The Far End of the Lakes: Designing Resilient Habitat on the St. Louis River at Lake Superior

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

A mother piping plover with her chicks. Credit: Kaiti Titherington/US Fish and Wildlife Service
A mother piping plover with her chicks. Credit: Kaiti Titherington/US Fish and Wildlife Service

 

The US Army Corps of Engineers hopes to use dredged materials for another project in the northwest end of the Great Lakes basin. By providing foraging and nesting habitat for piping plover birds in the St. Louis River Area of Concern on the west end of Lake Superior, project partners are working to design and build a resilient and stable shoreline to restore habitat for the endangered birds.

Predatory piping plovers are a major control on insect and crustacean populations on beaches, and serve as an indicator species for scientists to determine how healthy and clean an ecosystem is, according to the University of  Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. The species has been threatened by habitat loss due to shoreline development throughout its habitat zones and is listed as endangered by the United States and Canada.

The project’s partners include the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA,) US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). It’s still in the design phase, but the most suitable location has been identified as a degraded beach within the WDNR’s bird sanctuary, near the federal navigation channel at the Duluth-Superior Harbor, according to Amanda Meyer, project manager with the USACE Detroit District. Part of the plan to remove the St. Louis River from the list of Areas of Concern is to restore more nesting habitat for the plover, Meyer said, which will contribute to a goal set by the USFWS of 150 nesting pairs throughout the Great Lakes.

A project map. Credit: WDNR
A project map. Credit: WDNR

The USACE plans to use dredged materials from the harbor to widen the beach, giving piping plovers space to forage and nest. The harbor needs to be dredged to allow commercial shipping to continue, and since that sand isn’t contaminated, reusing it to create habitat nearby is considered a good opportunity, according to the project website. The USACE plans to add cobble to attract the birds and patches of dune grasses to stabilize the shoreline and provide cover. Erosion or deposition is possible while the beach is stabilizing, and Meyer said the final design will include a plan for longer-term maintenance and management actions to keep plover nesting habitat healthy. The final beach design is expected to hold together and remain healthy in high- and low-water periods along the Lake Superior shore.

Besides the benefits to shipping, building out the beach is expected to improve resiliency along that section of the waterfront. The dredged materials should stabilize the remaining beach and broader shoreline, reduce erosion and help protect existing habitat from waves and high water events. Part of the design phase is determining if the USACE needs to construct anything else to best protect the shoreline from erosion.

Meyer said the design phase is expected to wrap up in the spring of 2019, and pending permits and construction funds, the dredged materials, cobble and dune grasses are targeted to be placed later in 2019 or 2020. At this point, she said construction is expected to cost US$2-3 million via the Area of Concern program in the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Wetland Restoration Projects in Urban Great Lakes Help Remediate Areas of Concern

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Restored wetlands along the Duffins Creek marsh in Toronto provide habitat, flood protection and an opportunity for visitors to see a variety of wildlife. Credit: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority
Restored wetlands along the Duffins Creek marsh in Toronto provide habitat, flood protection and an opportunity for visitors to see a variety of wildlife. Credit: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

Urbanized environments present a special challenge to restoring the health of the Great Lakes, due to impervious surfaces like roads and roofs, and issues with runoff and combined sewer overflows. Sprawl and waterfront development has led to the destruction of historic wetlands and other habitat.

In the era of climate change, resiliency – making sure that both human communities and habitat for plants and animals can best survive extreme weather events, flooding, and rising temperatures – is more important than ever. Wetlands are a part of solving that puzzle.

Protecting and restoring wetlands can play a key role in helping communities and wildlife manage these changes. Aside from providing habitat and expanding the potential for biodiversity, wetlands provide useful services to waterfront regions, improving water quality and limiting flood damages while also providing recreational opportunities.

Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, some portions of the lakes and their connecting channels that were severely degraded with pollution and runoff from urban areas were designated as Areas of Concern (AOCs). Restoring habitat for fish and wildlife is typically one of the factors involved in delisting an AOC and restoration efforts can help improve water quality in the process.

With hardened and developed shorelines, there are limited opportunities to restore habitat in areas such as Toronto, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York. Agencies and nongovernmental organizations are working to maximize benefits from available land to help restore habitat in New York’s Niagara River and the Toronto region.

Toronto’s parks pay huge ecosystem dividends following wetland improvements

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) saw major successes in the past decade thanks to three projects: rehabilitation work at the Humber River and Duffins Creek marshes, and a habitat creation project within Tommy Thompson Park.

Locations of the three wetlands restoration projects along Toronto’s shoreline. Credit: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority/Google Earth
Locations of the three wetlands restoration projects along Toronto’s shoreline. Credit: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority/Google Earth

After successful restoration projects in preceding years, the TRCA was able to build enough goodwill and trust with regulators to improve degraded wetlands along those waterways, said Gord MacPherson, associate director for restoration projects with the TRCA. The waterfront regions were heavily urbanized through the 1940s into the early ’50s, and the marshes were impacted by gravel extraction, water level regulation in the upper and lower Great Lakes, and the draining of the Ashbridge’s Bay Coastal Marsh in 1912; invasive common carp also forage in the system, destroying the remaining plant communities. In all, between the urbanization, regulation and common carp, the natural resiliency of the ecosystem has been degraded over the decades.

The TRCA constructed carp barriers and water level control structures over the winter of 2005 at the Duffins Creek Corner Marsh, ideally timed for when common carp are out of the marsh, said Karen McDonald, senior manager with restoration projects at the authority, during a June presentation at the International Association of Great Lakes Research. They then lowered the water levels enough for a growing season to plant a mix of vegetation to maximize habitat given the space restrictions; MacPherson likened it to getting 50 years-worth of wetland loss reclaimed in one year.

The effort was successful. MacPherson said that with the carp gone, the submerged vegetation went from covering 5 percent of the marsh to 95 percent in a couple of years, with muskrat lodges, river otters, least bittern and turtles returning. The carp barriers have kept the area healthy, providing a refuge for these species and more.

The Humber River’s Lower Lagoon Marsh saw levees with water level control structures put in place, although the levees were set too low and water was able to breech them, limiting the amount of vegetation that has taken hold there, McDonald said. Recovery work is still underway.

At Tommy Thompson Park, uncontaminated dredged sediment from the harbor was used to create close to 20 hectares (49.42 acres) of new wetland in the park, MacPherson added. The TRCA used hydroacoustic telemetry – a tag tracking technology – to look at a variety of fish species and how they responded to different habitat in the Toronto area; they used this information to maximize the habitat for the largest number of animals possible. The park contains four carp control structures, three of which can be used to control water levels.

McDonald said the areas where carp were prevented from entering have seen flourishing wetland vegetation, while the parts where carp have entered remain damaged and barren. Nevertheless, MacPherson said the healthy areas also are seeing a mix of fish, reptiles and birds, including endangered turtles and migrating birds looking for a place to rest. This has made it not only a healthier place for wildlife, but a regional hotspot for birdwatching and outdoor activities for residents and visitors to Toronto.

“People in urban settings don’t get to (usually) experience conservation lands,” MacPherson said. “You can see the city out there, but it feels like you’re away from the hustle and bustle. You want to see turtles, birds, or go fishing? This is the spot, and people are gravitating to that now.”

Given the stress climate change can bring to habitat around the lakes – with changes to precipitation patterns, algal blooms and water temperatures – these restored and constructed wetlands should help a variety of native species weather future changes and protect the city from floods caused by severe storms, as well as filter out stormwater runoff that makes it to the lake.

Project funding came through various sources including Environment and Climate Change Canada and the city of Toronto, MacPherson said: the Humber River marsh restoration cost CND$60,000, Duffins Creek cost $200,000, and Tommy Thompson Park’s wetlands project was $2.6 million, with a $500,000 grant from Coca Cola.

River otters have been spotted at the Duffins Corner Marsh following the wetlands restoration project there. Credit: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority
River otters have been spotted at the Duffins Corner Marsh following the wetlands restoration project there. Credit: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

Turning ecological dead zone ponds into healthy habitat on Unity Island in Buffalo

An island separating the Niagara River from the Black Rock Canal (and city of Buffalo), Unity Island was used as a landfill for many decades and then a public park with three ponds as its centerpiece. Those ponds were the focus of an effort in 2018 by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the city of Buffalo to restore 4 hectares (10 acres) of functional (and now rare in the region) coastal wetland habitat to the island and reconnect them to the Niagara River system.

The habitat restoration project is in its first year and expected to last another two, said Andrew Hannes, ecologist with the USACE. The ponds were originally too deep to support much vegetation, and what was there was largely invasive species. After removing the invasive plants, uncontaminated dredged material was used to reduce the depths of the ponds, allowing for different plants to be placed in each. New culverts were installed to connect the ponds to each other and the Niagara River, to allow aquatic life to come and go.

Stone was removed from the dike on Unity Island that isolated the island’s pond system from the Niagara River in June, connecting the river to the north pond on the island and allowing aquatic species to move between the two water bodies, and into the newly created wetlands. Credit: USACE
Stone was removed from the dike on Unity Island that isolated the island’s pond system from the Niagara River in June, connecting the river to the north pond on the island and allowing aquatic species to move between the two water bodies, and into the newly created wetlands. Credit: USACE

 

Starting this year and going into 2019 and 2020, aquatic vegetation is being planted in the ponds and monitored to confirm which plants are doing as well as expected. In the shallowest areas of the ponds, emergent plant species such as sedges and bulrushes are being planted, while the deeper areas feature a “submerged aquatic zone” for plants like water celery and pond weeds.

With these plants as a baseline, Hannes said the ponds should provide the kind of marsh spawning habitat preferred by fish species such as muskie or northern pike. Much of the coastal wetlands in the Niagara River were destroyed as the area was urbanized, Hannes said, so restoring even a small amount could make a big difference for fish, plant, reptile and both migratory and local bird species.

Beyond the Unity Island ponds project, Hannes said the USACE has identified several other locations around Buffalo on the Niagara River that could have marsh habitat restored using dredged sediment in coming years. While one site on Unity Island likely won’t make much difference for water quality or shoreline resiliency on its own – being such a relatively small part of the river system – he said more wetlands could cause a positive, cumulative effect. At the least, however, it’s more suitable habitat for species that struggle to find safe, stable homes.

The project ended up costing US$3 million, with money coming through the USACE, and the city of Buffalo through a New York Power Authority Habitat Enhancement Restoration Fund grant.

A quarter of the site was planted with native wetland plant species in July. Each planting plot has been enclosed with fencing and gridded suspended lines to prevent carp, Canada geese and muskrat on the island from disturbing the plants while they establish themselves. Credit: USACE
A quarter of the site was planted with native wetland plant species in July. Each planting plot has been enclosed with fencing and gridded suspended lines to prevent carp, Canada geese and muskrat on the island from disturbing the plants while they establish themselves. Credit: USACE

Phragmites Removal Increases Property Values

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Phragmites stands along the Grand River in western Michigan. Credit: Erik Nordman
Phragmites stands along the Grand River in western Michigan. Credit: Erik Nordman

A recent study out of western Michigan suggests that removing invasive Phragmites stands from waterfront properties substantially increases property values. What’s more, researchers say a long-term, consistent funding mechanism through municipal governments to treat and control Phragmites could help maintain those higher taxable values.

Using housing price data from the Ottawa County, Michigan, assessor’s office and information on Phragmites stands and removals from Spring Lake Township, Ottawa County, and The Nature Conservancy, researchers found there seems to be a link between housing prices and whether Phragmites is present, said Erik Nordman, natural resources and economics policy professor at Grand Valley State University.

With all Phragmites removed within 400 meters of a house, he said it appeared that would drive up the sale price of that house by about US$1,500. In aggregate for the entire neighborhood they looked at – around the mouth of the lower Grand River – home prices would have gone up by a total of $830,000 for the 384 properties surveyed.

Compiling information to research the question was tricky. First, researchers had to find a location that had Phragmites issues and had gone through with a removal treatment. Further, Michigan doesn’t survey home values regularly. Nordman said they were able to find homes that had sold at least twice, with sales before and after the treatment. Since the observation period ran from January 2004 to August 2015, they also had to account for inflation and overall changes in home prices – including the housing market crash that started around 2007.

Once the data was together, researchers were able to crunch the numbers and reach conclusions about the economic benefits of Phragmites removal.

A map of Phragmites locations in the lower Grand River, from ones found in 2010 by The Nature Conservancy to ones found in 2015. This was the region where the link between Phragmites and property values was studied. Credit: Erik Nordman
A map of Phragmites locations in the lower Grand River, from ones found in 2010 by The Nature Conservancy to ones found in 2015. This was the region where the link between Phragmites and property values was studied. Credit: Erik Nordman

But Phragmites is a tough plant to get rid of permanently, and since usual funding streams for invasive species management tend to be short-term, tax increment funding, or TIFs, might serve as a good longer-term alternative, said Shaun Howard, project manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Lake Michigan region.

A TIF district is a space where typically some kind of redevelopment is done up front, and resulting property tax value increases in that district are used to pay off the initial investment. Howard proposes that instead of traditional development, some kind of TIF (or equivalent mechanism) could be used to generate funds to pay back the initial removal cost for Phragmites plants, along with maintenance removals in case they begin to creep back into the area. Such a setup could be self-sustaining over long periods of time, he said.

Howard said the key at this point is finding a local municipality that has the interest, political will and the intersection of coastal homes and Phragmites problems to test whether this could work. The Nature Conservancy is in the process of looking for and talking to potential municipal partners for this next step.

“We think there’s an opportunity here to start talking with local municipalities about how we might trial something like this and take it to a larger scale,” Howard said. “We know there’s a lot of money put in year over year on invasive species control, so it would be great to build a sustainable funding mechanism.”

Grants for removing invasive plants like Phragmites have historically not been available on a recurring, annual basis. In the United States, funds on the federal level have come through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, with $5 million in grants spent on invasive species control in 2014 alone. Some states have regularly recurring grants too; Michigan spent more than $11 million between 2014 and 2017 on grants for management and removal through its Invasive Species Grant Program. Canada has provided funds through its Great Lakes Protection Initiative.

According to the study, published in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Economics, average Phragmites treatment costs for the entire study area totaled around US$25,000 for removing about 36 hectares of the plant, while the annual property tax revenue increases were around $13,000-15,000 a year. Since treatments can be done on an every-other-year basis, they should prove beneficial to communities dealing with the pests. Nordman says the benefits might extend to other invasive plants, such as Japanese knotweed, though such research hasn’t been done at this time.

A Phragmites stand in the Lighthouse West Preserve, which was removed by the Leelanau Conservancy. Credit: Shaun Howard/Leelanau Conservancy
A Phragmites stand in the Lighthouse West Preserve, which was removed by the Leelanau Conservancy. Credit: Shaun Howard/Leelanau Conservancy
The same location in the Lighthouse Preserve after Phragmites was removed. Credit: Shaun Howard/Leelanau Conservancy
The same location in the Lighthouse Preserve after Phragmites was removed. Credit: Shaun Howard/Leelanau Conservancy

 

 

 

 

How Communities Can Prepare for the Next Extreme Storm

By Meaghan Gass, Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension

While we all hope extreme storms won’t happen in our community, the reality is that rain events and other extreme storms regularly cause major damage and disrupt lives and livelihoods.

Between 1958 and 2012 in the Midwest, the level of precipitation falling in the most extreme storms increased by 37 percent. Extreme storm events also contribute to issues such as erosion, runoff pollution, infrastructure instability and crop damage. These events have increased in frequency and intensity in the Great Lakes region that includes Canada and the United States.

In June 2017, Michigan’s Saginaw Bay region weathered a storm that caused major flooding to roads, homes, businesses and agriculture, and a state of emergency was declared in Bay, Isabella and Midland counties. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant
In June 2017, Michigan’s Saginaw Bay region weathered a storm that caused major flooding to roads, homes, businesses and agriculture, and a state of emergency was declared in Bay, Isabella and Midland counties. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

Responding to flooding emergencies requires planning, focus and resources. It is equally important to invest in preparing communities before hazards occur. In the Saginaw Bay area of Michigan, the memories of a 1986 extreme storm that caused widespread flooding, damage and 10 deaths were used to help bring new focus and encourage community resiliency planning and preparation.

Decision makers across the Saginaw Bay watershed’s 22 counties participated in a 2015 survey to explore views of extreme storms and their local impacts, which was funded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Storms Program. The results helped inform outreach actions to improve community resiliency: a community’s ability to adapt to and recover quickly from extreme storms.

Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan State University Extension and other local partners developed educational materials to support community resiliency and increase understanding of the impacts of extreme storms and flooding. A website was created to share and preserve stories and images of the Great Flood of 1986. The site also includes information on how to prepare for another flooding event.

Fact sheets developed as part of this effort identify tips and online tools that communities can use to assess their risks from extreme storms and determine what steps they might take to reduce stormwater impact. These strategies include using low-impact development and green infrastructure to help manage stormwater, developing disaster preparedness plans and using different modeling tools to better understand a community’s risk for flood exposure. More information is available in the following documents:

In addition, information from three webinars is available. They were held to support decision makers and planners in addressing and developing resiliency related to extreme storms and flooding:

The webinars are available online at the Michigan Sea Grant website. While these resources were developed for the Saginaw Bay region, they are widely applicable to any community at risk of extreme storms and flooding.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

Meaghan Gass serves as a Sea Grant Extension educator with Michigan State University Extension in the Saginaw Bay region based out of Bay City and Standish, Michigan.

Cities Use New Data to Improve Water Quality

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a Water Resource Recovery Facility which it uses to treat wastewater – including from industrial sources – and circulate it back into the water system. Credit: City of Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a Water Resource Recovery Facility which it uses to treat wastewater – including from industrial sources – and circulate it back into the water system. Credit: City of Grand Rapids

When it comes to drinking water, new technologies often mean more data. Water managers at treatment plants, such as one serving Grand Rapids, Michigan, can use data to more accurately prepare and treat drinking water coming into the system and handle sewer overflows.

Communities throughout the Great Lakes region rely on water treatment plants to deliver safely treated water to homes and businesses. Knowing how to treat water on a day-to-day basis has been made easier using new monitoring and computer modeling technologies, said Mike Grenier, superintendent at the Lake Michigan Filtration Plant, which pulls water from the lake about a mile out from shore.

In Grand Rapids, this involves using online monitoring stations throughout the water system, as well as grabbing water samples to test in labs. This data is pulled from the Grand River, pipes in the distribution system and Lake Michigan. Different substances have different testing requirements and time periods.

That monitoring data is used to determine, using computer models, how to adjust the coagulant used to treat the water, depending on contaminant levels, weather conditions and specific water chemistry. These models project what chemical levels and water conditions should be expected when setting up the specific water treatments. Grenier said that if water managers are off on their contaminant expectations, the treatment could prove insufficient to make the water safe to drink.

Additionally, Grenier said water managers sample for other chemicals of interest, such as PFAS compounds – which he noted are safely low at this time based on testing.

Water managers discuss treatment options for new contaminants periodically in the event they discover a potentially dangerous spike. This includes sharing information with other treatment plant superintendents throughout the Great Lakes basin, as well as researchers trying to build a long-term picture of water quality in the Great Lakes.

“Once a month we meet up with superintendents (of other water treatment plants) to see what each other is doing in the Great Lakes,” he said. “We’re always looking out for what’s next.”

Contaminants aren’t the only aspect that water managers consider. Long-term trends suggest that water coming from Lake Michigan has been becoming more acidic, Grenier said. It’s nothing that has affected the treatment work at this time, he added, as the shifts have been fairly minor so far.

“At some point in time we’ll need to switch coagulants,” Grenier said. He added that they’ve also seen an increase in chloride in the water, which translates to the lake becoming saltier.

Water quality beyond the treatment plant

Grand Rapids has been instituting other measures to optimize its water infrastructure and improve water quality. In 1969, the city had 47.6 million kiloliters (12.6 billion) gallons of raw untreated sewage enter the Grand River, according to a presentation prepared by Grand Rapids Environmental Assessment Supervisor Nicole Pasch for the 2018 International Association for Great Lakes Research Conference in Toronto.

To reduce overall runoff and pollution, Pasch said Grand Rapids was using a “water resource recovery facility” to treat wastewater, including from industrial sources, and reuse it within the water system – and treating around 151,416 kiloliters (40 million gallons) and recovering an estimated 1,362 kiloliters (360,000 gallons) of water each day.

As of June 2018, Pasch noted there were no reported combined sewer overflows (caused by combined stormwater and wastewater sewer lines overflowing during precipitation or snowmelt events), with 59 specific points where stormwater would flow untreated into the stream eliminated. She added the city had been separating its stormwater and wastewater sewer lines to reduce the chance of contaminated overflows, completing that project in 2015.

Aside from the existing stormwater model, Pasch said a water quality computer model for the Grand River is in development. Once completed, the city’s utilities can keep track of contaminants of concern, such as sediment or E. coli bacteria, said Michael Lunn, environmental services manager for Grand Rapids. This is especially important after the city sees a rain event.

“The stormwater intercepts that river almost directly, whereas wastewater only touches it downstream after it comes out of the treatment plant,” Lunn said.

Grand Rapids has been working with outside organizations to restore the Grand River and reduce stormwater runoff using rain gardens as ways to keep runoff and pollutants out of the water system. Pasch said they’ve been looking at opportunities upstream and downstream to improve the watershed’s health, including habitat restoration along the waterfront and runoff reduction opportunities using green infrastructure.

Looking ahead, Pasch and Lunn said Grand Rapids has been open about sharing data and practices with other communities and organizations, from water quality to air quality.

“I think we’re all trying to find our way in this,” Lunn said.

Anglers wade out into the Grand River. Credit: City of Grand Rapids
Anglers wade out into the Grand River. Credit: City of Grand Rapids

Rethinking Agricultural Drainage Methods with ‘Wet Lands’

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

A mockup of a widened agricultural drainage canal, with wetland buffers and opportunities for public use and recreation. Credit: Sandra Cook and Justine Holzman
A mockup of a widened agricultural drainage canal, with wetland buffers and opportunities for public use and recreation. Credit: Sandra Cook and Justine Holzman

Wetlands help provide habitat, mitigate flooding and filter excess nutrients and contaminants from lakes and other water bodies. But vast stretches of wetlands around Lake Erie were drained in the past 200 years for agricultural use. Researchers with the University of Toronto are using Essex County, Ontario, as a testbed for maintaining farming while restoring wetland functions.

Since the 1800s, Essex County has lost about 97 percent of its wetlands, primarily to agriculture, leaving it with the highest wetland losses in Ontario. That agricultural land is dominated by monoculture (identical) crops, limiting its usefulness as habitat for birds and other wildlife. The habitat left is largely fragmented, with the exception of Point Pelee National Park, said Sandra Cook, independent landscape designer and researcher, during a presentation at the 2018 International Association of Great Lakes Research conference in Toronto. Overall, only 7 percent of the land in Essex County is still natural forests, wetlands or prairie, according to the Essex Region Conservation Authority.

The re-engineering of Essex County land using intensive drainage has left it susceptible to flooding and drought, Cook said, which is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. The land also is prone to producing nutrient runoff, which makes its way into Lake Erie and contributes to harmful algal blooms. It’s not feasible to turn all the farmland back into wetlands, Cook said, so she and University of Toronto Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Justine Holzman are looking at ways to restore some functionality and habitat within the existing environment through a speculative design research project called “Wet Land.

Holzman said Essex County made for an interesting region because of existing mapping data from the Essex Region Conservation Authority and due to its history and geography. The dramatic shift from wetland to farmland, its location on the north end of Lake Erie and the severity of algal blooms in the lake all were factors in choosing it for this project.

The researchers are using advanced mapping technology to build a flexible model of Essex County that considers the physical, political and social dynamics of the county. Since the Essex Region Conservation Authority already has detailed map data to call on, Holzman added, this allows them to investigate the impacts of different potential solutions to the issues of water pollution and flooding.

Essex County is located in the southern end of Ontario along Lake Erie and the Detroit River. Credit: County of Essex
Essex County is located in the southern end of Ontario along Lake Erie and the Detroit River. Credit: County of Essex

“You want to be as specific as possible for an individual site, while still addressing a regional scale problem,” Holzman said. “How to do that in a complex landscape is quite difficult, especially when the region under consideration is largely privately owned.”

In its strategic planning document, the conservation authority notes that due to the vast amount of private agricultural land in the county, overlaying restoration opportunities atop the agricultural system while focusing restoration efforts on areas ripe for the most gain is their recommended approach; notably, these also can include “soft” recreational benefits like trails or boardwalks. Part of these efforts include mitigation techniques to move runoff away from sensitive, natural areas – something Cook and Holzman are focused on.

Flooding Fields

The first concept the researchers are looking at is the flooding of agricultural fields with water diverted from municipal surface drains, either earlier in the season during the spring melt or for the entire year. This would allow them to potentially be used as habitat while retaining water and runoff, said Holzman. Berms would hold the spring runoff, allowing excess phosphorus to be absorbed into soil particles; the field can then be used for late-season planting of frost-sensitive crops or left fallow for a year as a temporary wetland to recharge the soil. Cook said these temporary wetlands could provide habitat and resting points for migrating birds. The details of such a project are still being developed as a set of best management practices that farmers could tailor to their specific land.

“You could say flooding in agricultural fields would be similar to creating a rain garden on a homeowner’s property in a city, with different policies and incentives,” Holzman said. She added that is still in the conceptual design stage, which involves mapping and strategizing; this would be followed by working with scientists to develop an experimental test to see how the environment and people react. On the whole, whenever this experiment is started, it is expected to run for eight years, with a focus on monitoring nutrient runoff.

Collecting Runoff

Another idea involves collecting field runoff for irrigating crops later in the season, which would be a beneficial buffer during a drought. Cook said using their mapping data, the researchers can look at the potential for “recycling reservoirs” that could be set up throughout the county to store excess water in the spring for usage later in the season. The edges of the reservoirs also could make for suitable habitat for plants that can sequester excess nutrients in the water and reduce erosion. Similar projects have been tested in Essex County using demonstration farms with positive results.

“The (controlled drainage system) combined with a wetland-reservoir can be highly effective for improving crop yield and reducing nonpoint source pollution from agricultural fields,” wrote Chin Sheng Tan of Agricultura & Agri-Food Canada in a 2007 paper about water quality and crop production using these wetland reservoirs.

Other items include developing maps and tools that individual landowners could use to size out and place buffer strips and other habitat sites. Cook said buffer zones are voluntary in the county, so research is focused on ways to make them mandated but still fair to farmers. The Essex Region Conservation Authority issued a strategy document in 2013 providing guidance as to where buffer strips should go in and how large they should be for each type of habitat opportunity – as well as the general locations of those opportunities – but this project would build on that to provide advice and information for each specific parcel of land.

“Rather than mandate that everyone must have a 20 meter or 5 meter (65 foot or 16 foot) buffer, we can use spatial modelling to showcase the value of flexible policies that cater to individual farmers,” Cook said. “What does a buffer at 1- or 5-percent of a property look like and what potential effect does it have for the watershed?”

Finally, the researchers are considering ways to encourage farmers in Essex County to move from growing low-value crops on large amounts of land to high-value crops on less land. Holzman said this “intensive farming” is already happening, but their research notes that a large number of farmers in Essex County need to take a second job to make ends meet. The now-unused land could be set aside for conservation efforts.

If these efforts pay off and are implemented in the county, the amount of natural cover and water storage and filtration would dramatically increase over the 8.5 percent of overall land they’re both at now, according to Cook. At even a 10 percent adoption rate countywide, habitat could increase by 68 percent in the off-season months and 19 percent year-round while providing 46 percent more water storage; those numbers continue to dramatically climb as more people get involved. Funding these changes would require farmers moving to higher value crops, which Cook said could in turn be funded through government loans and grants; she added this could end up being an economically valuable approach as Ontario could import fewer of these high-value crops (such as fruits and vegetables) and potentially reduce the impact of harmful algal blooms.

Our Shared Resilience with the Great Lakes

By Jessica Gordon, Swim Drink Fish

The waters of the Great Lakes basin are tough. They’ve been harmed by human activities, but humans also have helped them bounce back. The relationships that people have with these bodies of water can remind us of the importance of resiliency. Three individuals shared their stories as part of the ongoing Watermark Project and tell of a reciprocal relationship: While we can restore and rehabilitate these waters, they also can restore and rejuvenate us.

For Karlin Danielsen, the Huron River is her place of restoration. Danielsen feels that her wellness is tied to the river’s. For Danielsen, this means that “every action we take to support the well-being of our waterways then in turn helps their health and helps support our own health and well-being.”

Jim Howe works at The Nature Conservancy, which runs a Coastal Resilience program that focuses on nature’s role in reducing coastal flood risk. Howe says Hemlock Lake in the Finger Lakes in New York can rekindle his spirit. “It’s so important to connect with water, to be in it and on it, and that’s something that I’ve always treasured about living in upstate New York.”

In the military, Es Jimenez traveled the world and witnessed firsthand the importance of access to drinkable water. However, it was caring for and helping protect the waters of the Niagara River that gave Jimenez an opportunity to heal. “I feel more connected to this land and to the water just by doing what I do.”

There are many stories in the Watermark Project Archive about the powerful ability of a body of water to revive itself and people connected to it. The IJC began partnering with Swim Drink Fish (formerly Lake Ontario Waterkeeper) in 2016 to help collect Watermarks from the Great Lakes.

To express why a waterbody you care about is important to you, submit your own Watermark here or browse the archive for more stories about the important role water plays in our lives and communities.

Jessica Gordon is collections coordinator for the Watermark Project, an initiative of Swim Drink Fish in Toronto, Ontario.

Water Quality Board Examines Progress to Restore Hamilton Harbour Watershed

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

Chris McLaughlin of the Bay Area Restoration Council talks about the status of Hamilton Harbor cleanup efforts at a public meeting in Hamilton’s City Hall Council Chambers. Credit: IJC
Chris McLaughlin of the Bay Area Restoration Council talks about the status of Hamilton Harbor cleanup efforts at a public meeting in Hamilton’s City Hall Council Chambers. Credit: IJC

When the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board meets in various locations around the region, it strives to learn more about those communities and meet with citizens to discuss local water restoration and protection efforts.

At an evening panel discussion hosted by the board in Hamilton, Ontario, on Sept. 25, more than 100 participants learned about progress to restore Hamilton Harbour and challenges that lie ahead, as well as indigenous perspectives on ecosystem management. Earlier that day, board members toured the Six Nations of the Grand River and its drinking water treatment plant, the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology National Historical Site with a 150-year-old steam engine used to pump water from the harbor to city residents from the late 1850s to 1900, and the site of a multi-million dollar Randle Reef remediation site in Hamilton Harbour.

Hamilton Harbour lies at the west end of Lake Ontario, where it connects to the lake by a ship canal that runs across the sandbar that created the bay. The Hamilton watershed has been exposed to heavy industrial and urban development over the past century. Waste released into the harbor from both sources with limited or no restrictions until the early 1960s created a plethora of toxic chemicals in the sediment, including metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and others.

When the harbor was designated as an Area of Concern in 1987, it was recognized as one of the most severely polluted locations on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. Beneficial Use Impairments included degraded fish and wildlife populations and restrictions on their consumption, algae growth, restricted water contact and beach closings.

During the evening panel presentation in Hamilton’s City Hall Council Chambers, Scott Peck of the Hamilton Conservation Authority and Chris McLaughlin of the Bay Area Restoration Council outlined several areas of progress in cleanup efforts that have occurred through partnerships and funding from local, provincial and federal governments as well as industries and other private sources. More than CDN$1.2 billion has been spent or committed to control toxic contaminants at their source, upgrade wastewater treatment plants and manage combined sewer overflows and urban stormwater. By the time Hamilton Harbour is ready for delisting in 2022 or later almost CDN$2 billion is expected to be invested in its restoration, with projected benefits by 2032 of more than $914 million to local businesses, recreational users, and local, provincial and federal governments.

One particularly expensive project is near Randle Reef, where an engineered containment facility is under development to hold severely contaminated sediments. The site is the largest contaminated sediment remediation project in the Canadian Great Lakes, with a volume large enough to contain three major hockey arenas.

The Water Quality Board visited the Randle Reef remediation project during its visit and meetings in Hamilton, Ontario. Credit: IJC
The Water Quality Board visited the Randle Reef remediation project during its visit and meetings in Hamilton, Ontario. Credit: IJC

The double, steel-walled sealed box will contain the most heavily contaminated sediment. Once work is completed (projected by 2022), the box will be capped and managed by the Hamilton Port Authority, which will expand and enhance its shipping piers to include the storage facility – thus generating revenue for the region. The project also will reduce the amount and spread of contaminants through the harbor, improving water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.  Increased recreational opportunities will help to promote the harbor community as a progressive place to live and work.

Even with partnerships to complete remediation work in Hamilton Harbour, the costs are continuing challenges, according to Peck. “We also need to connect people to the role the harbor can play in their quality of life,” he said. The Hamilton Conservation Authority and Bay Area Restoration Council are completing small-scale restoration projects where residents will see immediate benefits, as well as projects with adults and students to engage everyone in the harbor’s restoration.

Looking beyond remediation to prevention was also a key message of the public meeting and panel discussion.

Danielle Boissoneau of the Old Turtle Clan has organized Water Walks along Hamilton Harbour and said, “We have to stop what’s creating the problem. When we spend time on the land and remember who we are, that the industrial revolution has changed our mental focus and imaginations to ones that are disconnected from the earth, then we can stop polluting our land and water.”

Water Quality Board members recognize and appreciate the importance of connecting with the local community during public meetings, and plan to continue this tradition in communities around the basin.