IJC’s Assessment of Great Lakes Water Quality: Progress, But Much More Effort Needed

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

The IJC’s first triennial assessment report on Agreement progress
The IJC’s first triennial assessment report on Agreement progress. Credit: Fe Wyma/Kapwa Communications

The first triennial cycle under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement completed its full circle on Nov. 28, when the IJC released its First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality. The report is the culmination of extensive research by the IJC’s Great Lakes advisory boards and staff, as well as a comprehensive consultation process with the public, to determine if Canada and the United States are meeting their Agreement obligations.

“While significant progress has been made to restore and protect the lakes,” the report says, “the governments of Canada and the United States and Great Lakes civil society as a whole are living with the costly consequences of past failures to anticipate and prevent environmental problems. The Commission urges both countries to adhere to the prevention principle they wisely incorporated in the 2012 GLWQA.” This emphasis on prevention is reflected in many of the IJC’s recommendations.

Progress includes accelerated cleanup of contaminated Areas of Concern, setting new loading targets for the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie to reduce harmful algal blooms, stopping new aquatic invasive species from entering the lakes, and establishing the work groups and processes needed to implement the Agreement. However, work needs to be increased in these and several other key areas.

Protecting Human Health

The IJC identifies gaps in achieving the human health objectives of the Agreement for drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters, and recommends that the governments set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes. To achieve this goal, the governments also must increase funding for infrastructure and provide support to communities to improve their capacity to respond to extreme storm events, especially as related to combined sewer overflows. These events directly relate to beach closings throughout the region, when bacteria levels are too high for swimming and other recreational uses.

For drinking water, the report concludes that governments provide safe drinking water nearly everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, but unsafe drinking water incidents have occurred in major cities, and some First Nations and Tribes have had longstanding boil water advisories. The IJC recommends that infrastructure be improved to eliminate all longstanding boil water advisories and persistent drinking water violations for communities everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, and that governments monitor and report on source water protection plans.

Increased efforts are needed to disseminate fish consumption advisories to Great Lakes anglers
Increased efforts are needed to disseminate fish consumption advisories to Great Lakes anglers. Credit: Daniel Thornberg, Fotolia

While most Great Lakes fish are safe to eat if consumers follow guidelines from state, provincial and First Nations, Tribal and Métis governments, the IJC concludes in the report that more effort is needed to ensure that people are aware of these advisories. This includes those who consume fish frequently or may be vulnerable to contaminants in the fish, such as women of childbearing age and young children.


The IJC also finds that the water quality of western and central Lake Erie remains unacceptable. In order for governments to achieve their new phosphorus loading targets and reduce harmful algal blooms, the IJC recommends that they include the following in their federal, state and provincial action plans:

  • details on timelines
  • responsibilities for action
  • expected deliverables and outcomes
  • quantifiable performance metrics to assure accountability.
 Imbalanced nutrient levels in the Great Lakes. Some areas are nutrient-rich, shown in red, while others are nutrient-poor
Imbalanced nutrient levels in the Great Lakes. Some areas are nutrient-rich, shown in red, while others are nutrient-poor. Credit: 2017 State of the Great Lakes report

Actions must include enforceable standards for applying agricultural fertilizer and animal waste, better linkages between agricultural subsidies and conservation practices, and designation by Ohio of the western Lake Erie basin as impaired under the US Clean Water Act. As shown in the figure above, western Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay and Green Bay are having problems from excessive nutrient input. At the same time, some offshore areas in lakes Huron, Michigan and Ontario are experiencing very low nutrient levels, which impact fish populations and commercial fishing.


Given the IJC’s belief that prevention is the best approach to restore and protect the lakes, it concludes that progress to address toxic chemical releases under the Agreement has been disappointingly slow. In the first three years of Agreement implementation, only eight chemicals of mutual concern have been identified and no binational management strategies for these chemicals have been completed. To improve progress, the IJC recommends that the governments accelerate work on binational strategies with clear timelines set and met for development and implementation. These strategies should have the principle of zero discharge at their core. Governments also should focus on policies and programs based on extended producer responsibility for a broad range of products, including flame retardants, to help prevent releases toxic contaminants at every stage in a product’s lifecycle. These policies and programs can encourage producers to develop environmentally friendly products, recycling programs and other approaches to lessen the impact of their products.

Combatting Invasive Species

Rigorously enforced binational requirements for ballast water exchange and saltwater flushing in ocean-going ships entering the Great Lakes have resulted in no new discoveries of aquatic invasive species from these ships since 2006. Species such as zebra and quagga mussels that have already invaded the lakes are spreading, however, and negatively impacting the ecosystem.

Phragmites are quickly spreading in the Great Lakes region, altering wetlands, wildlife habitat and increasing the potential for fires. Credit: Abobe stock, norrie39

While governments have spent significant resources to prevent Asian carp from entering the lakes, continued diligence is required to ensure they are not able to invade. Terrestrial plants such as invasive Phragmites, a common reed that may grow up to 6 meters or 19 feet tall, are spreading rapidly and need to be controlled to protect the health of wetlands.

Climate Change

The IJC’s assessment report finds that “looming over all challenges to the Great Lakes is the unprecedented threat of climate change.” A changing climate has been influencing the region for some time, from reduced winter ice cover to stressed wildlife and aquatic life and more frequent and intense storms. The 2012 Agreement includes a new annex to address climate change, which provides an opportunity for both countries to demonstrate global leadership by developing a binational, basinwide approach or strategy to climate change adaptation and resilience.

Engagement, Accountability and Funding

The IJC also finds that the governments need to strengthen public engagement, accountability and funding to achieve the Agreement’s objectives. Governments need to incorporate more robust public engagement into their activities, including engagement with diverse communities and Tribal, First Nations and Métis governments. Clear, time-bound targets for action are needed as are long-term aspirations for improvements in the status and trends of Great Lakes indicators against which progress can be more definitively assessed. And to support further progress, the IJC recommends that governments’ financial investment in restoration and prevention continue at current or higher levels.

additional reports tap 2017
Additional reports available to supplement the Triennial Assessment of Progress report. Credit: Fe Wyma/Kapwa Communications

In addition to the 182-page First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality, the IJC also released three additional reports to provide a thorough evaluation for governments and the Great Lakes community:

The IJC sincerely appreciates the time, thoughts and experiences of each person who contributed to the consultation process undertaken for the report, and hopes that its First Triennial Assessment of Progress stimulates action, as well as continued vigorous dialogue to further the goals of the Agreement. It also hopes that the federal governments will implement its recommendations, and that others can use the recommendations to support taking actions and obtaining resources to do the work needed to restore and protect the lakes.

“Despite different perspectives and opinions,” the IJC states in the report, “there is a value shared among the peoples of the lakes: that all the riches of the Great Lakes matter, and that we must do our best to preserve them for all time.”

Sally Cole-Misch is the public affairs officer in the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Lake Trout Recovering in Southern Lake Michigan, Face Challenges to the North

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

lake trout brimley
A lake trout fry being reared in the Pendills Creek National Fish Hatchery in Brimley, Michigan. Lake trout continue to be reared and stocked in the Great Lakes to restore the native top predator. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service/Katie Steiger-Meister

A study of lake trout stocked into Lake Michigan has found a wild population rising in the southern basin of the lake, but struggling in the north where sea lamprey predation and fishing pressure prevents most fish from living long enough to spawn.

The native top predator in four of the five Great Lakes, lake trout are important ecologically and as a game and sport fish. The lake trout – also known as siscowet, lake char, or mackinaw – inhabits cold, pristine, oxygen-rich waters and mature slowly. That slow growth rate led to a population crash in the mid-20th century, when overfishing and invasive sea lamprey predation ravaged the species. A change in the food web due to other invasive species also has impacted common food sources for lake trout. Fishing limits and sea lamprey control programs have helped reduce pressure on the species, however, and restoration efforts are paying off.

US Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist Matt Kornis said lake trout have been stocked into Lake Michigan for decades in a bid to restore the species. Some of these fish were tagged with coded-wire tags at the hatchery beginning in the mid-1980s. Those tagged fish were stocked in four important spawning areas – one in the southern refuge, a cluster of reefs in the dead center of the lake; one in a northern refuge, a cluster of reefs in the northeast part of the lake; one at Julian’s Reef in offshore Illinois waters; and a nearshore shoal in Wisconsin waters called Clay Banks. The lake trout came from genetic remnant stocks from lakes Michigan and Superior alongside lake trout from New York’s Seneca Lake.

“Not only is the restoration timeframe (from the 1960s to now) long, but the spatial scale is very large,” said US Fish and Wildlife Service Senior Biologist Chuck Bronte. “We’re talking about one of the largest lakes in the world (fifth by area). That’s a big scale for trying to restore a keystone predator.”

In Lake Michigan, Kornis said the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), along with state and tribal partners, have been cooperatively sampling lake trout using gillnets every year since 1998 to analyze the recovery of tagged fish and get a better idea of survival rates and where they were found in relation to where they were stocked. They’ve found that the survival of stocked lake trout and positive growth in their population were heavily dependent on where the fish were stocked.

“The fish that were stocked in the northern refuge … had a substantially lower survival rate that we attribute to sea lamprey predation and fishing harvest,” Kornis said. “The downside is that there is poor survival in northern Lake Michigan, but the upside is we observed high survival of fish stocked in the southern basin, where we also saw more recent increases in wild recruitment (where fish spawn naturally).”

northern refuge lake michigan trout
The northern refuge of Lake Michigan, highlighted here, is one area where lake trout restoration efforts have hit a snag due to sea lamprey predation and harvesting by humans. Credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison

The problem in the northern refuge with sea lamprey stems in part from a failed dam on the Manistique River which allows sea lamprey access to a large, ideal system to spawn in. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission has been controlling sea lamprey populations in the Great Lakes by using lampricide in spawning habitats and physical barriers, but the Manistique system is not easy to treat with lampricide due to its size, making the dam a vital barrier to keeping lamprey from getting into the river system in the first place. Bronte said that dam will be replaced and upgraded within the next few years, shutting out sea lamprey from that spawning habitat that replenishes their numbers, in turn dramatically reducing their numbers in the area and helping lake trout in the northern refuge recover.

The trout harvesting is done primarily by Native American tribes exercising Great Lakes treaty fishing rights guaranteed under the 1836 Treaty of Washington, Bronte said, which are negotiated jointly by the tribes, the state of Michigan and the US Department of Interior as a consent decree. The current agreement was approved in 2000 and has seen minor revisions as circumstances change in the lakes; it runs until 2020.

Kornis said only a handful of older, mature lake trout were caught in the northern refuge, which means the fish don’t have a large enough parent population size to properly breed. A fecund population, he said, needs a high abundance of older fish from multiple age classes, something that’s been seen in southern sites over the past 10 years but not yet seen in the northern refuge.

“You can stock fish, but if they don’t survive to maturity that’s a problem,” Bronte said. “If you want lake trout restoration (to work) you’ve got to let them live longer and get to higher densities.” Lake trout take six to 10 years to become sexually mature.

All lake trout stocked everywhere in Lake Michigan – and not just those four reefs – started being tagged in 2010, but since lake trout take around five years to reach harvestable size and thus enter the fishery, those fish have yet to be included in the surveys, Kornis said.

Lake trout may be benefitting from Lake Michigan’s reduced alewife population too, as that invasive fish will prey on lake trout fry. Adult lake trout predation on alewives also can lead to deficiency of thiamine, a critical vitamin. Thiamine deficiency reduces the survival of the eggs and larvae of affected parents, Kornis said, an affliction known as “early mortality syndrome.”

Success stories in restoring lake trout to other Great Lakes, thanks to Canadian and US cooperation and planning, provide a sense of optimism for Lake Michigan. Binational programs to limit the harvest, control sea lamprey and stock the fish have been successful in Lakes Superior and Huron, according to Jolanta Kowalski, senior media relations officer at Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Stocking was particularly important given how the fish was nearly wiped out in Lake Huron and had lost much of its adult population in Lake Superior when stocking began in the 1950s.

The lake trout population in Lake Huron is recovering well, Bronte said, with roughly half or more of the fish in the lake being entirely wild. While part of that is related to the alewife population collapsing, sea lamprey control efforts and a consent decree limiting the amount of lake trout that could be harvested also played a role in allowing the parental stocks to recover there. Bronte believes that same situation (low sea lamprey and fishing mortality) may be playing out in the southern end of Lake Michigan to some degree, but the recovery is still in the early stages and requires a low mortality rate to be successful.

Kowalski said Lake Huron still seems to have higher sea lamprey marking rates in the North Channel of Lake Huron than officials would like, suggesting there are still tributaries where the invasive species is reproducing with limited controls. Ontario still stocks lake trout in the Georgian Bay and the North Channel of Lake Huron, though the species has recovered enough in the lake’s main basin that it has ceased there.

Lake Superior’s lake trout population is fully restored and large scale binational stocking ended in the mid-1990s, Bronte added, providing hope that rehabilitation efforts can achieve similar success elsewhere.

restoration efforts trout
Restoration efforts have already helped adult lake trout rebound in Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and managers are hopeful the species can make a comeback across all of Lake Michigan over time. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service/Katie Steiger-Meister

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

Collaborative Fights Phragmites with International Approach

By Jeff Kart, IJC

phragmites burning collaborative michigan dnr
Control methods for Phragmites include burning the plants. Credit: Michigan DNR

Phragmites is an invasive plant that knows no boundaries. It grows in tall stands along shorelines and other low-lying areas, crowding out native plants and animals. In response, a Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative has sprouted in the basin to bring together Canadian and US agencies, organizations and citizen groups to share information about the best ways to snuff out the plant.

The group is now taking it a step further with a Phragmites Adaptive Management Framework to compile and analyze data on control efforts across the region. The collaborative is coordinated out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, by the Great Lakes Commission (GLC).

“There’s so much money going into Phragmites control and nobody, right now, is evaluating how effective we’re being,” said Karen Alexander, senior program specialist with GLC. “This framework is going to be set up to provide guidance for land managers based on what’s working elsewhere.”

The collaborative has been beneficial to people like Janice M. Gilbert, executive director of the Invasive Phragmites Control Centre in Ontario.

Gilbert started her nonprofit earlier this year to help people deal with Phragmites in an effective and environmentally responsible way. She said landowners and managers sometimes call a contractor first for help, which can be expensive or ineffective and result in unintended harm to native plants and wildlife.

Different Rules

Those involved with the collaborative have been learning from each other through free avenues like workshops, webinars, weekly emails on the latest Phragmites control research and case studies available on a website.

The binational aspect is especially helpful with various regulations in the two countries.

In US states around the Great Lakes, herbicides can be sprayed over water to control Phragmites. There are restrictions on that in Ontario, so Canadians use non-chemical methods such as “cutting to drown.”

“When lake levels are high, you cut the stalks below the water level to drown and stress the plants,” Gilbert explained.

While herbicides aren’t a cure-all for Phragmites, neither are methods like drowning. Without an organization like the collaborative, various groups involved in the fight might not be talking to each other on a regular basis, Gilbert said. “You’d think in this day and age it would be easy, but it’s not,” she said. “It’s really key to making this a success.” 

phragmites swath braun sims
Heather Braun stands next to a swath of Phragmites, demonstrating how tall the plants can grow (up to 15 feet, or about 4.6 meters) Credit: Julie Sims, NOAA.

Heather Braun, program manager at the GLC, explained that people in the US have more leeway over how herbicides can be used against Phragmites.

Herbicides can be used over water in Michigan and other Great Lakes states with approval from state agencies like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

But in Ontario, herbicides aren’t approved for over-water application. There are even strict regulations for the use of herbicides on lawns.

“Herbicides are still used on farms, and Phragmites is successfully managed in drier areas using herbicides, just as in the states,” Braun said. But in wetter areas, such as wetlands, ditches and shorelines, people in Ontario have to stop spraying when they reach water.

Some companies are working with Canadian regulatory agencies to gain approval for the application of herbicides over water, and chemical methods are being tested in places like Long Point and Rondeau Bay in Ontario on Lake Erie, with monitoring by University of Waterloo Assistant Professor Rebecca C Rooney for impacts to water organisms and water quality.

“The research is going to be extremely helpful on both sides of the border,” Braun said.

helicopter phragmites
A helicopter sprays herbicides to fight Phragmites. Credit: Michigan DNR

History and Future

The Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative has been around for five years. The core team includes the GLC and US Geological Survey; an advisory committee includes Gilbert, representatives from Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy and representatives from US federal agencies, state and provincial governments, and academia.

The GLC has kept the collaborative moving, focused and growing by helping members establish a common agenda, objectives and priorities.

The Phragmites Adaptive Management Framework will use a systematic approach to learn while managing, Alexander said, through the use of predictive modeling, a centralized database and standardized monitoring protocol.

“We are setting ourselves up to gather knowledge from all of the management going on in the basin and systematically analyze that,” she said.

The US Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center is leading the development of the framework, and the GLC is assisting. “Ultimately, what that leads us to are best management practices that are more site-specific,” Alexander said.

The framework effort is due to launch in 2018.

Phragmites management is an integrated approach, which requires more than one treatment over many years to a remove a stand. Even then, eradication is a challenge.

“There are so many options at each treatment phase,” Alexander added. “The results of those treatment regimens could be very different or they could be similar. But we don’t know that until we put some monitoring to it and collect details and compare and analyze over time.”

To get involved or find out more about the collaborative, subscribe to a Listserv and follow the collaborative’s social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

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

Greater Infrastructure Investments Needed to Reduce Combined Sewer Overflows

By Michael Mezzacapo, IJC

cso graphic combined sewer overflows
Figure 1: A graphic depicting a CSO event in extreme weather. Credit: Michael Mezzacapo

Many older sewer systems in Canada and the United States mix stormwater runoff with raw or partially treated sewage and discharge the excess into the Great Lakes during periods of heavy precipitation. These discharges are known as combined sewer overflow events (CSOs). CSO systems can handle typical rain events (Figure 1) but during more intense rain events the capacity of the treatment plant and its connecting systems is exceeded, causing the excess water to be discharged to a nearby lake or river (Figure 2).

CSO runoff can contain contaminants, including pathogens like E.coli and chemicals and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which impact the drinkability, swimability and fishability of Great Lakes waters. Outflows from CSOs also have health and economic impacts, resulting in drinking water supplies requiring greater and more costly treatment and beach closures in order to protect human health. The IJC recommends zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes and connecting waters in its recently released First Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The TAP report notes that in just one year, 20 Great Lakes cities in Canada and the US released a combined total of 92 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater to the Great Lakes, mostly via CSOs. That’s roughly equal to 147,000 Olympic size swimming pools. Between Canada and the US, there are about 291 cities in the Great Lakes basin with antiquated sewer systems which release CSOs, 109 in Canada and 182 in the United States. The map below shows the discharge in millions of gallons per year between 2005-2008 for 49 cities in the US and Canada.

csos map great lakes basin
Map showing the discharge volume of CSOs for 49 cities between 2005-2008 within the Great Lakes basin. Credit: GLEAM

The release of wastewater just above Niagara Falls this summer by the Niagara Falls Water Board sparked public outrage and government fines. The July discharge was highly visible, occurring during the peak tourist season. Citizens may be unaware of how frequently CSO events occur around the Great Lakes basin. In 2014, a US Environmental Protection Agency report cited 1,482 untreated CSO events in US states within the Great Lakes basin. Although the province of Ontario issues guidance to municipalities on CSOs, there are no comprehensive reports detailing these events. Releases may intensify as aging sewer systems are impacted by a changing climate due to precipitation pattern shifts and population increases.

An Aug. 15 discharge of sewage into the Niagara River
An Aug. 15 discharge of sewage into the Niagara River. Credit: Christine Hess

Citizens may not notice impacts from CSO discharges. The old adage of “out-of-sight and out-of-mind” often comes into play. Those that live directly on the shoreline and frequent beaches are most likely to notice the foul smells and discolored waters, while others who aren’t adjacent to CSO releases may not even be aware they are occurring, although many states require public notice of such events.  Ontario does not require public notice of such events, though some cities do notify the public.

More than 35 million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water, recreation and employment. CSOs have the potential to cause human illness over large sections of the population, not just those who recreate in the contaminated water. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives detailed a 13 percent increase in emergency room visits related to gastrointestinal illness in Massachusetts following extreme precipitation events in areas with sewers that discharged CSOs into drinking water sources. Another study co-authored by IJC Health Professional Advisory Board member Dr. Tim Takaro noted that drinking water systems can prevent illness by developing planning tools and building resilience and capacity into infrastructure for future events; the study was done in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The IJC has consistently expressed concern about the need to increase the governments’ attention to water quality and human health. The IJC recommends in its recent TAP report that older sewer systems that contribute CSOs to the Great Lakes be upgraded to separated sewer systems which do not combine stormwater and sewage. In its 14th Biennial Report in 2009, the IJC highlighted the safety risk to human health by exposure to contaminants from CSOs through fish consumption, drinking water and swimming.

To protect human health and reduce exposure to untreated and inadequately treated sewage, the IJC recommends in its new TAP report that Canada and the US determine an accelerated and fixed period of time by which zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes will be virtually achieved. Given the importance of public health and lake recreation to the Great Lakes public and local economies, the IJC recommends that sufficient resources be dedicated to proactively and systematically improve the capacity of city sewer systems to respond to extreme storm events, especially as related to combined sewer overflows, in the areas of planning, zoning and adaptation.

The Canadian and US governments have slowed needed investment on infrastructure since the 1970s and 1980s, due to increasing demands placed on municipal budgets in other areas. The need for increases in funding was highlighted in a recent US Clean Watersheds Needs Survey, which found that over the next 20 years, six of the eight Great Lakes states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio), will need an estimated US$77.5 billion to upgrade wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, by separating stormwater and sewage with adequate treatment capacity.

Tackling CSOs will require a concerted and calculated effort between local, provincial, state and federal governments. Engaged citizens can voice their concern over CSO releases and the need to increase spending to upgrade aging infrastructure by writing their local, state, provincial or federal governments. Citizens should inform themselves of CSO events in their area and obey signage for beach closures and fish consumption advisories. Finally, you can also have your voice be heard by submitting comments through www.ParticipateIJC.org.

Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Indigenous, Provincial and State Organizations Healing Great Lakes Tributaries

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 2012 binds Canada and the United States to restoring and safeguarding the Great Lakes. That also means addressing issues in tributaries. After all, sediment – and pollutants such as pesticides and phosphorus – can flow from rivers into lakes, bringing nutrients that exacerbate algal blooms, and aquatic life can head up- or downstream – whether it’s wanted or not.

Across the basin, local organizations and governments have undertaken restoration in tributaries like the Thames River in Ontario, the Clinton River in southeastern Michigan, and the Dowagiac River in southwestern Michigan near the Indiana border.

The Upper Thames and Avon Rivers

volunteers plants habitat wildlife
Volunteers work on live planting of aquatic plants along the Avon River in Stratford, Ontario, to capture nutrient runoff and provide habitat for wildlife. Credit: Craig Merkley

Efforts go back to the 1970s when the river was targeted for remedial action related to Lake Erie’s water quality, said Craig Merkley, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority conservation services specialist. To demonstrate and test the effectiveness of best management practices, Merkley said, it was decided to use the Avon River, a tributary to the Thames, in Ontario and to use a nearby subwatershed as a control to compare water quality improvement to the Avon.

In the rural area of the upper Avon, Merkley said the focus was on reducing soil erosion and sediment getting into the river. With federal seed money, an Upper Avon River Conservation Club was founded to garner landowner support. Work got underway after a public meeting in the early 1990s where a longtime resident presented remediation maps and proposals that a previous conservation group had created as a guideline in 1952, known as the Avon Valley Plan.

“We felt the low-hanging fruit was tree planting,” Merkley said.

Properly planted trees can hold soil in place along the waterway, provide shade to cool water temperatures for the benefit of fish and other aquatic life, help with habitat for other native species, and otherwise control erosion and nutrient runoff as wind breaks and buffer zones between fields and the water. The effort got underway around 1992, he said, and since then the group has planted around 10,000 native trees in the upper Avon watershed, with the advice of a forestry expert. Tree survival rates have been above 95 percent, Merkley added, with students and volunteers joining from nearby towns and cities to help with the work in a rural area.

The conservation club also has worked with sister organizations in the downstream city of Stratford, where the Avon River runs through and becomes the artificial Lake Victoria. Restoration efforts in the city largely take the form of improving habitat and biodiversity along the lakeshore, creating vegetative banks of dogwood with cribwall techniques, putting down logs of coconut fiber as a growing medium for aquatic plants to take root and create habitat, and building LUNKERS structures. Those structures, Merkley said, create an artificial overhang with a wooden cover structure underwater where fish can go and hide.

Additionally, conservation groups created a marshland where the Avon River turns into the Victoria Lake by bringing in soil and stone, making the water shallower in those areas and allowing for aquatic plants to be put down. The goal was to capture the nutrient runoff that does get into the river in the marsh, where it can provide phosphorus and nitrogen for aquatic plants, create habitat, and improve water quality downstream, Merkley said.

On the Thames, Merkley said conservation groups have been building LUNKERS and creating riffle-and-pool sequences, which increase oxygenation in the water, narrow the waterway and increase the stream flow to an approximation of what it was historically. This has also helped remove sediment in the river, and improved benthic habitat. In all, he said the restoration and water quality work has been successful in the watershed.

“We had one project down near the city of London where we installed a combination of riffles-and-pools and LUNKERS structures, and measured the number of fish species (before and after),” Merkley said. “There were three species beforehand in that stretch of the river. A few months after the work we measured the species diversity again, and it had increased to 17.”

The Clinton River

Known at one time as one of Michigan’s most polluted rivers, the Clinton River winds its way through the urbanized northern suburbs of Detroit before opening into Lake St. Clair. The river was dubbed an Area of Concern (AOC) under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, with some projects aimed at cleaning it up taking place since. Restoration work picked up in the past few years through US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding, according to Matt Einheuser, ecologist with the Clinton River Watershed Council. Past projects, such as removing a dam on the tributary Paint Creek, have been good starts to improving biodiversity, and more projects aim to do more for the species that depend on the Clinton River and the communities around it.

Einheuser said there are 10 projects underway in various stages of completion, mostly done by local communities. The Clinton River Corridor project aims to restore stream habitat (such as riffle-and-pools and reconnecting the stream to the flood plain) and issues with flow, sedimentation and erosion. The project is taking place in a 9-mile stretch, from the cities of Utica through Sterling Heights.

Another major project is being done through the Detroit District of the US Army Corps of Engineers at the river mouth on state-owned land. Einheuser said the area consists of hardened land and research ponds near a boat launch; the Corps is softening the shoreline and creating wetland and spawning habitat against the lake.

habitat clinton r
Habitat is being created along the Clinton River spillway in Michigan, providing a wetlands habitat for birds, amphibians, fish, and reptiles in what was historically a straight channel. Credit: Jim Martin (HRC) – Hubbel, Roth, and Clark Inc.

Other projects include restoring cold-water habitat (for trout) and wetland areas in Galloway Creek in Oakland County and wetlands in the North Branch sub-watershed in Macomb County’s Wolcott Mill Metropark; dealing with erosion along connecting drains in the cities of Clinton Township and Troy; restoring the Avon Creek and Black Creek Marsh, which connect to the Clinton River; and remediating an eroded landfill site along the river. Einheuser said nothing from the landfill seemed to be leaking into the river, so the bank was stabilized and armored with rocks near a particularly intense bend. Finally, Macomb County Public Works and the Intercounty Drain Board are creating offline habitat along the Clinton River spillway, a channel dug to prevent flooding in the city of Mount Clemens.

“We’ve come a long way with addressing a lot of the early issues, and we’re at a point where we have a steelhead run every spring, the occasional sturgeon, brown trout populations, cold-water-designated trout streams,” Einheuser said. “We have a lot of really good resources here and we’ve made a lot of good strides.”

While the river is on the path of being delisted as an AOC, Einheuser said work will likely be ongoing to continue to monitor conditions, and restore the river where opportunities come up. The watershed council has an adopt-a-stream program each spring where they get volunteers to help collect macroinvertebrates, often a good indicator of stream health, he said. They’ve also encouraged communities to focus on green infrastructure as a building norm to improve water quality. Even now, with work only partially completed, Einheuser said he’s seen a change in how the river is looked at and used.

“A lot of people recreate on the river now,” Einheuser said. “There’s paddling, and there are a lot of fishermen out there for steelhead and brown trout, so they’re using the resource as well.”

The Dowagiac River

dowagiac river niles michigan map
The Dowagiac River connects with the St. Joseph River in Niles, Michigan, but before that the water flows through a channelized section that the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi hopes to return to its historical meandering route. Credit: IJC Maps

The Dowagiac River flows through glacial moraines of southwestern Michigan connecting the lands between the cities of Decatur, Dowagiac, and Niles. The Dowagiac is a tributary of the St. Joseph River, which flows into southern Lake Michigan. Channelization and a longtime dam have caused loss of unique habitats and water quality issues along the river – issues that the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi is interested in mending.

“There’s a problem with sediment input in the river due to runoff from agricultural fields, roads, parking lots, anything that is directly surrounding that watershed,” said Jennifer Kanine, director of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “And that has cascading effects on the rest of the species that try to live in the river, too.” These types of sediment issues are widespread throughout the Great Lakes basin.

The Dowagiac River historically had a meandering path through the area, she said. This slowed down the water flow and created ample habitat for plants to grow and for fish, insects, turtles, snakes and other animals to live. Attached to its floodplain, the Dowagiac also had an ample wetland habitat area that helped reduce the system’s tendency towards sudden water level rises. Since the river was channelized (between 1901 and 1928), the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi has taken ownership of a portion of land the river runs along, providing an opportunity to help restore it.

The tribe likes to think about issues in terms of “seven generations,” Kanine said, either looking in the past, the future, or a mix of the two, with the idea of making things better for the generations to come. The DNR believes that restoring the Dowagiac River would be beneficial not just to wildlife, but for fishing and recreation along its course. When the bends were removed, not only was the river’s length cut, but more scenic portions were lost.

“Canoeing and kayaking are on the rise, and people would prefer to be on a meandering (scenic) river versus a channelized one, which is more like a ditch,” Kanine said.

So far the DNR has done a pilot re-meander project near Rodgers Lake, connected to the Dowagiac River via a small outlet, to see how feasible it would be. The Rodgers Lake campground’s previous owner created a swimming area by digging a small pond. The organic black muck soils from the lake moved downstream to this swimming area, filling in the pond and creating a heat sink effect in the water when the sun beat down on these dark soils, which would then run down into the Dowagiac River, Kanine said. As one of the only cool-transitional rivers in southwestern Michigan, the Dowagiac River is naturally cool – better for the fish there – the warmer water entering the system created a water quality issue.

heat sink pond tribal property
A heat-sink pond located on tribal property, prior to restoration work was underway in 2015. Credit: Jennifer Kanine
heat sink culvert
The area around the former heat-sink pond, with a box culvert and some wooden guardrails installed, has returned to a creek following restoration work; this photo was taken prior to shrubs and trees being planted. Credit: Jennifer Kanine

The original outlet bends were located and a natural channel design with bank stabilization was restored. The muck soils were removed and the “swimming hole” was returned to a meandering creek.  The DNR also removed perched culverts, which prevent fish from going upstream, and installed a wildlife passage box culvert under the road so turtles and small mammals didn’t need to cross the road to move. That work was completed in the fall of 2015 and many wildlife tracks have been identified along the edges within the box culvert, indicating that wildlife are using the box culvert instead of crossing the road. The DNR seeded native plants following the restoration, with further shrub and tree planting occurring in the spring of 2016. Some additional native tree and shrub plantings have been completed this year to finish out the pilot area and make it an attractive habitat for native species.

Since the Dowagiac River isn’t contained within Potawatomi lands, the tribe has been working with neighboring landowners to make sure restoration work has local support and won’t negatively impact anyone worse than it already would in a flood event. So far, Kanine said, landowners have supported the work. The DNR is also going through the permitting process with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and US Army Corps of Engineers to determine if this work would harm any threatened or endangered species in the area, and if it’s feasible (the project has not yet entered public comment). She said they hope to have shovels in the ground in fall 2018, after the bat maternity season, adding that full restoration could take 15-20 years.

“We have enough funding (through the Bureau of Indian Affairs) to get through some of those first meanders, and then we have to make sure we can get additional funding,” Kanine said. “We’re hoping that these first few meander bends will serve as a teaching opportunity for the neighborhood and the surrounding landowners to show that this can be done and will benefit everyone positively.”

The tribe also supports plans by the city of Niles five miles downstream to remove the aging Pucker Street Dam. Kanine said its removal would allow lake-run species, both native and desirable, to use the full Dowagiac River for spawning, restoring additional ecological niches and allowing people to fish right out of the river all the way to the headwaters again.

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

Watermarks: Yearning for Water and Feeling Like a Kid Again

By Jeff Kart, IJC

With the recent release of the IJC’s First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality, it’s worth noting that high-level actions by governments have an impact at home, to people who live in the Great Lakes basin.

Residents have told us what they care about, including clean drinking water, access for recreation, fishing and beaches. But there are intangibles, too, like memories and emotions that help to shape generations and lives.

The watermarks below are some of more than 20 recorded by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and the IJC at this year’s Healing Our Waters restoration conference in Buffalo, New York. They speak volumes on why the IJC and agencies in Canada and the US are important partners in protecting and restoring our shared waters.

David Hahn-Barker
David Hahn-Barker

David Hahn-Barker recalls the difference between plentiful beach access in Chicago and a lack of access in Buffalo. Buffalo was built in a way that blocked the lakefront from the people, “one of the sadder things about our community,” he says. But areas like Canalside have become an attraction in Buffalo, helping to satisfy “a yearning for water.”

Leann Sestak
Leann Sestak

Leann Sestak of Erie, Pennsylvania, remembers childhood visits to a gorge with her cousins, and spending afternoons looking for toads, frogs and other tiny creatures. The area she used to visit has since been developed, but it’s also connected to a trail that allows more people to enjoy a natural area.


Kathleen Blackburn
Kathleen Blackburn

Kathleen Blackburn, originally from Texas, now lives in Chicago and recalls stepping for the first time into Lake Michigan earlier this year. “I was struck by how clear the water was, by kind of how bracingly cold and refreshing it was. I felt both like suddenly aware of my body and kind of lost in the experience, too. But I also felt kind of like a kid again.”

Es Jiminez
Es Jiminez

Es Jiminez of New York recalls traveling the world in the military and seeing how people were suffering for clean drinking water. Jiminez feels more connected to the land and its water by working with People United for Sustainable Housing.

“It’s helped me heal within from all the issues that I have from the military and I love doing what I do. I feel like we need to be out there helping protect our water as much as we can. Whether you’re canoeing or whether you’re just like just walking down by the waterway, just make sure you go out there and enjoy it. It’s just very powerful to be able to talk to the water and actually see the work that I’ve done …”

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



Invasive Species Are Changing Lake Trout Diets


By Kevin Bunch, IJC

usgs kato lake ontario trout
A lake trout in Lake Ontario is pulled to the US Geological Survey Research Vessel Kato. Credit: Nicole Saavedra

Invasive zebra and quagga mussels from the Ponto-Caspian region of Europe began to drastically change the ecosystem of the Great Lakes starting in the late 1980s. Scientists wondered how lake trout would adapt. In Lakes Michigan and Ontario, they’ve found that trout are finding meals by going after invasive fish like the round goby.

Invading species changed the food web of the lakes by eating plankton species and drawing nutrients closer to the nearshore and benthic (the lowest part of the water column) regions, reducing their availability to native fish and zooplankton species. In recent decades, scientists have studied the long-term effects on native species, said Nicole Saavedra, a masters student at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry who works on lake trout in Lake Ontario.

“On the Ponto-Caspian species invasion, it’s not necessarily all doom-and-gloom,” Saavedra said. “While it has changed things in the lake, specifically species like round goby have provided a food source for lake trout as well as other predatory consumers.”

Lake Ontario

Lake trout are the top native predator in the Great Lakes, living long lives and hunting a mix of prey species as they grow. Historically, Lake Ontario trout consumed benthic macrointervebrates called Diporeia and sculpins as juveniles, moving over to rainbow smelt, cisco, alewives and other species as adults, Saavedra said. Since the Ponto-Caspian invasion, juvenile lake trout are primarily eating opossum shrimp, or Mysis, while adults are leaning more heavily on alewives and round goby. Lake trout are still growing to lengths researchers have seen historically, she said, but don’t seem to be as fatty or “lipid rich,” which might suggest a link on how they’re acquiring or using energy.

Given that lake trout are a popular fish for anglers and Canadian and US government agencies have been trying to restore their depleted numbers for decades, it’s important to know what their food supply looks like today. Simply looking at what’s in their stomachs only provides a look at a couple days of meals, but pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that bind with fat and lipid tissue in the lake trout can help provide a long-term glimpse into the trout’s diet – especially since data goes back to 1977.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) Lake Ontario Management Unit has been studying the lake trout population in Lake Ontario’s Canadian waters since 1996 (prior to that point, the trout were monitored binationally in a netting program). According to a 2016 Great Lakes Fishery Commission report released in March, lake trout numbers declined in the lake in the early 1990s following the invasion and reached their nadir in 2005. Since then, more have been gradually caught, albeit numbers are still below the ideal. The Ministry found that alewife is the most consumed food by weight.

Another insight from this research: Saavedra said her colleagues at the USGS survey station in Oswego have found a recent increase in natural reproduction of lake trout, which could be a positive trend for the species and related to the changes in the food web (with younger adult lake trout using round goby as prey).

Saavedra said her study is ongoing and she expects to be finished with her research by the spring of 2018.

Lake Michigan

stomach contents lake michigan undergrads
Undergrads check the stomach contents of salmonid species from Lake Michigan. Credit: Austin Happel

Similar work is going on in Lake Michigan, where researchers are investigating the diets of salmonid species – lake trout, Chinook salmon, brown trout, coho salmon and steelhead trout – caught by anglers throughout the lake. Austin Happel, a freshwater ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said that over 2015 and 2016 they took fish collected from anglers by the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes Mass Marking Program and checked their stomach contents to see what they’d eaten most recently.

They found that round goby are making up a larger share of lake trout diets in Lake Michigan, following a seasonal pattern: goby-heavy diets in the spring and fall when waters are cooler, with more alewives in the summer.

Additionally, like in Lake Ontario, Happel said information from US Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that lake trout seem to be increasing their natural reproduction in Lake Michigan in the southern basin, where high survival of stocked fish has increased parental stock size.

Natural Reproduction

Matthew Kornis, fish biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said brown trout and lake trout have adjusted to declining populations of preyfish like alewife, sculpin and bloater by hunting and eating other fish, notably the round goby. Pacific salmon are still primarily hunting alewives year-round, and while steelhead salmon are eating more invertebrates, their diets are still alewife-dominated.

“Whether that can be attributed to goby or something else in the food web is still debated quite a bit, but it seems like as alewives are having problems while gobies are expanding. These changes (to the prey base) are coinciding with increases in natural production that is having an effect on the ability of these (salmonids) to reproduce,” Happel said.

Happel said that coincidentally as the round goby population expanded and the alewife population decreased around 2005-2006, Chinook salmon also showed increased signs of natural reproduction, despite not eating gobies. That stable period that lasted until 2013, when Chinook wild reproduction dropped slightly. He said researchers are still trying to determine if any of those prey shifts may have played a role in the increase in wild Chinook spawning.

usfws staff muscle tissue
U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff prepare muscle tissue specimens for stable isotope analysis.  Credit: Matthew Kornis

Using Isotopes

Researchers studying salmonid diets through stable isotopes are reporting similar results. Kornis said researchers track these non-radioactive variations of carbon and nitrogen as they move through the food web. Stable isotopes from prey can remain in a trout or salmon for up to a year before being fully absorbed into the animal’s tissue, and thus stable isotopes offer a picture of diet over a longer time frame compared to the snapshots provided by evaluating stomach contents. Kornis said they then also can chart what kind of overlap there is on prey among the Pacific salmon species (Chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead), brown trout and lake trout.

“It’s led us to conclude that the competition for the remaining pelagic forage like alewife will be greatest among the Pacific salmon, whereas the trout species are diversifying their diet in response to the prey availability,” Kornis said. He added that this suggests that continued stocking and trout recovery efforts are worth pursuing, as the fish will continue to adjust as the forage base changes.

Since this study targeted only fish that were caught by anglers, Happel said it could be skewing the results to favor certain prey species, such as terrestrial insects for steelhead, lake trout caught in the water column (vs. on bottom) having more alewife, or the stomachs from fish caught closer to shore having more round goby. He said the researchers are looking into whether offshore gillnetting would change the results significantly. Round gobies tend to show up where invasive mussels are, as they are one of the few species in the Great Lakes that preys on the zebra and quagga mussels particularly prevalent in southwestern Lake Michigan near Waukegan – coincidentally the area where lake trout are naturally reproducing most successfully. Conversely, the mussels’ filter feeding on plankton seems to hurt alewives and other preyfish that would otherwise be using those food sources, either directly or indirectly, Happel said.

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