IJC Presents Findings for Climate Change, Crude Oil Transport, Water Quantity and Quality at Healing Our Waters Conference

By IJC staff

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition (HOW), which includes more than 145 environmental, conservation and outdoor recreation organizations, held its annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference on Oct. 17-19 in Buffalo, New York. More than 300 people attended to learn about the latest issues affecting the lakes and initiatives to address many of these challenges.

Members of the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board and Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee, along with IJC staff and US Chair Lana Pollack presented findings in four sessions at the conference. Brief summaries of each workshop follow.

niagara falls buffalo how conference
Conference participants enjoyed a tour of Niagara Falls during their stay in the Buffalo region. Credit: S. Cole-Misch

Plan 2014

A new plan for managing water levels and flows in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that took effect in January 2017 was the focus of a break-out session on Tuesday, Oct. 17. Pollack began the session by explaining how Plan 2014 carefully balances the needs of all interests, including shoreline property, recreational boating, hydropower, commercial navigation and the ecosystem.

Plan 2014 reduces damages to shoreline property to nearly the same degree as the old plan while allowing water levels to follow their natural up and down patterns to a greater degree. This will enable the recovery of health and species diversity in 26,000 hectares (64,000 acres) of coastal wetlands and reverse much of the environmental damage caused by the old plan. Plan 2014 also better maintains minimum water levels for navigation, extends the boating season in most years and provides a modest increase in hydropower production.

public hearings
More than 20 public hearings and consultations were held over two years to develop Plan 2014. Credit: F. Bevacqua

Unfortunately, three months after the adoption of Plan 2014, record flooding occurred on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River after record rainfall within the Lake Ontario and Ottawa River watersheds. Shoreline homeowners and businesses on the lake and river experienced a great deal of suffering and financial loss. Under the old plan, however, water levels would have been nearly identical because of the immense flooding upstream and downstream of the dam.

Bill Werick, a technical adviser to the IJC, described the 16-year process to develop Plan 2014 to workshop participants – a process that involved stakeholders in shared vision planning. Due to limitations in long-term water supply forecasting and the need to balance the needs of upstream and downstream interests, Werick said that not much more can be done to reduce high water level events. Reducing damages from future floods will require long-term planning and management to make property and infrastructure less vulnerable, and false divisions will need to be put aside for everyone to work together. The IJC can contribute to such discussions by sharing the knowledge gained through extensive study and ongoing analysis.

Crude Move

Understanding issues surrounding crude oil transportation in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region has become a top priority for the Crude Move partnership, a group of organizations that has been advancing the topic through meetings and workshops for the last several years.

This HOW session featured presentations by Margaret Schneemann (Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant), Michele Leduc-Lapierre (Great Lakes Commission) and Matthew Child (IJC) that summarized recent activities and progress related to crude oil transport science and management in binational waters. During this session, more than 30 attendees also ranked previously developed priorities regarding crude oil transport issues.

The presentations provided background information on how oil moves to and through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region (pipelines transport more than 90 percent of oil, with most of the balance transported by rail). The findings of three previous related workshops held between April 2015 and June 2017 were highlighted. The first workshop explored the broad range of issues involved in crude oil movement, the second identified the elements of a multi-disciplinary research agenda to address benefits and risks associated with crude oil transport, and the third focused on different perspectives of risk and lessons learned from elsewhere in North America.

Priorities that emerged from previous workshops were presented to HOW session participants, who were asked to rank up to six priorities in each of several categories including crude transport, education and outreach, policy coordination, science-based decisions, healthy economy and equitable society. The participants, mostly representing nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, agreed on several priorities. For example, they agreed that adequate oil transport infrastructure condition assessments are important, that the public should have access to crude oil transport and response plan information, and that economic impacts of future energy scenarios require attention. Many participants also felt that safety considerations are an overall priority to prevent harm to communities and the environment.

The HOW session polling results will be considered by the Crude Move partner organizations as they identify ongoing activities to gain further understanding and dialogue related to crude oil transport.

Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Under the agreement, the Canadian and US governments are required to present a status of progress every three years, and the IJC is required, among other things, to evaluate that progress and provide recommendations for additional actions to restore and protect the lakes. In this session, Pollack presented an overview of the Commission’s evaluation of the parties’ progress to accomplish the objectives of the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). The Commission’s evaluation is nearing completion and once published will be known as the Commission’s first Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report.

As part of the IJC’s review and evaluation process, it released a draft assessment of progress in January 2017 and held a series of public meetings around the basin to obtain input on its findings and learn from basin residents. Pollack reviewed the findings the IJC presented in its draft report and what it heard from the public in those meetings.

She reported that one of the IJC’s draft findings was that the governments have much to be proud of. They have made considerable progress in setting up a process that brings together 10 separate binational committees representing responsible departments and agencies on a semi-annual basis, based on the GLWQA’s annexes and objectives.

Pollack also noted draft findings that unprecedented progress has been made in Areas of Concern, as well as significant progress on groundwater research, developing a near shore framework, and developing a shorter, smarter list of indicators by which to assess Great Lakes health. Stronger funding in the US through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and more recent stronger funding in Canada has combined with focused work in both countries to produce long-awaited progress.

pollack how 2017
IJC US Chair Lana Pollack summarizes the IJC’s draft findings on progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Credit: IJC staff

At the same time, the IJC’s draft findings point to areas of weakness in programs to accomplish the GLWQA’s objectives. For example, although protection of human health is a leading objective, beaches are too often unsafe for use, with warnings about biological contamination coming too late to prevent exposure. Drinking water is generally safe but not for everybody and not all the time. Progress to identify and control Chemicals of Mutual Concern has been disappointing, and Lake Erie continues to suffer from extensive harmful algal blooms as a result of excessive inputs of nutrients. While significant progress has been made to control the introduction of new invasive species from ballast water, the IJC found that additional actions are needed to mitigate the damage from the spread of existing invasive species.

The public responded to the IJC’s draft findings at public meetings over this past year and identified more than 70 issues they feel are important to address in the basin. Chair Pollack said each person’s comments were considered as the IJC developed its final report, and all comments will be included in an appendix to the final Triennial Assessment of Progress report.

“We know that while there are no silver bullets and no permanent fixes for healthy lakes,” she said, “we are certain that without the active public engagement which you represent, neither government will be able to muster the political will for the financial support or the protective regulatory measures that are essential to meet the agreement’s ambitious objectives.”

Climate Change

Finally, IJC Great Lakes Water Quality Board members Jane Elder and James Wagar summarized work on climate resilience in the Great Lakes and the Métis Nation’s perspectives and actions to address climate change. Elder outlined board findings and other research that point to changes already occurring to the region’s climate:

  • An increase in air temperature by 2 degrees F since 1900, particularly warmer nights; warmer winters with a 71 percent drop in Great Lakes ice coverage since 1973; and nine fewer days with frost since 1958, and resulting warmer water temperatures
  • An 11 percent increase in precipitation since 1900, 37 percent increase in more extreme precipitation events since 1958, more extreme swings between drought and drench, and increased variability in lake levels
  • Changes in the distribution and vitality of cold-climate-dependent aquatic and terrestrial species.

The Water Quality Board held an experts workshop to develop recommendations to create resilience to these ecosystem changes. A coordinated, binational vulnerability assessment is needed, Elder said, that will result in a basinwide strategy on an ecosystem scale that is tailored to local conditions. This strategy would include adaption elements, such as changes in watershed planning, urban design and emergency preparedness. At the same time, it also would include how to plan ahead for climate variability and the many impacts climate change will have on natural and engineered environments. While a shared    approach is only at the conceptual stage, the board believes a Great Lakes regional strategy could  serve as a global model to maximize freshwater resilience across regions and borders.

In his presentation, Wagar summarized the history of the Métis Nation and the impacts of climate change on the Métis people’s lifestyles and traditions. In December 2016, the Métis Nation reached an agreement with Canada to work together to develop a framework for action on climate change that protects the nation’s traditional lands and ensures the well-being of their way of life.

Participants in the session provided feedback on the presentations and their own perspectives of how best to advance binational cooperation on climate resilience in the Great Lakes, including more interaction and sharing of local strategies, leveraging the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to include resilience for the Great Lakes, creating a more formal community on climate challenges, greater local resilience planning, and watershed-to-watershed networks to identify and share adaptation and resilience strategies.

The next Great Lakes Restoration Conference is planned for Oct. 16-18, 2018, in Detroit, Michigan.


We Want to Hear from You About Record High Water Levels

By Wendy Leger and Arun Heer

survey glam
The survey is online. Credit: Tungilik

2017 has been a challenging year for property owners and businesses located along the shoreline of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. An extremely wet spring led to record high water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, which resulted in flood and erosion damage to a number of shoreline properties.

The IJC’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee is responsible for gathering information that will support the IJC in its review of the plan for managing the flow of water from Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River as undertaken at Cornwall, Ontario, and Massena, New York. Given the extremely high water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River in 2017, the GLAM Committee is seeking input from shoreline property owners and businesses to better understand what happened out there, who and what was impacted, where impacts occurred, and how much damage was caused.

To do this, we are gathering information from a variety of sources. This includes seeking direct input from shoreline property owners. The GLAM Committee is working with Conservation Ontario to conduct an online survey to ensure all impacted shoreline residents and businesses have an opportunity to describe what happened to their properties.

This will complement results from an earlier survey conducted this summer by Cornell University and New York Sea Grant of shoreline properties along the US side of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. While the focus of the GLAM survey is to capture missing Ontario and Quebec information, owners of New York state properties who did not get an opportunity to respond to the earlier Cornell-Sea Grant survey, or who have more to tell, are welcome to respond. If you have property on Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River and you suffered damage as a result of the high water levels this year, we want to hear from you.

The GLAM survey asks a variety of questions on the extent of flooding, erosion, damage to shoreline structures, and related damage to residential and business shoreline properties. There is also an opportunity to upload pictures to document the extent of flooding/erosion impacts on shoreline properties. Adding pictures is optional, but encouraged.

The GLAM Committee will use the survey results along with other information from federal, provincial, state and local sources to summarize the impacts and challenges caused by this year’s record-high water levels on the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River and report the results to the IJC. The information also will be used to improve estimates of potential impacts should similar conditions occur in the future.

The survey is available in English and French at this link.  There are about 15-40 questions depending on extent of damage being reported, and the survey should take about 10-25 minutes to complete.  Please share this article with anyone you know who has property along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The more that people share and contribute, the more we can learn.

The deadline to take the survey is Dec. 1, 2017.

Wendy Leger and Arun Heer are co-chairs of the GLAM Committee.

Predicting and Preventing the Spread of Hydrilla

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

hydrilla mat
A mat of invasive hydrilla found in West Creek in the Cleveland Metroparks system in August 2011. Credit: Jennifer Hillmer

A virulent, hardy, and aggressive aquatic invasive plant has been working its way north, approaching the Great Lakes in a few spots. The plant, called hydrilla, is the target of a binational effort to understand its spread and how it can be dealt with before it gets established. In states like Ohio, its encroachment on the Great Lakes has prompted lengthy eradication efforts as close to the shoreline as Cleveland, and research to better predict its movement in coming years. In Ontario, officials are working to keep the province hydrilla-free.

Hydrilla will root itself into sandy and rich, mucky beds of whatever water body it has settled in and can grow stems up to 30 feet (9 meters) in length, forming dense mats near the surface. Each stem has whorls of small, serrated leaves visible to the naked eye. The plant outcompetes native species for nutrients and can survive a variety of conditions, said Mark Warman, hydrilla project coordinator for Cleveland Metroparks.

It can tolerate less sunlight than native plants, low carbon dioxide environments, and could take advantage of the phosphorus and nitrogen runoff into Lake Erie to expand. It can settle into water up to 49 feet (15 meters) deep and is capable of overwintering in cooler environments like those around the Great Lakes.

Additionally, hydrilla has several reproductive and survival strategies. Warman said in addition to seeds, hydrilla can grow from fragmentation – if a piece of the plant is broken off, both parts may continue to grow, with the free-floating piece attempting to root itself again. Waterfowl can be a vector for transportation, and studies have shown that hydrilla tubers can survive and grow after being regurgitated. Finally, it overwinters with the help of tubers and leaf buds called turions that can be moved in a sediment washout or flood event.

“The biggest risk is fragmentation on fishing equipment and on boats and trailers,” Warman said. “We advocate for proper training in boat inspections and providing infrastructure to properly clean boats, and we let the community know to clean, drain and dry their boats.”

Hydrilla could readily spread at a boat ramp or marina, rendering it difficult to move a boat through without some plant management, he added. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that hydrilla has caused millions of dollars in damages to irrigation and hydroelectric power projects in the southeastern United States, with the local fishing and tourism industries also taking a hit.

The dense hydrilla mats along the water surface can cause problems not only for boaters and anglers, but also for irrigation and water intake systems, said Francine MacDonald, senior invasive species biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). The mats also can hurt fish abundance and distribution in the areas they’re found as they change the habitat around them and crowd out native plants, MacDonald said.

Besides watercraft, the water garden trade is another major avenue for hydrilla’s spread, Macdonald said. Hydrilla can be mistaken for other species or mixed in with the roots of other pond plants. The species is prohibited under the 2016 Ontario Invasive Species Act, which makes it illegal to import, possess, deposit, release, transport, grow, buy, sell, lease or trade in the province. The act also includes measures to help control and eradication responses in case it’s found in Ontario, though so far it hasn’t been detected north of the United States.

Completely eradicating the plant in a specific area isn’t easy. Warman said hydrilla was first detected in 2011 at the Cleveland Metropark system in the Cuyahoga River watershed in six locations (all artificial wetlands), and a rapid response plan went into effect to begin hitting it with herbicide. Those treatments, using fluridone-based herbicides, can take seven to 10 years to complete. This year they’ve only found a single tuber; 2016 was the last year his staff found any vegetative hydrilla at the initial discovery site.Other than herbicide, hydrilla control methods are a mixed bag, according to information from New York Sea Grant and Cornell State University.

Mechanical cutters are expensive to run (around US$1,000 per acre) and there’s a risk that fragments could be carried elsewhere; the same is true of suctioning out the plants using vacuums. Biological control using other nonnative species is risky and has seen mixed results in Florida; while grass carp has been successful in small lakes it is a nuisance otherwise in the Great Lakes. Drawing down water levels, where possible, can dry out hydrilla, but the tubers can survive to grow once water levels increase again, and other native plants could suffer in the meantime.

Additional searches outside of the metroparks in the Cuyahoga River watershed haven’t turned up any additional plants, but Warman is vigilant. While the species is federally prohibited for trade and sale without a permit in the US, he believes it initially turned up in the metroparks when it was illegally dumped with other aquarium plants.

hydrilla tuber
A hydrilla plant with its tuber, removed from West Creek in the Cleveland Metropark system in May 2012. Credit: Jennifer Hillmer

Even if hydrilla isn’t around the Ohio metropark now, it has continued to creep its way north from the southern United States. Kristen Hebebrand, a master’s student at University of Toledo, has been studying and modeling how hydrilla has spread north, alongside other researchers working on a risk assessment for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Buffalo District, the USACE’s Engineering Research and Development Center, Texas Technical University, North Carolina State University, and Ecology and Environment Inc.

The assessment is being prepared to identify locations most vulnerable to invasion by hydrilla within the Great Lakes, based on likelihood of introduction and environmental suitability. The assessment and related research work is being done under the USACE’s Aquatic Plant Control Research Program and is funded by the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The modeling is built on a watershed-by-watershed basis within the United States, focusing on accidental overland transportation by recreational boats. Overall, Hebebrand said, hydrilla is expected to continue to spread in areas with current infestations, and the watersheds surrounding those will be at a higher risk of infestation. While her study isn’t complete, initial results discussed at the International Association of Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) conference in June suggests its biggest gains by 2025 will be in watersheds just south and on the western end of Lake Erie, the St. Clair-Detroit River watershed, and in watersheds around southeastern and southwestern Lake Ontario, which are already infested. Hydrilla also is expected to increase around the Ohio River and the Susquehanna watersheds south of Lake Erie, according to the ongoing study.

Once the risk assessment project is complete, Hebebrand hopes managers and officials can use it to make more informed decisions about early detection and where to prioritize monitoring efforts for hydrilla. Hebebrand said her portion of it should be finished within a few months, but the work is ongoing.

MacDonald said MNRF is working with a binational invasive species program to document the spread and help find hydrilla and other invasive pests, called the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System. Alongside an Invading Species Hotline, MacDonald said it’s an important tool to enable citizens and conservation groups to report potential hydrilla sightings and other invasive plants. The MNRF also is studying using environmental DNA to help support early detection before plants themselves have been spotted.

The US Army Corps of Engineers Buffalo District is working with Ecology and Environment Inc. to develop a basin-wide collaborative initiative to fight hydrilla. It’s in the early stages, but Ecology and Environment hopes to have a website up to provide a place for managers to share lessons learned and technical information in coming months.

Finally, there are formal commitments from Great Lakes governors and premiers to prevent and respond to aquatic invasive species together, including hydrilla. MacDonald said this includes a mutual aid agreement to combat shared threats within the basin – though so far Ontario has not been asked to assist with any hydrilla eradication efforts. Information on control efforts is shared regularly through organizations like the Great Lakes Panel on Aquatic Nuisance Species and the Conference of Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers’ Aquatic Invasive Species Task Force.

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

How Do Mussels and Nutrient Runoff Impact Lake Michigan’s Food Web?

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

quagga mussels
Quagga mussels have effectively displaced their fellow invasive species the zebra mussel throughout the Great Lakes, and can survive in cooler, deeper water than their counterparts. Credit: US Geological Survey

Scientists have known since the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that nutrient runoff from fertilizer and wastewater is responsible for harmful algal blooms. They’re also aware that invasive quagga mussels are to blame for changes in how nutrients move around the lakes and its food web. Now a recent modeling study has better defined the role quagga mussels play in the use and movement of nutrients within Lake Michigan, which could assist efforts to reduce blooms throughout the Great Lakes.

Quagga mussels are a dreissenid species native to the Ponto-Caspian region of eastern Europe that most likely entered the lakes through ballast water in the 1980s. The tiny creatures form hard shells and latch onto practically any hard surface before filter feeding out plankton in the water column. The mussels thrive in nearshore regions, with quagga mussels outcompeting their fellow invasive zebra mussels in many areas. Quagga mussels also are capable of surviving in deeper water than zebra mussels, pushing the invasion further offshore.

Lake Michigan has seen a decline in offshore primary productivity – essentially the rate of how organisms at the base of the food web convert sunlight and nutrients into biomass energy – for around the past decade, according to Darren Pilcher, research scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. Since these phytoplankton species are eaten by a wide variety of other creatures, including invertebrates and eventually fish, understanding what’s driving that decline is important, he said. There are two major drivers that have been suggested: the decline of nutrient pollution into the lake from runoff since the GLWQA went into force and the growth of the quagga mussel population.

“These mussels are able to just graze and eat the phytoplankton as they grow, and that’s one mechanism showing how productivity has been reduced in the lake,” Pilcher said.

The model Pilcher and his partners built shows representations of the lake’s productivity under different conditions. Researchers can see what the lake would look like with a reduced number of mussels, or with a reduced amount of nutrient runoff (based on the observed decline going back to before the mussels invaded). This allows them to tease out the effect of each process. The model accounts for how water moves throughout the lake and for its ecosystem, particularly phytoplankton and zooplankton – organisms that eat phytoplankton.

Pilcher said they found that the growth of the quagga mussel population and drops in total nutrient runoff have impacted the lake, but at different times and places. Quagga mussels have the biggest impact in the spring and late autumn due to how the water moves within the lake, Pilcher said. The mussels live at the bottom of the lake, while phytoplankton tend to live in the upper layers to soak in the sun’s rays. During spring and late autumn those water layers tend to mix, bringing those plankton down to where the mussels can eat them. In the summer, the water layers stratify and rarely mix, denying quagga mussels that food source outside of the nearshore zone where waters are shallower. The researchers had hypothesized that would be the case, and with the modeling they were able to see how the quagga mussel’s seasonal dependence worked.

“The phytoplankton sit in the top layer (of water) and no mussels are grazing on them, so they’re able to continue as business as usual at that point,” Pilcher said.

Cladophora algae mats have surged in nearshore areas where phytoplankton isn’t available to use phosphorus runoff as a nutrient source into the Great Lakes. Credit: Wisconsin Sea Grant

However, since mussels in shallower nearshore zones can continue to feed on phytoplankton, they’re clarifying the water and leaving a niche for other algae and bacterial species to move in and use the phosphorus there to grow and expand into blooms. This also has the effect of shuffling nutrients predominantly to the nearshore zone and processing them into a more bioavailable form, in what’s called the nearshore nutrient shunt. Runoff can exacerbate that, and as a result the impact of the runoff is mostly seen in the summer, when harmful algal blooms can grow and species like Cladophora, a kind of algae that lives on the lake bottom, can spread into large mats.

Since those nutrients aren’t making it into the offshore zones in the first place, species in the deep water zones are still out of luck. Pilcher said that some fish in nearshore zones still can conceivably eat algae or the mussels, but those in the offshore regions have a harder time finding food unless they’re willing and able to venture closer to shore. This has been thought to be contributing to the population declines of several fish species in the Great Lakes, such as lake whitefish, as they struggle to find food where they live.

In the future, Pilcher said they’d like to see benthic algae such as Cladophora added to the models to better understand how the mussels are affecting their growth. With the mussels clearing out more desirable phytoplankton in nearshore regions, phosphorus is going unused by those species, giving undesirable algae and bacteria an opening to grow. This information could be helpful as the Great Lakes states and Ontario work on reducing phosphorus loading into the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie, by helping refine phosphorus loading targets and expectations. Pilcher added that models using similar parameters could be developed for the other four Great Lakes; they already exist to some degree for Lake Erie.

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

Turning Coastal Infrastructure into Habitat

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

tern decoys
Common tern decoys are used to attract birds to an artificial nesting habitat near Ashtabula, Ohio, on Lake Erie. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has counted infrastructure maintenance as one of its duties for decades, and in recent years looked for ways to use maintenance and repair projects to improve habitat for species in the Great Lakes basin. Collaboration with the Canadian government and conservation groups has been a key factor.

The Corps doesn’t build many new structures these days, said Burton Suedel, research biologist with the USACE’s Engineer Research and Development Center-Environmental Laboratory in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 2010, the Army Corps started looking into ways to better engineer existing structures to improve ecological, social and economic benefits, Suedel said.

“We’re looking at ways we can take advantage of using nature to utilize operational efficiencies, and we’re also trying to identify ways we can get additional benefits with our infrastructure,” Suedel said. The program was dubbed “Engineering With Nature,” as opposed to traditional “engineering against nature” projects, he added. Those older projects might include surveying canals and building up harbors along the shoreline.

Fish Spawning

Most recently, the USACE has replaced manually operated gates with automated ones in the Soo Locks. This gives operators finer control of water flow over the Main Rapids in the St. Marys River. While the gates on the Canadian side will continue to be manually operated, fine-tuning the flow with the automated gates should now be possible. Lake Superior State University has monitored the rapids over time to see which fish are using the rapids and in which ways, which is helpful data to avoid drowning or scouring fish eggs while adjusting the water flow. Suedel said recent workshops with local experts on both sides of the Canada-United States border are helping gate operators figure out the best way to assist with navigation and improving the existing “world class fishery.”

The Detroit ACE district is working alongside Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to develop a bi-dimensional Integrated Ecosystem Response Model, or IERM2D, for the rapids, said Jean Morin, hydrology and ecohydraulic section chief with ECCC’s National Hydrological Services. Similar models have been developed for other waterways, including the St. Lawrence River and the Rainy-Namakan Lakes system in Ontario and Minnesota.

“The goal is to optimize the gate opening for fish spawning purposes, in order to select the right timing and the right velocities for ensuring an optimal reproduction success,” Morin said.

The Army Corps provided a baseline hydrodynamic model, which ECCC ran with a variety of variables that change based on the amount of water being discharged and to what degree the gates are opened, Morin said; these include water depth, velocity, turbulence, the slope of the river bottom and current directions.

While ECCC didn’t have much biological data on the rapids, they have experience with species that reproduce in swift-moving rapids environments, like lake sturgeon, lake whitefish and walleye, Morin said. His agency was able to use that data to produce the IERM, analyzing a number of gate opening scenarios to see how it could be used and for what purpose. Their final report is expected this fall.

The first Engineering With Nature project in the Great Lakes took place in Cleveland, Ohio, around 2012. The USACE was interested in repairing a rubble mound breakwater in the harbor – a structure designed to protect harbors, beaches and navigation channels from wave action and sedimentation movement – using large concrete blocks around 9-10 tons each to anchor the repair. Additionally, the Corps wanted to create more habitat for benthic macroinvertebrates and algae – species near the base of the food web. This in turn would create more food opportunities for small fish higher up on the web. The USACE added grooves and dimples to the concrete blocks, as their research suggested that would create more diverse habitat for the species they were targeting. The Corps contractor built a mold that would allow them to do this with other projects, he added.

Gulls and Shrimp

Following Cleveland, the Army Corps worked on a similar project in Ashtabula, Ohio, and was able to reuse molds from the Cleveland project. It also contacted local agencies and other stakeholders like The Nature Conservancy to see if there were any other benefits they could add.

“We reached out (to those groups) up front to ask them specific questions about what habitat is lacking in the area, and is there any way we can incorporate that habitat into the redesign of the breakwater?” Suedel said.

Those organizations noted that the common tern had lost nearly all its nesting habitat in that area due development and competition by gulls. While suitable habitat existed kilometers distant east and west along the coastline, Suedel said terns lacked the sandy habitat they preferred on Lake Erie around Ashtabula. Concrete blocks were modified to include suitable habitat in a detached breakwater for the birds. The success of that project is still being monitored, though a 2016 winter storm damaged the site and required repairs during the nesting season.

Also in 2014, the USACE Detroit District’s floating plant crew took up the task of rubble mound repairs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s harbor breakwater area. It contacted Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries biologists to find out what that harbor was lacking, and they suggested using smaller stones for the breakwater repairs that fish could spawn on, Suedel said. The Wisconsin DNR helped design the repaired section, which was 500 continuous linear feet along the breakwater, with funding from the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has taken on monitoring duties in the harbor.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee ecologist James Janssen said they’ve discovered that the Corps has created a rare, cave-like habitat between the large breakwater boulders and the smaller rocks that nonnative bloody red shrimp (Hemimysis) are thriving in.

The shrimp are providing a major local food source for a variety of fish species, including largemouth bass, smelt, rock bass, alewives, and brown trout. Alewives and smelt typically prefer living in the open waters, but Hemimysis are drawing them closer to shore as invasive quagga mussels have reduced the amount of food available in the open lake. Janssen said this should not suggest that Hemimysis be introduced into inland lakes as a food source, however, as conditions vary in harbors.

The spawning side of things is a mixed bag. Janssen said silt coming down the Milwaukee River appears to be drowning eggs in the spring, suggesting that efforts upstream to limit sedimentation might improve spawning grounds. Those that hatch have a ready food source from the Hemimysis, but have to avoid getting eaten by the larger predatory fish in the area.


Janssen said since conditions are different in other harbors throughout the Great Lakes, the work in Milwaukee can’t be used as a guide or an example for other sites. A final report is pending from the USACE. But Janssen said knowing enough about local physical and biological conditions can provide information to predict which species will dominate at a breakwall, and a preliminary study before doing any modifications can help clarify that prediction further.

milwaukee harbor breakwall
The Milwaukee Harbor breakwall modifications under construction in 2014; once completed the water level rose to where the line is drawn and the larger boulders submerged. Credit: John Janssen

“Our key to success is reaching out to stakeholders and identifying which habitat would be most appropriate for us to create,” Suedel added. The USACE didn’t do that in Cleveland since it was focused on the base of the food web, but for other species it has proven successful, he said.

The USACE also is interested in public-private partnerships to help fund restoration projects. While Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds and money from the Army Corp’s Engineering With Nature initiative have been used for the projects so far, partnerships could help provide outside funds for monitoring and additional construction. He said Milwaukee Harbor is one area that would benefit from funds for additional fishery habitat along other portions of the breakwater.

“It was a relatively modest $20,000 increase over the cost of repair in Milwaukee’s (breakwater) in 2014,” Suedel said. “If we can’t identify that money internally, can one of our stakeholders help fund that additional cost? So that’s that where public-private partnerships could come in handy.”

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

automated gates
The automated gates project in the St. Marys River’s compensating works structure should help fine-tune water flows to the Main Rapids, preventing fish eggs from being scoured or left out to dry. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

Establishing Authoritative Transboundary Hydrologic Units for the Great Lakes Basin

By IJC staff

The IJC’s Transboundary Hydro Data Harmonization (THDH) Task Force partnered with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to host a workshop on developing authoritative transboundary hydrologic units for the Great Lakes region (see Figure 1).

great lakes harmonization
Figure 1: Categorization of hydrologic units for differentiating between major steps in the progression of the Great Lakes data harmonization effort. Credit: USGS/K. Jones

The task force, which includes representatives from IJC, US Geological Survey (USGS), Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), has been implementing a broad data harmonization effort along the Canada-US border since 2008 in support of IJC’s International Watersheds Initiative.

The August 2017 workshop, dubbed the Great Lakes Watershed Forum, represented a step toward this goal for the Great Lakes basin. It was important because the basin represents a relatively challenging binational water interface. Over the course of the workshop, participants discussed a range of approaches to resolving geospatial representations of shorelines, islands, and artificial routing through the five lakes. Historical research in the Great Lakes has shown that, without this type of region-specific focus, it’s unlikely these challenges would be adequately addressed.

As with previous Canada-US data harmonization regions, participation and input from states, provinces and regional groups bordering the Great Lakes is critical to the binational data harmonization process. To that end, the Great Lakes Watershed Forum included representatives from Ontario, Indiana, Minnesota, and New York, Erie County, NOAA, USGS, IJC, and the University of Michigan. The task force plans a follow-up workshop within the next year to ensure continued regional input in this harmonization process.

This article includes contributions from Drew Gronewold (NOAA), Kim Jones (USGS), Judy Kwan (ECCC), Mike Laitta (IJC), Lacey Mason (U. Michigan), Pete Steeves (USGS), and Li Wang (IJC).

workshop attendees
Workshop attendees (left to right): Lacey Mason (University of Michigan), Lizhu Wang (IJC), Drew Gronewold (NOAA), Michael Laitta (IJC), Chris Morse (USDA-NRCS), Sue Buto (USGS), Peter Steeves (USGS), John Gaiot (Ontario MNR), Judy Kwan (ECCC), Kim Jones (USGS). Credit: NOAA-GLERL