawecki said there are other substances with unknown impacts. The ones we know about can provide some guidance, however. For example, we can look at other toxic substances that bioaccumulate, laying out procedures to identify new threats based on the experience of looking at known contaminants like PCBs or mercury. Along those lines and using Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is performing health assessments of chemically exposed fish and native mussels, including for lake sturgeon rearing facilities.

Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the governments of Canada and the United States are tasked with identifying chemicals of mutual concern that have the greatest impact on human and ecological health, said Conrad de Barros, acting manager with Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Great Lakes Harmful Pollutants office. This effort has involved monitoring concentrations in fish, sediment and gull eggs – using them as indicators on chemical effects.

Both federal governments and the province of Ontario have research scientists maintaining up-to-date knowledge on new and emerging chemicals, and applying that information to the Great Lakes, de Barros said. Those scientists play an invaluable role in identifying emerging chemicals of concern through that research – creating an informal yet limited early warning system. Chemicals identified this way or through a formal proposal process can be named chemicals of mutual concern, with the attendant monitoring and control plans the governments are required to create. Draft plans are already available online for chemicals hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) and PCBs.

But what about impacts from a non-native, introduced species? Tests done by introducing bass to an experimental lake in Wisconsin found that within two years an impact on the planktivorous, or plankton-eating, fish population was detected. The cascading effect on the lake was observed with an increase in the amount of phytoplankton detected by buoys in the water. Slawecki said the bass ate the planktivorus fish, which in turn reduced the grazing on zooplankton, which eat phytoplankton, and thus the amount of phytoplankton increased due to the addition of the fish. The bass’ impact essentially brought the lake to a fundamentally different state, but in a system like the Great Lakes, it’s harder to predict the long-term impacts of an invasive species, or changes to the shoreline. That in turn can make it difficult to build a long-term early warning system.

“The big question is, ‘What should you be watching and what does it mean?’ and that we don’t have an answer for,” Slawecki said. “It’s very difficult for us to think outside the box.”

discharge pipe great lakes usda
A discharge pipe flows into the water. Credit: USDA

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.