A New Approach to Stormwater Financing and Management

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

green roof
A ’green roof‘ converts a building rooftop into a garden, which holds in rainfall and allows it to evaporate without running into the stormwater system. Credit: Philadelphia Water Department

With more extreme precipitation taxing existing stormwater infrastructure, municipalities in Ontario, the United States and elsewhere are considering new ways to finance existing systems – and incentives for property owners to reduce loads.

Historically, cities and towns in Canada and the United States have funded stormwater capital and maintenance costs through property taxes, said Ellen Schwartzel, deputy commissioner with the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) office. The amount paid was based on how much that property tax was, regardless of the actual runoff volume being produced by that property that enters the water system. With a relatively light rainfall, the system works, but when heavy rains hit in a short period of time, all the excess runoff can lead to flooding and pollution.

“A parking lot, for example, may not have a high property tax base, but it produces a lot of runoff,” Schwartzel said. “Once municipalities began to think that through and realized paved over surfaces are the challenge, then they had to begin thinking of ways to connect the cost that we’re incurring to the fee that the property owner experiences.”

Given that a number of municipalities that responded to an ECO survey about stormwater said they didn’t recoup their costs, this has led to some municipalities charging property owners for the amount of runoff their built-up surfaces are producing – an approach recommended by the ECO in its 2016 Urban Stormwater Fees report. Schwartzel said if a property space has a building or paved surfaces built over the ground, it naturally limits how much absorbent surface area is remaining. Furthermore, those that are left – yards, remnant natural areas, landscaping – aren’t able to soak up all the runoff falling into them before becoming saturated.

groundwater supply storm impermeable concrete
Less water is able to seep into the groundwater supply after a storm with impermeable, concrete surfaces. Credit: Philadelphia Water Department

To encourage property owners to reduce the amount of runoff their properties are causing, these municipalities can offer reduced tax bills in exchange for absorbing more runoff onsite, Schwartzel said. For example, a property owner may use permeable concrete to allow water to seep through into the ground, or install bioswales or rain gardens to capture more water. Business owners also can consider installing a green roof to help retain water in densely built areas where those other options aren’t available, she added. Collectively, these lot-by-lot green measures add up to “green infrastructure,” offering several advantages over traditional end-of-pipe stormwater treatment (such as water treatment costs).

With municipalities and cities continuing to expand, Schwartzel said, runoff issues are continuing to grow alongside them. With less water getting into the groundwater system, it’s possible to see creeks and riverbeds be reduced to small flows or dry up completely until a major storm hits, when the influx of water can lead to erosion and flash flooding.

All of these actions to reduce runoff and manage stormwater onsite can have a positive impact on water quality, too. Runoff tends to pick up pollutants as it heads into the sewer, from sediments to auto fluids to garbage – and in cities with combined sewer overflows, wastewater too. When the water from the sewer systems leaves the pipes, it carries those pollutants along with it.

Cities in the United States have been working on stormwater management as well, and water quality improvements have been a side effect to the changes Philadelphia has been implementing since 2010. The city considered replacing its meter-based stormwater billing system – where properties were charged based on how much water they used – as far back as the 1990s, according to Erin Williams, director for stormwater billing and incentives at Philadelphia’s Water Department. The city worked with a citizen’s advisory committee from 1994-96 to explore alternative methods of funding its stormwater costs of service, and participants ultimately suggested basing it on runoff and the amount of impermeable surfaces on a property. It took the city another 14 years to update its computer systems and analyze its data before it could implement that, Williams said.

In the early years of the program, Williams said property owners weren’t financially motivated to take advantage of the incentives to reduce the amount of runoff their properties were causing, as the cost of making the changes were so high. In response, Philadelphia started offering grants for retrofit projects like green roofs and porous pavement so those property owners can reduce their stormwater fees. Most recently, she said, the city is developing a new website that can “match” contractors and engineers with projects property owners would like to do.

“It’s like match.com for stormwater,” Williams said.

The water department remained revenue neutral in its transition from meter-based to property-based billing for stormwater, though stormwater fees assist the city’s long-term control plan to reduce combined sewer overflows, Williams said. The city’s program to reduce those overflows has been dubbed the “Green City, Clean Waters” program for its projected impact on water quality.

The ECO is recommending that Ontario get out ahead of climate change-related severe weather and require all municipalities adopt full cost recovery for stormwater management, providing incentives for lot-level measures to absorb and store runoff. Schwartzel said the biggest hurdle can be information – some people look at it as a new tax, when the reality is that it’s replacing a tax they’re already paying, and they could be paying more or less depending on their property. It also allows municipalities to better cover the costs of existing infrastructure and provide a reliable, long-term fund for future maintenance and investments, Schwartzel said.

rain garden
Rain gardens absorb precipitation flowing into it from a rooftop or patio, draining it into the soil. Credit: Philadelphia Water Department

Some large cities, such as Toronto, can afford to build large reservoirs to hold stormwater until it can be treated and released at a slower pace over the course of days, or holding ponds to prevent flooding. Schwartzel said smaller towns and cities are often daunted by the perceived costs and complexities of overhauling systems like stormwater financing. But if the province of Ontario were to take a leadership role and provide a common framework and best practices for municipalities to follow, it could help guide those communities toward more sustainable stormwater management, she said.

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

IJC Recommendations Help to Craft Rapid Response Plans for Invasive Species

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Silver (top) and bighead (bottom) carp, two Asian carp
Silver (top) and bighead (bottom) carp, two Asian carp species infesting the Mississippi River, are just one invasive species threat to the Great Lakes. In the event of an incursion, a rapid response might be the best way to limit the resulting damage. Credit: Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee

Even though only one new invasive species (a zooplankton in Lake Erie) has become established in the Great Lakes since 2006, the Asian carp found nine miles from Lake Michigan in June showed that the threat of new invaders is still very real. As a result, a full emergency response was undertaken by the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee – consisting of agencies from both US and Canadian federal governments, Ontario, Quebec, and 14 US states— with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources taking the lead.

These groups effectively implemented an interagency rapid response plan. The response to that lone fish was a swift investigation to see if there were any more, alongside lab work to determine where it had come from. The response is an example of governments taking up what the IJC called “Plan B,” a rapid response plan to swiftly deal with new invaders that make it near or into the Great Lakes. The IJC put forth a series of recommendations for that Plan B in 2012 to make sure resources are in place and decisions can be made quickly in case of a new species detection. Those IJC recommendations have since been incorporated by state, provincial, and federal governments in their individual and interagency response frameworks.

“The optimal approach is prevention, but in reality when you think of the number of pathways and the number of potential invasive species, it’s best to have a Plan B,” said Michael Donahue, vice president of the regional coordinating committee who helped to create the IJC recommendations.

The IJC recommendations and careful planning of response actions by governments have provided much progress toward objectives of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s invasive species annex, according to Gavin Christie, IJC Science Advisory Board member and Research Coordination Committee Canadian co-chair.

Under the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, plans like those invoked in summer 2017 in the Chicago area waterway have focused primarily on Asian carp species – silver, bighead black and grass carp. The Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers have established a mutual aid agreement to work collaboratively and share resources to deal with regionally threatening invasive species, Christie said, and ongoing US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative money is funding more work around response planning by states.

According to a 2016 Progress Report of the Parties, the Canadian and US governments have laid out watch lists of high priority species and locations; protocols for monitoring, surveillance and sampling; information sharing among departments and agencies on each side of the border; and coordinated plans and preparations for responding to invasive species detection.

“The IJC work provides a strong reference and background for people to use and build upon,” Christie said. “That (pilot) work was very useful at the time, and has been absorbed and picked up by this broader community of effort going on.”

A 2009 IJC document notes that invasive species that have arrived through ballast water cause an estimated $200 million in damages annually on the US side alone, and the total cost in the basin could amount to several billions each year.

For example, Eurasian ruffe was first detected in the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s. While considerable efforts were directed at this species, if it had been anticipated and a full response plan initiated early enough, there is the potential that the efforts to eradicate this invasive fish could have been successful, according to that 2009 IJC report. But without an approved and broadly supported rapid response plan, the decision-making process was difficult and ultimately, in spite of best efforts, the ruffe was able to become established in the lakes.

Eurasian ruffe
Eurasian ruffe was likely introduced through ballast water in the 1980s, and now competes for food with native fish species in the upper Great Lakes. Credit: Tiit Hunt

Donahue, working with a broad interagency working group convened by the IJC under its Great Lakes Water Quality Board, put together that 2012 report for the IJC’s Aquatic Invasive Species Rapid Response Work Group to serve as a template for rapid response planning.

“Our idea wasn’t to create a massive new structure, but just to come up with new mechanisms for everyone to work together when an established (invasive) population is found,” Donahue said.

Donahue’s work focused on the Huron-Erie corridor, in part because it was a manageable area for a pilot study, but also the geographical nature of the stretch. It includes rivers, binational waterways, shallows, back bays, is a major shipping thoroughfare and a biologically productive area. It also features numerous pathways for invasive species: commercial shipping ballast water, recreational boats transporting species in bilge water or on the hull, bait, aquariums, aquaculture, ornamental fish ponds, and migration up and down the rivers. Donahue’s 2012 report for the IJC reviewed a wide range of response plans and examples of response actions, like the 2009 Asian Carp response operation conducted by US and Canadian agencies in Chicago area waterways, and lessons learned from that work also were incorporated into his pilot study.

There are several objectives that an effective plan needs to hit on, according to that 2012 report. Early detection and reporting is vitally important to maximizing the amount of time available to respond, as is rapidly assessing the risk of an infestation by measuring the species’ abundance and distribution. A plan also needs a well-defined decision-making process that identifies all agency roles and authorities and a process to make decisions. Finally, a detailed, rigorous and clearly stated methodology is needed to make sure the plan is implemented quickly and effectively. The rapid response plan framework is generalized enough that it can be adapted as needed based on the species, location and the situation, Donahue added.

Donahue, a Great Lakes resident, said knowing that a response plan is in place would be comforting if and when prevention efforts fail, and he’s optimistic that the work done for the IJC will lead to a sound solution in the future.

Sea lamprey
Sea lamprey have been successfully managed in the Great Lakes using chemical lampricides, limiting the damage they can do to the ecosystem. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

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

Invasive Eurasian Tench Threatens Lake Ontario

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

invasive Eurasian tench
The invasive Eurasian tench was introduced to North American waterways as a game and food fish in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The fish has recently been found in the St. Lawrence River. Credit: Invadingspecies.com

Eurasian tench, an invasive species found in Canada and the United States, has been rapidly expanding its range into the St. Lawrence River in recent years. Its upstream spread has reached as far west as Lake St. Francis in southeast Ontario Great Lakes researchers, scientists, and resource managers are concerned the tench could wreak havoc on native fish and their habitat if it enters the Great Lakes.

Tench are native to Europe and western Asia, and were introduced to North America by the U.S. Fish Commission in 1877 for use as a food and sport fish, according to the US Geological Survey. That effort continued into the 20th century, but in most areas where the fish was introduced, it did not become established. However, a population introduced illegally to the Richelieu River by an unlicensed fish farm in 1986 has spread rapidly to the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, according to McGill University Ph.D student Sunci Avlijas, who has studied the tench.

Ever since the fish were first detected in the St. Lawrence River in 2006, Avlijas said, a monitoring program run by the Quebec government and commercial fishermen has been in place. The population has grown exponentially every year between 2009 and 2014. They’ve also spread downstream on the St. Lawrence toward Quebec City and upstream toward Lake Ontario.

“We’re concerned about it moving toward the Great Lakes since the tench prefers slow-moving waters in wetland areas, and there are many such habitats in the Great Lakes,” said Avlijas, whose findings were presented at the International Association for Great Lakes Research conference in June 2017. “(Once) tench enter the Great Lakes there’s the Bay of Quinte, which is even better habitat than we find in the St. Lawrence.”

Once established in an ideal environment, tench form dense populations. Avlijas said tench will eat a variety of macroinvertebrates – zooplankton, mollusks and mussels, insects, and crayfish – mainly from the water bottom, but in calm waters they’ll even go to the surface for food. They also tend to kick up mud and sediment, reducing water quality. Aside from direct competition with native fish for food, tench also carry non-native parasites that aren’t known to be present in the Great Lakes, Avljias said, making them potential disease carriers for native fish. Tench also are known for eating zooplankton that can keep algae in check, potentially worsening the amount and size of harmful algal blooms.

What’s more, they can survive in low-oxygen environments, and cover themselves in mud to survive outside of water for a limited period, allowing them to be introduced into new water bodies, Avlijas said. There have been documented cases of tench being mailed in wet sacks and arriving alive a day later.

“They’re a prime candidate for being transported by people,” she said.

Tench compete with native fish for food and habitat in nearshore regions, and can cause water quality issues as they dig through mud
Tench compete with native fish for food and habitat in nearshore regions, and can cause water quality issues as they dig through mud. Credit: Sunci Avlijas

While tench are eaten by native fish like walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and bowfin, once they grow longer than about 12 inches (30 centimeters), they become too large for most predators to consume. Avlijas said this has happened in Lake St. Pierre, where the fish are abundant.

The extent to which tench could impact the Great Lakes is still debated, but it’s predicted they could become established here, said Jeff Brinsmead, senior invasive species biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

While most Great Lakes states don’t ban tench, Wisconsin has a prohibition on the species dating back to when its own invasive species rule went into effect in 2009. Under the rule, the transportation, possession, transfer and introduction of Eurasian tench is illegal in the state. According to Joanne Haas, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources public information officer, tench had been stocked in some lakes in the past, and has been known to exist in surrounding states like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan – albeit with few reproducing populations. Wisconsin is still concerned about reproductive potential, however, and sees tench as a potential competitor to minnows and native sportfish.

Michigan also has laws making it illegal to transport live specimens of tench, with civil fines up to $10,000. It’s a prohibited species in the state.

While tench are not regulated as an invasive species in Ontario, rules that apply to all fish species in the province also apply to the tench: a fish can only be released into the water body it was found in unless the releasing person or organization has a license. The use of tench as a baitfish is also illegal in the province, and residents are asked to alert the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry if tench are found in the wild by calling the Invading Species Hotline at 1-800-563-7711, or going online to www.EDDMapS/Ontario. Illegal activities involving tench can be reported to the ministry’s enforcement branch at 877-TIPS-MNR (877-847-7667). More information can be found on Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program website.

Once an invasive species becomes established in a new environment, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. However, it may be possible to slow or block the spread of the species. Education and outreach are critical to ensure that people are aware of the rules that apply to moving live fish. Brinsmead said that since tench are related to Asian carp, it’s possible that similar techniques could be effective in containing the spread of tench, like electric barriers. However, testing specific to tench hasn’t been done yet, and Brinsmead noted that other species – like the endangered American eel – travel through the St. Lawrence River too, so any measures to block tench would need to keep the passage of these species in mind.

Avlijas suggested that to limit the spread, people throughout the lakes follow provincial and state regulations.

“People just consider it non-invasive because after its (legal) introduction it was not spreading,” she said. “It was ignored for a long time.”

adult tench 27 inches
An adult tench can grow up to about 27 inches (70 centimeters) long. Credit: Sunci Avlijas

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

How Are Great Lakes Water Level Regulation Plans Performing?

By Wendy Leger and Arun Heer, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Adaptive Management Committee

The complex task of managing water levels and flows in the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River system has received considerable attention recently following two notable regulatory changes and a series of unprecedented hydrologic events. Together, this presents a significant challenge and an important opportunity for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee.

In January 2015, the International Joint Commission (IJC) implemented regulation Plan 2012, a new set of rules governing the amount of water to release from Lake Superior through the St. Marys River.

st marys river
Looking downstream at the St. Marys River. Credit: International Lake Superior Board of Control

More recently, with the concurrence of the U.S and Canadian governments, the IJC implemented Plan 2014 in January 2017 for the regulation of outflows from Lake Ontario through the St. Lawrence River.

Both regulation plans were implemented following years of studies that looked at the impacts of past, present and potential future weather and climate conditions on water levels and outflow regulation, and how these factors affect socio-economic and environmental outcomes throughout the Great Lakes system.

For the various interests and stakeholders that rely on this important resource, as well as the governments, IJC and its management boards, there is a shared desire to know if the expected outcomes of these new regulation plans are being realized under recently observed hydrologic conditions and whether the plans will continue to function as expected and as conditions within the basin change.

To that end, the IJC and governments made a bold commitment to adaptive management with the establishment of a binational, 16-member, GLAM Committee in January 2015. The committee reports to the IJC’s three Great Lakes water level boards and is directed by the IJC to provide an ongoing assessment of regulation plans and examine how these plans perform under a range of actual and potential future hydrologic conditions.

The committee’s primary responsibility is to assess how well currently available scientific data, information, models and tools reflect real world conditions so that improvements and updates can be made as our understanding of the system evolves.

The GLAM Committee will use information provided by   government agencies, academic researchers and key stakeholders. It will coordinate the modeling and analysis necessary to assist IJC boards with evaluating the effectiveness of existing regulation plans in managing water levels and flows over the long term and under a range of continually changing conditions.

While the committee is still in its infancy, the importance of the adaptive management process has been quickly demonstrated through a series of extraordinary events within the Great Lakes basin during the past few years. More than a decade of below-average water levels in the upper Great Lakes culminated in record-low levels on Lake Michigan-Huron in January 2013. This prolonged dry period was followed by much wetter conditions. Over the following 24 months, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron experienced some of the most rapid rates of water level rise on the Great Lakes in recorded history. More recently, extraordinary climatic conditions including significant rainfall across the Lake Ontario, the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence River basins resulted in record high water levels in 2017 (See “Extreme Conditions and Challenges During High Water Levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River”).

These events have had widespread and highly varied impacts. Concerns from stakeholders related to the impacts of low-water on navigation, recreational boating, and coastal wetlands shifted to concerns related to shoreline erosion, minor flooding and modified aquatic habitat conditions in the St. Marys River as upper Great Lakes water levels and outflows increased. On Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, severe flooding and coastal damages have occurred following the exceptional weather conditions this year.

The GLAM Committee is reaching out to multiple agencies and partners to identify data and tools available to analyze and document outcomes from these events throughout the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River system and sectors covering coastal interests, recreational boating and tourism, commercial navigation, hydropower generation, municipal and industrial water uses as well as ecosystem indicators including wetland habitat response.

During the past year, the committee supported the development of an integrated ecological response model of the St. Marys Rapids to help better understand and predict the effects of changing flows and water levels on fish and other aquatic habitat conditions within this critical area of the upper Great Lakes system. The model will support the evaluation of improved and more efficient gate operations of the dam situated above the rapids.

For Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, this year the committee is focused on documenting, to the extent possible, the overall hydrological and climatic conditions across the basin, as well as the impacts across all sectors. This includes using surveys and shoreline imagery to look at flooding and erosion as well as damages to shore protection and shoreline infrastructure experienced along the Lake Ontario shoreline and St. Lawrence River from Kingston downstream past Montreal.

Shoreline flooding near Fair Haven, New York
Shoreline flooding near Fair Haven, New York. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers, June 2017


Shoreline flooding in the lower St. Lawrence River near Lac St. Pierre, Quebec
Shoreline flooding in the lower St. Lawrence River near Lac St. Pierre, Quebec. Credit: Transport Canada National Aerial Surveillance Program, May 2017

The committee also is trying to better understand the impacts to recreational boaters and cruise ships that have had to deal with inaccessible docks and boat ramps, closure of marinas and other businesses and reduced tourism revenue. At the same time, the commercial navigation industry has employed mitigation measures to ensure continued safe navigation during a period of record high outflows and increased velocities in the St. Lawrence River, the costs of which the GLAM Committee will investigate. The committee also plans to conduct field surveys of wetland plant response during this high water level year.

A few years provides only a small sample of what future water supply conditions might be like and how various interests are affected, and as a result are insufficient to fully assess the performance of a regulation plan. Nonetheless, the information gathered by the GLAM committee and through other agencies and stakeholders will be used to help inform the IJC, its boards and governments on the overall long-term performance of Plan 2012 and Plan 2014and will more immediately serve to validate and improve the models and tools used to assess regulation plan outcomes, with the aim at improving performance as more is learned and as conditions change.

This is the essence of a collaborative adaptive management process: continued monitoring and assessment to test assumptions, improve methods and determine if regulation plans are meeting expectations and will continue to do so under changing conditions.

Wendy Leger is Canadian co-chair of the GLAM Committee.

Arun Heer is US co-chair of the GLAM Committee.

From Emergency Response to Long-term Solutions for Lake Ontario Communities

By Dr. Michael Izard-Carroll, US Army Corps of Engineers

The US Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District, has been active in response efforts to assist New York State communities along Lake Ontario during ongoing historic high water levels. Since Gov. Cuomo’s request for assistance on May 9, 2017, Corps efforts have included direct and technical assistance as part of Public Law 84-99 Response Operations.

Direct assistance has included the distribution of government-furnished materials in the form of 180,000 sandbags, while technical assistance has included Corps personnel deploying to affected areas identified by the New York State Office of Emergency Management.

A total of 20 field visits to 17 affected areas in all eight impacted counties were conducted between May 12 and May 26. The Corps of Engineers Regulatory team also has worked closely with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to ensure synchronized and streamlined permitting processes for residents seeking to implement shoreline protection measures.

technical team inspection army corps lake ontario
A US Army Corps of Engineers technical team inspection of areas affected by high water along the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Credit: USACE

The Corps has been closely monitoring the water level of Lake Ontario and reports indicate water levels have decreased by about 3 feet since levels peaked in late May. In terms of assistance, the Corps has transitioned from emergency assistance to focusing on educating coastal communities about the need for permanent measures to increase coastal resiliency and mitigate future risk to public infrastructure.

Corps planners have met with members of the NYSDEC to discuss options. Any permanent projects would most likely be conducted under the Continuing Authorities Program (CAP), which supports shoreline protection, erosion mitigation or flood risk management.

The Continuing Authorities Program provides the Corps of Engineers with the authority to plan, design and construct water-resource projects in partnership with local sponsors without the need for Congressional authorization. The program decreases the amount of time required for a local community to budget, develop and approve a potential project for construction. CAP allows the Corps to plan and implement smaller, less complex and less costly projects in a more efficient manner.

CAP projects have a feasibility phase followed by a design and implementation phase. For the feasibility phase, the federal government covers half of the cost; the federal contribution is 65 percent for the design and construction phase. The cost-sharing aspect of CAP program is attractive for communities that would have challenges funding these types of projects on their own.

The types of projects under CAP Section 14, Stream Bank and Shoreline Protection and Section 103, Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction, typically take two to three years for the feasibility study, under a year for design, and one year to construct. Therefore, communities interested in flood prevention measures are encouraged to reach out to the Corps of Engineers as soon as possible. For a brochure on the CAP program, see www.lrb.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Overview/Continuing-Authorities-Program/.

Dr. Michael Izard-Carroll is the public affairs specialist for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District.

(See also: “Gauging who does what: USACE, NOAA and how the Great Lakes water levels are measured”)

Re-Imagining Money: A Currency Project About Personal Values and Connections

By Paul Baines, Great Lakes Commons

What if the people of the Great Lakes basin created their own currency to exchange commons and ancestral values such as gratitude, reciprocity, mutualism, trust, reverence, and friendship?

great lakes common currency
This currency is meant to be shared, not saved. Credit: Author

Great Lakes Commons recently launched a currency project that puts water care at the center of value and exchange. With seed money from Kosmos, we designed and printed 5,000 currency notes.

Rather than based on dollars, the value of these notes is our collective agreement and intention to reward people for water protection actions. This project puts forth a currency with a different theory of value, such as past and future actions for water care.

Sharing Great Lakes Commons currency is an investment in the world we want. Here’s how the exchanges and a new story of money are being manifested across the Great Lakes:

  • We have been mailing 10 notes to each of our Great Lakes Commons Charter supporters as an additional action they can take as water guardians. We also have given out currency notes at various water-protection workshops and events. So far, we’ve given out almost half of our 5,000 notes.
  • On the back of each note are a few giving rules: Give a note to anyone taking action to care for water. You decide what actions matter. This giving is a way to say “thank you.” Give a note to anyone who could be taking action for water, but is not. You still decide what actions matter. This giving is a way to say “please.”
  • We want to celebrate this network of care through stories. Participants are asked to tell their exchange story on our collaborative storytelling map. We can track the flow of this currency since each note has a unique serial number. What was it like getting and sharing the notes? What kinds of conversations did it spark? What types of past and future actions did people reward? Where did your note go or where did it come from?

The last element of this currency design includes an expiration date. Beyond a token Great Lakes Commons note that participants keep for themselves, this currency is for sharing not saving. The value of this currency comes through its use — its current. This currency will expire Dec. 31, 2017, and we are currently looking for partners to re-imagine the project for 2018.

Participate in this ‘Currency of Care’ project by visiting our website.

Paul Baines is the education and outreach coordinator for Great Lakes Commons, a nonprofit affiliated with the Milwaukee Environmental Consortium. He designed the Currency of Care pilot project as well as the Great Lakes Commons collaborative story sharing map.

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

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned from Reef Restoration Efforts in Huron-Erie Corridor

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

University of Windsor Research Studies Beach Testing, Enlists Citizen Scientists

By Daniel Heath, GLIER

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

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

Limitations in current monitoring

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

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

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

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

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

Role of Citizen Scientists

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

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

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

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

Future monitoring

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

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

New Institute Bridges Disciplines and Institutions Across the Great Lakes

By Mary Ogdahl, University of Michigan CIGLR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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