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.

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