Scientific Institute of the Month: School of Freshwater Sciences

By Jeff Kart

The School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee prides itself as the only graduate school in the North America solely dedicated to freshwater issues. For 50 years, it’s maintained the largest water-focused academic research institute on the Great Lakes.

“What sets us apart from your average school is that we tackle water from an interdisciplinary perspective,” says Eric Leaf, assistant dean for advancement. That means integrating a wide variety of scientific disciplines, as well as engineering, urban planning, policy and public health. “The networks of inputs (to the Great Lakes) is so complex that you need every discipline to understand it.”

Emily Tyner, a graduate student in the School of Freshwater Sciences, dives while working with the National Park Service to study benthic oxygen dynamics at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and how they may trigger avian botulism outbreaks. Credit: Harvey Bootsma/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Emily Tyner, a graduate student in the School of Freshwater Sciences, dives while working with the National Park Service to study benthic oxygen dynamics at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and how they may trigger avian botulism outbreaks. Credit: Harvey Bootsma/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The school is located in Milwaukee’s urban harbor near the shores of Lake Michigan, giving researchers and students a unique vantage point.

“It’s everything about our culture,” Leaf said. “We can walk out the back door, get on a boat and go do research.”

The Neeskay in the Milwaukee River. Credit: Troye Fox/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The Neeskay in the Milwaukee River. Credit: Troye Fox/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The school focuses on four areas: Ecosystem dynamics with an emphasis on large lakes, human and ecosystem health, water policy, and water technology. Overall, there are 120 people in the organization, including 20 faculty and senior scientists and 60 master’s and Ph.D. students. In addition, the school maintains close ties to water-focused groups in engineering, geosciences, atmospheric sciences, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“Student success, research excellence and university engagement are the main themes of UWM,” Leaf said. “At the school I can’t separate those things. The students are working on real research projects that affect the community.”

The School of Freshwater Sciences was founded on the idea that policy decisions that affect the lakes should be driven by science. “That’s what our students are learning,” Leaf said, “how they as scientists can affect policy, how to communicate science and how to communicate with decision makers.”

The school operates a research vessel called the Neeskay — a named derived from a Ho-Chunk Native American word that means “pure, clean water.” Leaders are in the early stages of planning and fundraising for a next-generation ship that will operate as a research vessel and floating classroom.

See also: Milwaukee to Host Second Public Meeting on Progress to Restore Great Lakes

Students from the school conducting research on Lake Michigan aboard the Neeskay. Credit: Peter Jakubowksi/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Students from the school conducting research on Lake Michigan aboard the Neeskay. Credit: Peter Jakubowksi/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Since the Great Lakes are a shared resource with Canada, collaboration with agencies in that country also are routine — and valuable, says Associate Professor Harvey Bootsma.

Bootsma grew up in Canada and studied at the University of Manitoba and the University of Guelph. He conducts nearshore work related to problems like Cladophora, a type of algae that grows to nuisance levels, and invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

He says working with colleagues at the University of Waterloo has been especially helpful. Workshops between the Milwaukee school and the Ontario university have allowed scientists to compare notes and helped jumpstart several areas of research.

“We have similar problems in a number of the Great Lakes, especially nearshore issues,” Bootsma said. “It’s really beneficial for groups of scientists from different lakes to get together.”

What is the school trying to discover?

“It’s more of a lab-by-lab thing,” Leaf says. “From a broad perspective, the school wants to investigate how the Great Lakes and other water systems function—and how we as humans impact them—so that decision makers and managers can make informed decisions to manage our most precious water resources.”

That includes work such as developing a model of nutrient contamination to help water managers reduce the size and duration of “dead zones” in Green Bay.

“We do a tremendous amount of work collaborating with the community in southeast Wisconsin and around the Great Lakes,” Leaf said. “That’s one of the points we take pride in: Our work is not theoretical, it is applied science.”

Leaf notes a movement in Milwaukee to revitalize its inner harbor. The school recently received a grant to conduct an extensive aquatic survey of the harbor.

“In addition to revitalizing land use of the harbor and making it a stronger part of the community, (organizers) want a harbor that’s environmentally clean, that supports recreational fishing, that supports birds and wildlife, that becomes a natural refuge in the city,” he said.

School researchers are working with partners including the Harbor District Inc. and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to assess existing fish forage and spawning habitat and develop a map to inform strategic development.

“It’s a really interesting project because it’s being done in Milwaukee but the way we’re doing it could theoretically be done in almost any harbor,” Leaf said. “It’s science to inform policy decisions and drive economic activity.”

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

Ontario’s Invasive Species Act Targets Prevention

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

European water chestnut is an invasive species that Ontario hopes to combat with the help of a new invasive species law. Credit: Mike Naylor, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
European water chestnut is an invasive species that Ontario hopes to combat with the help of a new invasive species law. Credit: Mike Naylor, Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Ontario has the largest number of invasive species in Canada, with more than 180 aquatic invasive species, around 500 non-native plants, 39 known forest insects and 10 tree diseases. Officials now have a new tool to try and keep those numbers from ticking upwards.

On Nov. 3, a new Ontario’s Invasive Species Act goes into effect, giving officials in the province a stronger mandate to prevent new species from arriving and to control – and where possible, eradicate – those that are already here.

Jeff Brinsmead, senior biologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, said the act’s focus and value is in being “proactive” and preventing new invasives from getting introduced to the province. Brinsmead said the province has previously relied on several different “legislative mechanisms” to deal with invasive species, such as the Ontario Fishery Regulations and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.

The new law brings comprehensive invasive species legislation under one act, according to Jeremy Downe, senior policy adviser with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The act gives officials broader flexibility to regulate pathways of invasion such as firewood, recreational boating, purchase and trade, and guard against species coming from one part of the large and ecologically diverse province to another.

The legislation doesn’t specify a list of invasive species. Instead, invasive species will be classified in regulation as either “prohibited” or “restricted” based on the outcomes of science-based risk assessments. Those risk assessments will be used as the baseline for invasive management and enforcement.

For example, Downe said the province could require recreational boaters to clean or drain livewells before leaving a lake so aquatic species can’t hitch a ride to another lake. Or officials could prohibit importing or selling certain horticultural plants that are considered invasive. They also could survey for invasive species and issue orders to keep people from doing things that could spread those plants and animals. As of Aug. 17, 2016, no policies or regulations have been finalized to roll out with the act.

A stand of invasive phragmites plants measuring taller than five meters (more than 16 feet). Credit: Janice Gilbert, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
A stand of invasive phragmites plants measuring taller than five meters (more than 16 feet). Credit: Janice Gilbert, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

The act also closes existing gaps left by previous laws and regulations. For example, the ministry has had limited powers to address invasive species on private land, but once the law goes into effect officials will have the authority to access and control invasive species on private land when required, or otherwise compel the property owners to address the invasive species if necessary.

The financial penalties are significant for breaking the new law, which Downe said was intentional due to the cost of dealing with invasive species. The province estimates that it spends CDN$3.5-4 million a year on invasive species control, research, awareness and education programs. These fines can go as high as $250,000 for an individual or $1 million for corporations. There also are multipliers for the number of an invasive species found and actions by individuals and businesses, such as selling or releasing harmful exotic plants and fish.

The act has been largely well-received, Downe said, though there has been “angst” in some quarters about the provisions to enter private land, particularly among the agricultural community.

Downe said the ministry intends to work with cooperatively with private land owners and Indigenous communities to address the impact of invasive species on their lands and activities.

Invasive round gobies have been found in Ontario waters such as Lake Simcoe for years. Credit: Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences Archive, University of Michigan
Invasive round gobies have been found in Ontario waters such as Lake Simcoe for years. Credit: Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences Archive, University of Michigan

“Generally it’s easier (to get support) with invasive species because everyone recognizes they’re bad and an issue, so when the issue came up it was widely recognized that more needed to be done,” Downe said. “The intent is not to (have) a huge impact on individuals; the initial focus will be on education, prevention and awareness.”

Some of the lessons learned from creating Ontario’s Invasive Species Act could be copied by other provinces, Downe said. If Ontario’s law proves successful at managing invasive species, it could end up being the vanguard to similar laws across the country.

What’s Involved in Delisting an Area of Concern?

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

collecting-mussels-usace
Collecting mussels from the Niagara River Area of Concern. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

In 1987, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada identified 43 Areas of Concern (AOCs) within the Great Lakes system – 12 Canadian, 26 American and five binational. These are environmentally impacted locations where habitat degradation and pollution had caused “beneficial use impairments,” or BUIs, indicating they have problems for human use and the environment. After 29 years, eight AOCs divided equally between the United States and Canada have been delisted and marked as healthy – with others seeing progress on-the-ground — but what does that mean?

In short, it’s not easy, and not a short process.

For an area to be delisted, all BUIs must be removed so that the goals of a “remedial action plan” have been met, said Great Lakes Remediation and Restoration Branch Chief Marc Tuchman, from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office.

The first step is undertaking actions to restore habitats and clean up contaminated sediments in the water, Tuchman said. These projects can be expensive, resource-intensive and time-consuming, depending on how severely the AOC has been harmed in that category.

The sediment work often involves dredging contaminated sediment and is done directly by the EPA in the United States, with habitat restoration the province of other federal agencies and through grants for local stakeholders. In Canada, the federal government has allocated $8 million per year to clean up AOCs since its 2010 budget, with an additional $48.9 million to address contaminated sediments. Work is accomplished through Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Ontario Ministry of the Environment and other federal and provincial agencies and local stakeholder groups.

Three binational AOCs –the Detroit River, St. Marys River and St. Clair River – include an extra layer of oversight with a four-party manager group, which meets several times a year with EPA, ECCC, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

detroit-river-aoc-anna-fox
The Detroit River is a binational AOC still being restored. Credit: Anna Fox

Once all the work is complete, the BUIs enter the monitoring and recovery phase. Tuchman said the length of time spent monitoring is entirely dependent on the impairment, the jurisdiction and the severity of the situation. Some areas require a longer recovery and monitoring period than others, and some BUIs simply take longer to improve. In these instances, the AOC is listed as being “in recovery.” Typically, the longest monitoring target is for “fish consumption,” which checks on levels of contaminants in large fish that by people may catch and eat; contaminants can linger in fish populations for a longer period of time than they do in the environment.

Once recovery goals have been met, the AOC is delisted. Tuchman said there has been progress on BUIs across all the Areas of Concern, even if not all of them have been fully restored yet. A few sites – like the Kalamazoo River, Saginaw Bay and Torch Lake – may not be delisted until 2030 or later, Tuchman said, but the hope is for the many of the AOCs in both countries to be delisted by 2025.

map-us-canada-areas-of-concern-binational-net
A map showing all of the delisted and existing AOCs. Credit: Binational.net

Even if those current official targets are met, AOCs may still need some work.

University of Toronto researchers Drs. Noreen Kelly and George Arhonditsis reviewed the delisting criteria and restoration targets set for impairments in AOCs, and their findings suggest that policymakers should take the level of uncertainty – the risk of poor conditions reemerging due to local events — into account.

Arhonditsis said that even by implementing best management practices, some restoration goals may not be entirely achievable in all AOCs. And so, officials should focus on setting targets for ecosystem restoration that factor in the possibility of violations of environmental standards, even when the system is officially restored.

For example, a storm could cause a spike of nutrients to reappear in a bay and cause an algal bloom to form. There are also nutrients buried in sediment that can potentially reemerge. Taking risk factors into account for goal-setting is the equivalent of grabbing an umbrella if rain is expected, Arhonditsis said, and could be a way to prevent unexpected relapses.

Kelly said the study found that some AOC delisting criteria were based on baseline conditions, with data on what the area was like in a pristine shape. To try and determine that, researchers use historical records or look at similar, less-polluted nearby areas. What that actually means for an AOC has not always been made clear, however.

For example, the Toronto region can’t go back to its pre-European settlement condition, so setting a good target that balances the natural condition with on-going human influences in a heavily urbanized area can be challenging. And while it’s easy to measure the amount of a contaminant like PCBs or phosphorus, others – like the tainting of fish flavor — take more work to quantify and set a goal. The study also indicated that more ongoing monitoring activities are needed in the post-recovery period of AOCs.

It took decades for AOCs to become severely contaminated, and cleanup has taken years longer to reach this point. Scientists and policymakers continue to work on healing those waters to make the Great Lakes a safer place to swim, fish and drink from.

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

Great Lakes Watermark – Beaches and Coasts

By IJC staff

The IJC is partnering with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper to gather and share Great Lakes Watermark stories—written, spoken, or filmed—that connect the personal, emotional and cultural ways we use and value our precious shared waters. Watermark stories are being archived on a special Watermark Project site. Have a Great Lakes story to share? Submit yours online today.

This month’s Watermarks are from Environment and Climate Change Canada scientist Wendy Leger (also co-chair of IJC’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee) and New York Sea Grant coastal educator Helen Domske (featured in a recent post on Great Lakes learning).