Indigenous Communities Work to Keep Wild Rice from Disappearing

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

wild rice kakagon sloughs bad river
Wild rice growing in the Kakagon Sloughs, a wetland off Lake Superior. Credit: Bad River Natural Resources Department

For centuries, wild rice has been harvested in the shallow waters of Lake Superior and nearby waters. The species and its distinctive grain is a vital part of the Anishinaabe culture, but climate change is threatening the plants with invasive species, extreme water levels and high winds.

Wild rice – known as manoomin or manomin in the Anishinaabemowin language – has a number of vulnerabilities to climate change based on its physiology, according to the 2016 Seventh Generation Climate Monitoring Plan issued by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The tribe’s reservation includes the Kakagon/Bad River Sloughs, a wetland area extending into Lake Superior on the Wisconsin side that contains about 13 percent of all coastal wetlands in the lake’s basin, providing important habitat for fish, aquatic mammals, migratory birds, and wild rice.

Too Much Water Can Breed Fungus

According to the plan, wild rice needs low and high water level years to out-compete other species, but extreme water levels in either direction can adversely impact the species, either by drowning the plant or by reducing its beds to mudflats. The latter happened in 2007 due to a low-water event, which Climate Change Coordinator Devon Brock-Montgomery of the Bad River Natural Resources Department said was the first dramatic example of climate change there.

According to the Bad River Band’s traditional ecological knowledge, climate-related changes to wild rice’s habitat date back to the 1950s. On a more immediate time scale, anticipated increased heavy rain events could cause rapid water level increases that uproot the plants, particularly in early summer while the species is at its floating-leaf stage, which happened in June 2012.

That 2012 storm caused massive losses of wild rice across western Lake Superior region, into the Duluth area where the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reside, said Peter David, wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. It was followed by another major storm in the same area in 2016, also causing major losses.

“These 100-year floods are becoming (more frequent),” David said.

Heavy rains also can wash more nutrients from farm fields and lawns into wetlands, which can cause turbidity and algal blooms, David said. That can hurt the germination and development of wild rice plants.

More dramatically, the changing climate appears to be promoting the growth of a fungal disease called brownspot. David said it is ubiquitous to the region, and in the right conditions it will show up on wild rice plants. In wet conditions where the plants don’t get a chance to dry off, the fungus can start growing and wipe out seed production.


brownspot disease wild rice
Compared to a healthy 2009 season, top, an outbreak of brownspot disease, bottom, overtook wild rice stands by Lower Dean Lake in Minnesota in 2010. Credit: Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

“In the first 20 years of my career, (brownspot disease) didn’t have a significant impact, but then in 2005 it was the first time we had a regional outbreak of it,” David said. “In 2010 we had a massive outbreak in Wisconsin which led to the poorest harvest season I’ve ever seen.”

Wind patterns have been increasing in recent decades as well, and since wild rice is wind-pollinated it needs a mild summer wind to be most successful, the Bad River plan notes. High winds or long periods of calm in the summer can interfere with it successfully pollinating. And invasive species such as carp, Phragmites, invasive cattails and purple loosestrife can kill the wild rice plants or out-compete it.

Paradoxically, a lengthier growing season from global warming can harm wild rice, which evolved for harsher conditions. Warmer winters may shorten the seeds’ dormancy period, which reduces the germination rate the next year. At the same time, it gives competing invasive plants an advantage over the wild rice by giving them more time to grow. Prolonged dry conditions also can kill wild rice seeds.

While climate models still have a great deal of uncertainty on what future water levels might look like, there is a clear trend indicating that warmer air temperatures, alongside more severe storms dropping more water in short bursts, are developing in the Great Lakes region. Observed trends also indicate that summertime multi-day heat waves are increasing, while the number of extremely cold weather events in the winter are decreasing. Models suggest a trend toward warmer nights and more humidity, which would fuel brownspot outbreaks. Adapting to climate change will be a necessity throughout North America, and in the case of indigenous communities around Lake Superior, that will include precautions to make sure wild rice continues to survive in a future of potential stressors.

Safeguarding Wild Rice for Future Generations

The Bad River Band came up with several potential approaches in its climate monitoring plan to try and reduce the degree of threats wild rice populations are facing. These range from improving water quality in wetlands and streams that discharge into wild rice beds to improving riparian buffer zones and connections to the floodplain to reduce flashiness around the rice beds, planting wind and storm resistant vegetation to protect rice beds from high winds, and carp control measures such as protective fencing. As a worst-case scenario, the plan suggests collecting wild rice seeds for long-term seed-bank storage in case something occurs to wipe out the wild rice population. Brock-Montgomery said the tribe is fleshing out remaining data gaps through continued monitoring, which will be used to determine what adaptation measures will be pursued and when.

First Nations in Ontario have similarly been concerned with climate change’s impact on wild rice. Participants at a December 2016 Northern Ontario First Nation Climate Change Workshop found that, among other impacts, climate change is diminishing wild rice harvests due to changing swampland: drying out in some areas and flooding in others. The First Nations attendees indicated that community-driven climate change adaptation efforts have been underway for more than a decade, including food security and access to traditional foods and monitoring/data collection.

However, David said wild rice is adapted to such a limited habitat that addressing stressors will be difficult. At some locations, mechanical adaptations – such as remote water level sensors or increased spillway capacity on dams – could help deal with some likely climate impacts, but these approaches are expensive and limited in scope.

Habitat restoration can go a long way toward recovering from the historical losses in rice abundance driven by other causes. David said rice abundance in Wisconsin has improved about 25 percent due to habitat restoration compared to 20 years ago, but now all these beds are facing new threats from climate change.

He said there has been growing interest from people in Canada and the United States in better stewardship of the wild rice. New relationships and partnerships are forming, and people across the basin are working out the best ways to collectively address these stressors.

“For (indigenous peoples) there’s a spiritual commitment to this rice, an appreciation of this gift from the Creator,” David said. “This is a plant that only grows in a small portion of the world.  We who are fortunate enough to live in this area have to be responsible stewards of this precious gift.”

bald eagle wild rice bad river
An immature bald eagle is perched in the Kakagon Sloughs wetland. Credit: Bad River Natural Resources Department.

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

Sea Lamprey: The Greatest Invasive Control Success Story

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

sea lamprey
Sea lampreys are among the oldest invaders of the Great Lakes. Credit: C. Krueger, GLFC

An invader in a massive freshwater basin. An uncountable number of spawning grounds. A fishery on the brink. A desperate search for a solution that ended up becoming the most successful aquatic invasive species control team effort in American and Canadian history. It’s not a movie, but rather the true tale of the sea lamprey’s invasion of the Great Lakes.

The sea lamprey is parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean. As an adult, it latches onto other fish with its suction cup-like mouth, using a rasping tongue to cut into its victim to suck out bodily fluids and blood. In the Atlantic it doesn’t typically kill its hosts, but the fish in the Great Lakes have no such luck. It’s estimated that a single lamprey can destroy an average of 18 kilograms (39 pounds) of fish in its parasitic lifetime, with only about one in seven fish surviving a lamprey attack. It’s not to be confused with native lamprey, which are smaller and have different coloration, and don’t usually kill the host fish.

Sea lampreys were first detected in Lake Ontario in 1835. While there has been discussion on whether it is native to Lake Ontario, it most likely is an invasive species that entered through the Erie Canal, according to Marc Gaden, communications director for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), a binational organization funded by the Canadian and US governments. The 1919 reconstruction of the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls to connect Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, likely allowed the sea lamprey to enter Lake Erie and on to the rest of the basin. They were discovered in Lake Erie in 1921, Lake Michigan in 1936, Lake Huron in 1937 and Lake Superior in 1939. The sea lamprey found an immense number of tributaries featuring the combination of rocky nesting grounds to lay eggs and silt for larval lampreys to grow in, making the Great Lakes a lamprey Eden. In its native habitat, the sea lamprey spends most of its life in saltwater, making it the rare species that has adapted to living entirely in freshwater systems like the Great Lakes, similar to the Pacific salmon species introduced to control invasive alewives.

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A Lake Trout caught in Lake Huron with a sea lamprey attached. Credit: Marc Gaden, GLFC

The impact on the Great Lakes fishery was devastating. Prior to the invasion, about 20 million pounds or about 9 million kilograms of fish were harvested commercially each year in the upper Great Lakes – Superior, Huron and Michigan. By the 1960s that amount was reduced to about 300,000 pounds (136,077 kg) per year, while sea lamprey were killing close to 100 million pounds (45.4 million kg) of fish each year, and 85 percent of the remaining fish were scarred with lamprey attack wounds.

“Commercial fishermen and fishery managers first realized they had a problem around 1940, when it became clear what was happening to the Huron-Michigan fisheries from lamprey,” Gaden said. “That’s when the managers and scientists went into high gear and started seeking control measures.”

With little experience with aquatic invasive species, a wide variety of control methods were attempted. These methods included physical barriers to keep lamprey from entering the streams they use to spawn, crude electrical barriers to block their advances and sieves to stop larvae from eventually entering the Great Lakes from those inland streams. Entrepreneurs tried to make sea lamprey a commercially fished species for human consumption, but none of these attempts worked in stopping the sea lamprey.

The breakthrough came after years of searching for a chemical compound that would kill sea lamprey and not harm other organisms. A compound called TFM was discovered and field-tested in 1957, and entered management usage in 1958 through the binational GLFC. It has been used to great success.

The lampricide targets larval sea lampreys living in streams. After hatching from eggs found upstream in rocky areas, larvae make their way to silty areas and burrow into the substrate until they emerge as adults. The lampricide kills them in that weak, larval state by disrupting their metabolism before they can ever grow up to become the top predator in the Great Lakes. After decades of use, Gaden said the sea lamprey population in the Great Lakes has been reduced by about 90-95 percent from their peak in the late 1950s, and dropped the amount of fish killed by the lamprey to about 10 million pounds (4.5 million kg) a year. While it also affects native lamprey species, sea lamprey larvae tend to live and spawn in different areas from the native species; fishery managers focus on those stream areas where sea lamprey larvae burrow to minimize the impact on native species.

Dead sea lamprey larvae washed up on the shore of the Manistee River after a successful lampricide treatment. Credit: R. McDaniels, GLFC

Lampricide isn’t the only tool used to control lamprey numbers, Gaden said, as good pest control takes multiple tacks. Physical barriers are still in use to deny lampreys a path to their preferred spawning grounds. And if those lampreys can’t reach a place to spawn, there’s no need use lampricide treatments, which is expensive and time-consuming. The GLFC also deploys traps to catch lamprey entering or leaving the streams to remove them from the system, and has tested sterilizing male lamprey in the St. Marys River to try and overwhelm the number of fertile males. Most recently, Gaden said the GLFC “is on the cusp” of using isolated lamprey pheromones to affect their behavior – drawing lamprey away from ideal spawning locations and toward traps.

“We’re working on unlocking their genome,” Gaden said. “There are things within the lamprey genome we can exploit, like create conditions so they only produce males, but that’s further into the future.”

Mark Burrows, physical scientist and project manager in the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office, said the GFLC has sponsored important research devoted to controlling and eradicating sea lampreys while protecting native species, much of which was highlighted at the recent International Association for Great Lakes Research conference in Detroit.

“They deserve a lot of praise for the progress they have made in combatting this destructive invasive species, and I look forward to the GLFC forging another 10-fold decrease in lamprey numbers at some point in the future,” Burrows said.

While a focused and targeted approach to invasive species can work in smaller inland lakes, the size of the Great Lakes makes controlling aquatic invaders difficult. That they invaded a waterway that also serves as a border between Canada and the United States added an additional wrinkle. It meant both countries needed to work together, even though fishery management is primarily the domain of state, province, tribal and First Nation governments. This team effort has kept sea lamprey from completely dominating the ecosystem of the Great Lakes for decades.

lamprey traps
Sea lamprey traps are being tested in the field, set up in the Ocqueoc River in Michigan. Credit: T. Lawrence, GLFC

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


Viruses Can Travel the Great Lakes by Ship

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

ballast water ships viruses great lakes connection
Recent studies suggest that viral communities are able to travel far from home by hitching a lift in ballast water aboard ships. Credit: Yiseul Kim

Ships moving within the Great Lakes could be carrying viral passengers inside ballast tanks from one port to another.

These viruses are seemingly entering the Great Lakes from a variety of potential pathways: they may be spread by waterfowl, infected fish migrating from the Atlantic coast, bait transport or aquaculture. They also could be hitchhiking along in ballast water tanks that ships use to maintain balance, according to a 2015 study published in the American Chemical Society journal. What’s more, a followup study published since then suggests some viruses can make it to marine ports around the globe.

State and provincial governments around the Great Lakes have issued an advisory for an invasive virus called viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) in fish in the Great Lakes, first detected in Lake Ontario in 2005. The disease has led to major fish die-offs in all Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair and the St. Lawrence River. Although researchers aren’t sure how VHS entered the Great Lakes, it has proven to be a challenge to fisheries management.

Ballast water is used to fill these ballast tanks when a ship has less cargo to keep a ship stable. As more cargo is loaded onto the ship, ballast water is discharged to balance out the weight. Aquatic and marine life can get sucked up in that ballast water and discharged in completely different parts of the world, which accounts for the bulk of the invasive species in the Great Lakes. Canada and the United States have taken steps to prevent new invasive species from getting a lift from ballast water, by instituting one of the most stringent ballast water management regimes in the world, halting new aquatic invasive species from entering the basin from ballast water since 2006. This largely constitutes exchanging freshwater for seawater.

The 2015 study sampled ballast water from ships in a variety of locations on the lakes, including harbors like Toledo on Lake Erie, Essexville on Lake Huron, Burns Harbor on Lake Superior, and Hamilton on Lake Ontario. The ships were heading to Duluth on Lake Superior, one of the busiest harbors on the Great Lakes, and the ballast water was compared against the waters there as well, according to researcher Dr.  Yiseul Kim, a recent graduate from the Michigan State University Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics studying under Dr. Joan Rose (a member of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board).

msu kim aw duluth great lakes connection
Michigan State University researchers Yiseul Kim and Tiong Gim Aw add water samples from Duluth to plastic containers for study. Credit: Yiseul Kim

The ballast waters contained virus communities, Kim said, corresponding to the harbors from where the ships had picked up their ballast water. By comparing the virus’ genetic sequences against those in a database for Duluth’s harbor, she was able to determine whether they were local to the area or unwanted passengers. These viral communities targeted life in a variety of scientific kingdoms, including algae, plants, invertebrates (like insects), and vertebrates (like fish).  More than half of these sampled viral communities target bacteria, the study said.

“Viruses influence microbial communities because they require a host to replicate,” according to Rose.  “When you consider the ecological, economic and public health problems associated with taking up and discharging ballast water, we’re talking about potentially a large impact if waterborne viruses and diseases are spread over these long distances.”

The study didn’t investigate viruses coming into the Great Lakes from other parts of the world, but Kim said a study she worked on that was published in 2016 looked at virus communities in ballast water traveling around the world to marine ports. She had similar findings in that study, with seemingly nonnative viruses riding along to different parts of the globe. Limiting the spread of these viruses by shipping would require ballast water treatment technology that Kim said is still in the research phase, as well as more information about virus types and their impact. Ballast water treatment systems are going to be required for ships entering the Great Lakes in the coming years, however, as regulations include new discharge limits for microbes for human health concerns.

A virus not native to a particular region does not necessarily mean it’s invasive. An invasive species is a nonnative species that is having a detrimental impact on its new environment and disrupts the ecosystem.

“I found that ballast water contains viruses,” Kim said. “It can potentially bring viruses (to new areas) but to confirm if they are invasive species I need to investigate the impact of the viruses on the new water system.”

ballast tank ship kim
A researcher heads down into the ballast tank of a ship to collect water samples for the study. Credit: Yiseul Kim

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

Great Lakes Water Levels Expected to Stay Above Long-Term Average

(See also: “Extreme Conditions and Challenges During High Water Levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River“)

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

chicago coastline lake michigan
Extremely high water levels can cause erosion and increase flood risks in coastal areas, such as along the Chicago coastline off Lake Michigan. Levels are not expected to be high enough to significantly increase those risks in the coming months, however. Credit: L.S. Gerstner

Water levels on the Great Lakes are likely to remain above the long-term average through the spring and summer, according to forecasts assembled by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and the US Army Corps of Engineers. But none of the Great Lakes are expected to reach record high water levels set mostly in the 1980s or 1950s.

While each lake is unique, they all tend to follow a similar cycle based on seasonal changes. Water levels typically reach their seasonal low during the winter months before increasing in the spring due to snowmelt and precipitation. Water levels tend to peak during the summer months, before beginning to drop in the fall and early winter.

There are three main factors that impact lake water levels, said Drew Gronewold, physical scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory: the precipitation over the lakes, evaporation of water on the lakes into vapor, and the runoff that comes into the lakes.

These variables, in turn, are affected by changes in air and water temperatures. For example, Gronewold said the timing of big runoff pulses is dependent on the amount of snow building up in the winter months and when it melts in the spring.

A water level decline in the fall is generally driven by evaporation, as air temperatures drop while surface water temperatures are still relatively warm. While water temperatures were relatively warm during the fall and winter months of 2016-2017 – leading to a lack of ice cover – evaporation amounts have been typical for this time of year due to a relatively mild winter air temperatures, Gronewold said.

These recent conditions, coupled with historical data, lead agencies to expect the water level rise to remain fairly typical this spring and into the summer. As water levels are already above their long-term average for this time of year, researchers expect that they’ll remain above average in the coming months, Gronewold explained.

There is still plenty of uncertainty, he added, as the amount of snow on the ground is less than it has been in some recent winters. It’s also difficult to predict continental-wide meteorological and climate patterns that impact Great Lakes weather patterns and temperatures. These can range from an El Niño effect like the one seen in the winter of 2015-2016 or a “polar vortex” that hit the region in the winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. This uncertainty is expressed as a range of possible water levels in the forecasts released by the US Army Corps and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Great Lakes water levels also can be influenced by human management. Hydropower plants and a gated dam on the St. Marys River are used to manage outflows from Lake Superior into Lake Michigan-Huron, while a hydropower plant on the St. Lawrence River is used to manage outflows from Lake Ontario. Outflows through these structures are managed binationally by boards and according to orders and criteria established by the IJC. Nonetheless, the control of water flows through these lakes is limited, and weather conditions and water supplies remain the most significant factor affecting water levels.

Water levels are measured based on the International Great Lakes Datum, defined as the height above sea level at Rimouski Quebec on the St. Lawrence River. Agencies have been measuring lake levels since the 1860s, with more reliable levels going back as far as 1918. They base the lakes’ long-term average water levels on that information.

“We expect a range of water level conditions depending on water supplies,” said Jacob Bruxer, senior water resources engineer with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “There’s a lot of variability and uncertainty in weather and water supply forecasts, particularly when looking beyond a few weeks’ time, so we don’t try to forecast any specific trends and instead consider a full range of water supply scenarios that could be expected.”

According to recent forecasts, through September 2017 Lake Superior is likely to remain at or above seasonal averages, with a small chance of falling below its long-term average in July. There is less uncertainty for the spring months; water levels were about 5.5 inches (0.14 meters) above the long-term average by the end of March, and by May that range could be between 2.7 inches to 10 inches above the average (0.07 meters to 0.27 meters). By September, water levels could be as high as 1 foot (0.3 meters) above the long-term monthly average for Superior.

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Low water levels can limit boat access to the water – as seen with these docks off Grand Traverse Bay in Michigan – and cause shipping problems in the Great Lakes. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

Lake Michigan-Huron, considered as one lake hydrologically, was about 9.4 inches (0.24 meters) above the March long-term average by the end of the month. By September, Michigan-Huron is expected to remain above the long-term average, in a range of 1-16 inches (0.02-0.4 meters). Gronewold said Michigan-Huron saw water levels fall slightly more during the fall months of 2016 than is typical, but that is unlikely to make a discernible difference during this spring and summer.

Higher-than-average water levels are anticipated on Lake Erie, which has seen water levels on the rise in recent months, reaching more than 17 inches (0.44 meters) above the long-term average by the end of March. Water levels are expected to continue to remain above average this spring, before starting to fall around June to a range of 3.9-16 inches above average (0.10-0.41 meters).

Lake Ontario has a slight chance of being just barely below its long-term average going into summer, but will more likely be above it by up to 15 inches (0.38 meters). The forecasted peak is in May, when water levels could be 3.9-21 inches above average (0.10-0.55 meters). Water levels are then expected to fall at about the same degree as they usually do, according to the long-term average.

The US Army Corps publishes 12-month forecasts for Lakes Erie, Huron-Michigan and Superior, as well as Lake St. Clair, based on current conditions and similar historical weather data. Uncertainty grows substantially more than six months out, but most outcomes for Lakes Erie and Michigan-Huron suggest a greater likelihood of continued higher-than-average water levels through the year. Lake Superior also has a better chance of higher-than-average water levels, but faces a substantial possibility of being below that long-term average, too.

(See also: “Extreme Conditions and Challenges During High Water Levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River“)

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

Major Expansion Coming to Lake Superior State University’s Aquatic Research Lab

By Gregory Zimmerman, Lake Superior State University

Conceptual view of the proposed Center for Freshwater Research and Education outdoor educational park. Credit: LSSU staff

Since 1977, Lake Superior State University’s Aquatic Research Lab in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, has been a center for research and outreach around the ecology of the St. Marys River and other aquatic habitats, as well as a focal point for student training in fisheries. The lab is probably best known for its Atlantic salmon hatchery program, in which it raises Atlantics for release into the river and Lake Huron system. Thanks to the lab, the experience of fishing for Atlantics in the St. Marys Rapids is cherished by locals and by visitors from around world.

The hatchery operations are impressive. Lake Superior State University (LSSU) is one of only a few universities that offer students direct work experiences in a hatchery that releases fish into public waters – but the lab does much more. Research projects in the river and Great Lakes, inland lakes, streams and wetlands advance science and provide information for improving the management of our resources.

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Richard Barch of Ann Arbor releases a ceremonial portion of the 37,000 Atlantic salmon yearlings that Lake Superior State University stocked into the St. Marys River on June 2-3, while LSSU mascot Seamore the Sea Duck and community members look on. Credit: LSSU staff

Outreach activities inform residents and visitors about the importance of conserving our natural heritage. One example of outreach is the lab’s popular online “fish cam.” The lab is also a model of collaboration between the university, resource management agencies such as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment Canada, Cloverland Electric and other local organizations. Recent lab activities include a partnership in the Little Rapids Restoration project, the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program, sturgeon research, and more.

Now the lab is slated to take a big step in expanding its work. The facility will move from the current, rather cramped, space in the east end of the Cloverland Electric Hydro Plant to much larger space in the former Edison Sault office space on the west side of the plant. The lab will have about three times the space it currently has and be renamed the Center for Freshwater Research and Education (CFRE). The move has been in the works for several years, ever since Edison Sault donated the previous office building to the university. Plans include much-expanded research space for fish culture and fish health, space dedicated to public outreach, a K-12 discovery room, office space for researchers, and an outdoor educational park.

Two major sources of financial backing are moving the plans into reality. Last July, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an appropriations bill adding CFRE to the state’s capital outlay plan. The state would provide 75 percent of the funding with the university responsible for covering the rest of the costs. Then, this past December, Dick and Theresa Barch donated $500,000 to lead the way in helping the university raise its share of the estimated total of $11.8 million needed to build the Center.

For more information about the lab, visit For information about contributing to CFRE, contact LSSU Foundation Director Tom Coates at (906) 635-6670 or

Gregory Zimmerman is a professor of biology at Lake Superior State University. His research interests include control of invasive plant species in wetlands.

Editor’s Note: You can comment on issues raised in this article as part of the IJC’s public comment period on the Progress Report of the Parties and Triennial Assessment of Progress. Go to

Building a Water Trail for the Lake Superior Community

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Lake Superior kayakers near Rossport, Ontario. Building the Lake Superior Water Trail is about creating a recreational corridor and a constituency of Lake Superior users that can act as stewards for the lake. Credit: Gary McGuffin

By Joanie McGuffin, Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy

Editor’s Note: The author will be one of the presenters at a March 2 public input session in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on the governments’ Progress Report of the Parties, the IJC Triennial Assessment of Progress and the public’s concerns about the lakes.

The Lake Superior Water Trail encircles the greatest expanse of freshwater on Earth. It is an ancient heritage highway in existence since the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, and in use from the first time people first set watercraft afloat to travel, trade and hunt. People living around Superior have a common bond – the physical and spiritual presence of freshwater so vast that it reaches to the horizon just as an ocean does. It is only in recent times that people have thought about paddling the Lake Superior Water Trail as a recreational pursuit.

The Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy (LSWC) is an international charitable organization in Canada and the United States that represents the health and well-being of the Lake Superior watershed. The organization’s mission to protect the lake’s ecosystem begins with the understanding that the water is all connected and what you do in one place affects another. LSWC understands that we need to talk and share ideas and solutions through science, education, culture and recreation. But that is easier said than done. What common bond could connect a lakewide community in a collaborative, cooperative, loving way? LSWC could think of no better thread than the Lake Superior Water Trail.

In 1989 when my husband Gary and I paddled around Lake Superior, we met only a handful of paddlers in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands. Paddling had not yet become the activity it is today even in beautiful national parks like Pukaskwa and Pictured Rocks. The Inland Sea Society convened an informal paddler’s gathering to discuss a lake-wide trail that fall. In subsequent years, different initiatives evolved into a number of sections like the Minnesota Lake Superior Water Trail, the Wisconsin Lake Superior Water Trail, the Keweenaw Water Trail and the Hiawatha Water Trail. But there was a lack of connectivity around the lake and a huge gap on the Canadian side that had no water trail designation at all. So in 2014, when Trans Canada Trail  approached LSWC about helping to complete the Lake Superior gap in a nationwide trail building effort, LSWC jumped at the chance.

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Peninsula Harbour, Marathon, Ontario. The community is re-inventing itself after the pulp and paper mill was dismantled. Credit: Gary McGuffin

Building the Lake Superior Water Trail  between Gros Cap Harbour and Thunder Bay will create a 1,000-km/600-mile link in a 24,000-km/15,000-mile nationwide Great Trail and serve as a critical link in an international “Appalachian Trail of Water Trails” encircling the circumference of the greatest freshwater lake on Earth. In so doing, this common thread would have the potential to knit together a lake-wide community of small villages, First Nations and Tribes, and local, state, provincial and national parks.

The strategy developed by LSWC in partnership with Trans Canada Trail Ontario led to 16 priority access points with varied partners including two Ontario parks, Pukaskwa National Park, two lighthouses, the First Nations community of Biigtigong and Lake Superior municipalities from Gros Cap to Thunder Bay. Funding provided by the Trillium Foundation enabled LSWC to hire a Lake Superior Water Trail coordinator, and Trans Canada Trail National secured funding for the installation of universal access docks, washrooms and other amenities to support the development of the water trail and engage with the paddling community. Although the Lake Superior Water Trail on the Canadian side officially opens this year as part of Canada’s 150th birthday, it is an ongoing legacy project.

For the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy, this is just the starting point in a lakewide connection of all the water trails on Lake Superior. Possibilities such as developing a lake-wide water quality monitoring program through the paddling community is one such project. What better group? Paddlers are everywhere. They come from all ages and walks of life. They travel close to the water. They move slowly, following the detail of shorelines as well as the rivers and lakes that feed Superior. They are sensitive to the look, the smell, the taste of the water, and instinctively know by direct contact that what goes into the water affects their own health. They notice changes over time.

Harnessing the observational powers of these Lake Superior citizens as lake stewards can build an invaluable coordinated database over time. Once people have the information, they will champion the changes necessary for their own well-being.

Lake Superior’s communities all need the economic diversity that the long-distance Water Trail can bring. The trail is a catalyst for story-telling, providing a necessary cultural shift to reconnect with Lake Superior and Mother Nature. This lakewide community can grow, providing instruction and guiding services, cultural appreciation and interpretation, as well as the necessary education and actions to preserve the Lake Superior ecosystem.

Joanie McGuffin is the Lake Superior Water Trail coordinator for the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy and the author of eight books with her husband Gary including “Superior: Journeys on an Inland Sea” and “Paddle Your Own Kayak: An Illustrated Guide to the Art of Sea Kayaking.”

Helping Fish in St. Marys Rapids with the Push of a Button

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

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Gates at the head of the St. Marys River help control the outflow of water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

The flow of water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron has been controlled for almost a century through a series of structures on the St. Marys River, which involves work crews turning manual cranks. But now the US Army Corps of Engineers is moving ahead with a project that will set up some gates to be opened and closed with the push of a button.

Control structures on the St. Marys are under the supervision of the International Lake Superior Board of Control, including a 16-gate structure called the Compensating Works. Opening and closing the gates—eight on each side of the international border—allows the board to help control outflows from Lake Superior for hydropower, navigation, riparian, and environmental interests.

The Army Corps project  will upgrade operations for at least four of the US gates. This will reduce the amount of effort required to work with the gates, and allow the board to be more responsive to water conditions to help provide better habitat for aquatic species in the St. Marys Rapids, said John Allis, the board’s alternate regulation representative and chief of the Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office for the Army Corps Detroit District.

When the board is setting the amount of water to release from Lake Superior each month, it needs to allocate enough for municipal and industrial water needs, the Soo Locks used for shipping, and for the rapids’ fish habitat. The remaining water goes to the three hydropower plants on the river. The board has, over the years, gotten a better idea of how best to manage the water to support that fish habitat in the St. Marys Rapids by partially opening more gates by smaller amounts, which in turn has led to more demands on staff to operate the gates with manual cranks.

Since opening and closing gates is currently a labor-intensive process for work crews, it creates practical limits on what kind of gate adjustments are feasible, Allis said.

The automated system will make it easier to open and close gates more quickly, and more slowly—which is important to fish and other wildlife in the rapids. The roughly 80-acre St. Marys Rapids, located just downriver from the gates, is a major spawning and feeding ground for a wide range of fish species, including salmon and trout.

The St. Marys Rapids are a major spawning and feeding location for several species of fish. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers
The St. Marys Rapids are a major spawning and feeding location for several species of fish. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

“Almost every month in the summer through the fall there’s some species that end up using the rapids for spawning,” Allis explained. “It’s one of the most productive areas on the Great Lakes.”

With the current hand-crank system, however, water levels can fluctuate suddenly and cause major problems for the fish. A sudden loss of water can strand fish, while a sudden burst can wash both fish and their eggs out of the rapids. With automated gates, Allis said the board can instead make slower, more gradual changes by opening gates gradually, improving the productivity of the spawning area. While crews can make those slower adjustments with the current crank system, the number and amount of time required of staff makes it unfeasible on the US side.

The US$8 million project to modernize the four gates would get underway in the spring of 2017 and should be complete by December 2018, with funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The remaining manually operated US gates could be automated as part of the project based on additional funding.

The Army Corps operates and maintains the US gates. Brookfield Renewable Energy Group handles the eight Canadian gates on behalf of the Canadian government, none of which are part of the upgrade project. Allis said the board will leverage the automated gates in concert with the manual gates to make sure fish in the rapids have an ideal amount of water and flow while still retaining flow for other needs.

Allis said the project won’t impact water levels of Lake Superior or Lake Huron, since it doesn’t affect the amount of water coming in from Lake Superior each month. This just provides more flexibility for how to release that water throughout the month, adjusting how the flow moves across the rapids and making more gradual changes. A healthier environment for spawning on the rapids could be beneficial to anglers, he said, and would provide some additional habitat for native species.

“Improving spawning conditions (and fish habitat) in the St. Marys Rapids provides a tremendous regional benefit to the Great Lakes ecosystem,” Allis said.

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

The 16 US and Canadian gates help manage outflow. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers
The 16 US and Canadian gates help manage outflow. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

Lake Superior Action Plan Shows Successes in Reducing Chemical Pollution

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Lake Superior as seen from Batchawana Bay, Ontario. Credit: Scudder Mackey
Lake Superior as seen from Batchawana Bay, Ontario. Credit: Scudder Mackey

Having a road map and plan for protecting and restoring a lake and its watershed can be incredibly helpful. They can show how the lake is recovering and in what ways, and suggest additional work to help improve things.

Lakewide Action and Management Plans (LAMPs) compile the state of a specific lake using a variety of studies, alongside public input and data from state, provincial, tribal, First Nation, federal and non-government sources. Liz LaPlante, Lake Superior LAMP manager with the Great Lakes National Program office of the US Environmental Protection Agency, said the LAMPs describe the current state of the lake, present ecosystem objectives and environmental goals, and identify potential actions that can be taken to achieve those goals.

Topics in the LAMP include recent information on invasive species, habitat and wildlife, aquatic species, chemical pollution, shoreline and nearshore habitat conditions, climate change and human-use impacts. The LAMPs are released by EPA and Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC) and distributed to all levels of government, and stakeholders including the general public. The Lake Superior LAMP was released this week. LAMPs were compiled for the lakes between 2000 and 2008, and Lake Superior will be the first one released under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

“(The LAMP) sets out a specific management plan for protection and restoration of the Great Lakes at a lake level,” LaPlante said. “You can’t treat all the lakes the same, because they’re not the same. They all have different issues, problems, stakeholders and means to address (these problems).”

The draft LAMP report for Superior, released in 2015, noted that due to the relative lack of development around the lake compared to the other Great Lakes, its waters are fairly clean and safe. In general, Superior fish are a healthy and nutritious food source although consumption advisories have been issued by state, tribes and the province of Ontario to protect against harmful pollutants found in some fish in some areas.

Levels of legacy chemicals, such as DDT, dioxins and PCBs, continue to decline in the Superior ecosystem. The lower food web, which contains small shrimp-like crustaceans such as diporeia and mysis, is in good shape. The fisheries are doing well although some populations of some larger fish species like walleye are only seeing limited success in rebounding from reduced population sizes. The lake’s coastal wetlands also are marked as being in “good” shape, but researchers lacked the “full suite of indicators” at the time of the draft LAMP’s publication to confirm that initial conclusion, according to the document.

LaPlante said that ideally, the LAMPs are documents that are relevant to everyone, from policymakers and scientists to city officials and local residents. People could read it for guidance on how to help improve the watershed they live in, like adding a riparian buffer zone (a strip of vegetation near a stream that filters out excess nutrients before they reach water) to their waterfront property or decreasing the use of lawn pesticides and herbicides.

Pancake Bay, Lake Superior. Credit: IJC
Pancake Bay, Lake Superior. Credit: IJC

The next LAMP, for Lake Huron, is due to be complete by the end of 2016. LaPlante said the Superior LAMP was originally scheduled for release in late December 2015, but was delayed to give stakeholder groups more time to review and comment on the document. The LAMPs after Superior’s will have an extended comment period built into the schedule, which should prevent major delays going forward. The Superior LAMP was open for comment for about six weeks starting in January 2016, and the authors received about 50 pages of comments to review and incorporate into the document.

Protecting the Great Lakes is important not only for the environment and current residents, but to safeguard them for the future. LaPlante said that with climate change, water quality and quantity issues will only become more important. With LAMPs lighting a path forward, the Great Lakes can be healthy and continue to be an important part of life for the region for decades to come.

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

Where are Water Levels Heading on the Great Lakes?

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

lake michigan beach water levels great lakes noaa
A Lake Michigan beach located near Frankfort, Michigan, in September 2015. Credit: NOAA

Forecasting agencies in the United States and Canada expect Great Lakes water levels to remain near or above their long-term average for the next six months.

Water levels are measured on the International Great Lakes Datum, defined as the height above sea level at Rimouski Quebec on the St. Lawrence River estuary. According to the coordinated, binational forecast at the beginning of July, Lake Superior is expected to remain about 6 inches, or 15.4 centimeters, above its long-term average for this time of year through the summer, before falling closer to average levels in the fall. While this forecast is based on normal weather conditions in coming months, lake levels could be higher or lower depending on whether we have a wetter or drier than normal summer and fall. Long-term averages are based on data going back to 1918.

Lake Michigan-Huron, which have a common level due to their connection at the Straits of Mackinac, is expected to be 10-12 inches (30.8 cm) above average in the summer before falling closer to average in the fall. Lake Erie also is expected to be within 1 foot above average in the summer before ending closer to 8 inches, or 20.32 cm, above average in the fall. Lake Ontario’s July level is 1 inch (2.54 cm) below average for this time of year and is expected to remain close to average in the fall.

Jacob Bruxer, Environment and Climate Change Canada senior water resources engineer, said Lake Ontario’s comparatively lower water levels are due to the warm, dry weather conditions around the lake that started around March. Bruxer is also a member of the IJC’s International Lake Superior Board of Control and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee.

“Those conditions would be bad if we started at average levels, but we’re right around average,” Bruxer said. “We’re not seeing any significant concerns to shipping or recreational boaters.”

The higher water levels on Superior, Michigan-Huron and Erie mean some boat launches could be underwater and beaches are smaller than they would be with lower levels. On the flip side, boaters should have plenty of depth to get their boats into their docks, and anglers may find more coastal areas to fish than they would otherwise. Bruxer added that high levels can lead to greater erosion along bluffs and shorelines due to waves and storms.

Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, explained that the Great Lakes typically follow a seasonal cycle where water levels rise in the spring from runoff and peak in early summer. The lakes then fall in the autumn and winter months as evaporation — caused by temperature differences between the warm water and cool air — picks up, reaching their lowest point around January and February.

As of mid-July, Gronewold said there’s no indication that the autumn dip will be stronger than usual in the lakes, or that water levels will increase – something that occurred in the autumn and winters of 2013 and 2014 on Lake Michigan-Huron and Lake Superior. Bruxer said the lakes are expected to remain either near or slightly above seasonal averages for the foreseeable future.

Coordinated six-month forecasts of Great Lakes water levels are published online each month by the US Army Corps of Engineers and Environment and Climate Change Canada (via the Canadian Hydrographic Service). The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also provides these forecasts on its water level online viewer each month. Forecasted water levels are determined using binational data and several different models that account for possible variations in evaporation, precipitation and runoff on the lakes over the coming months.

While forecasts are typically only for a six-month period, the Army Corps of Engineers has recently developed a 12-month probability outlook.

Lauren Fry, civil engineer with the Corps, said the model provides potential outcomes given climatic scenarios, developed based on current conditions and similar existing historical weather data. For example, with the strong El Niño cycling over the past winter, Fry said the agency used data from  similarly strong 1982 and 1997 El Niño events to determine a range of potential lake level impacts from October 2015 until September 2016. The most recent one-year outlook from April suggests higher-than-average water levels will most likely continue until April 2017.

water levels measured feet meters great lakes michigan huron graph
Water levels are measured in feet or meters above sea level, with data compiled by US and Canadian organizations. The green line represents forecasted water levels, while the red line indicates recorded points for Lakes Michigan and Huron as of June 30. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

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