Great Lakes

Great Lakes Successes – Part 2

We’ve all made remarkable progress in the first five years of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), much of it visible. (see Opinion)

The Isle Royale Coaster-Credit Phyllis Green

The Isle Royale Coaster-Credit Phyllis Green

But behind every official success there are many other successes. Here a few of the unofficial successes that aren’t required for reporting, but are just as important:

  • The Initiative isn’t just about restoration. It’s about protection. Though the agencies don’t plan on removing “restoration” from the Initiative’s name, they understand we have to protect what’s left. Otherwise we’ll be spending much more to restore those things, too. For example, the Initiative has funded work to protect a small population of native coaster brook trout on Isle Royale for its own sake and so that it can be used to restore other populations around Lake Superior. “Thanks to GLRI funding, we are gaining critical information to help restoration efforts,” says Phyllis Green, superintendent at Isle Royale National Park, punctuating the notion that restoration and protection go hand in hand.
  • The Initiative continues to support overburdened and disproportionately impacted communities. For example, in its recent Requests for Applications under the Initiative, we provide extra points for applications that help advance environmental justice, as recommended by the agencies’ Great Lakes Advisory Board. This also helps EPA make good on its commitments under Plan EJ 2014. Check out the most recently-released Requests for Application (RFA). This means projects like the recently-completed Marquette Park Lagoon Stormwater project in Gary, Indiana, will help this important community. This means the agencies will keep cleaning up Areas of Concern, located largely around post-industrialized communities. This means we’ll keep reducing contaminant levels in fish, on which people depend for a food.
  • The Initiative is spending what comes in. This is one indicator that the demand for Initiative support remains high for attacking the most complex, long-standing threats to ecological health. In August, the Government Accountability Office published an examination of the Initiative and confirmed that in fiscal years 2010 through 2014, $1.68 billion of federal funds were made available and as of January 2015, we had allocated nearly all of the $1.68 billion.
  • As important, the Great Lakes community is cooperating in unparalleled ways. Chaired by our Administrator Gina McCarthy, the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force of 11 federal departments works with states, tribes, municipalities, environmental groups, business, academia and just about any other interest that helps to restore the Lakes.
Marquette Park Lagoon-Banneker Achievement Center

Marquette Park Lagoon-Banneker Achievement Center

Though there’s still so much more progress needed—a century of abuse doesn’t disappear in five years—there’s little doubt that the first five years of the Initiative have made historic progress.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Great Lakes Successes Take Front & Center – Part 1

It’s official. The first five years of the precedent-setting Great Lakes Restoration Initiative are history. And the Initiative has made history.

The Initiative is the largest Great Lakes-only investment in restoring and protecting the ecosystem in U.S. history. Recently, the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force chaired by U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy sent its progress report covering the first five years of the program to Congress and President Obama. Not all such reports inspire you to stand up and cheer, but this one should.

When President Obama proposed the Initiative and a bi-partisan Congress stepped up to fund it, the reason was clear. After more than a century of abuse, the integrity of the ecosystem that comprises some 95 percent of the nation’s fresh surface water—the supply for tens of millions of Americans—was unravelling fast. Decades of projects needed to bring back the health of the ecosystem and fulfill our international obligations with Canada had remained unfunded.

The Initiative changed all that. In the 25 years before the Initiative, only one of the then 31 Areas of Concern—waterfront communities with ecological or health impairments—had been taken off the cleanup list. In the first five years of the Initiative, the Presque Isle Area of Concern (AOC) in Pennsylvania has been taken off the list and cleanup has been completed in five more for ultimate delisting. Waukegan Harbor, once called the “world’s worst Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB) mess,” is now a case study in persistent restoration action prevailing over persistent toxic pollution. In other AOCs, people who once thought cleanup would never be completed are now finding hope that it will be completed, and in their lifetime.

Asian carp. Asian carp, which can eat many times their body weight in plankton—one base of the food chain—could further undermine the Great Lakes ecosystem if they ever get in and become established. Within months after my appointment in the summer of 2009, a newer monitoring technique called “environmental DNA” was turning up genetic material from two kinds of Asian carp—silver and bighead—further upstream toward Lake Michigan than previously expected. We used the Initiative, whose first funding came through only months before, to provide emergency funding to plug holes in the permeable Chicago Area Waterway System. That, and tenacious work by representatives from agencies in the United States and Canada, has meant that in the past five years, these equally tenacious fish have not made it to Lake Michigan to become established.

With the shutdown of the Toledo metro area’s water supply from toxic cyanobacteria having taken place a year ago, the thick, almost florescent green growth is a reminder along too many coastlines that phosphorus doesn’t just fertilize crops on land. Too much of it washing downstream fertilizes dangerous algal growth in the water. Under the first five years of the Initiative, the amount of farmland acreage under conservation program management in three priority watersheds—the Maumee and Western Lake Erie Basin, Saginaw Bay and Green Bay watersheds—has increased by more than two thirds from previous levels.

That’s the official report. Check it out at http://glri.us.

But if you want to know some of the unofficial successes under the first five years of the Initiative, check out the next post for Part 2.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Re-connecting the Two Hearted River

A six-year effort has now been completed—using funds from EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other sources—to re-connect 35 miles of the Two Hearted River. As a result, this waterway is now one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the Great Lakes.

Though the Two Hearted is the only designated wilderness river in the state, that doesn’t mean the watershed hasn’t been beaten up, much of its bruising from sweeping white pine clear-cutting decades ago. More recently, stream crossings over culverts have collapsed, creating jams and resulting in sediment pouring into the waterway. The stream then fractured, with spawning beds smothering from siltation.

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Invaders in the Great Lakes

By Marguerite Huber

Smaller zebra mussels cover a larger native mussel

Zebra mussels cover a native mussel. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I grew up in Chicago, where Lake Michigan, or simply “the lake” as we locals refer to it, is a part of everyday life. I swam in it. I ran next to it. I drank the water from it. I even paddle boarded on it.

As fond as I am of Lake Michigan, it and all the other Great Lakes are facing a big challenge. They have been invaded by more than 190 species of aquatic plants and animals not native to the area, and at least 22 fishes and 16 aquatic invertebrates pose a high risk of invading the Great Lakes in the near future.

These invasive species can be introduced deliberately or accidentally through ballast water discharge from commercial vessels, recreational boating and fishing, and pet aquarium releases. These species cause significant ecological and economic impacts in the Great Lakes. For instance the cost to the Great Lakes region from invasive species is over $200 million dollars annually!

EPA researchers have been studying how to monitor and detect aquatic invasive species through two different studies in the Duluth-Superior Harbor area, the largest Great Lakes commercial port and one under intense invasive species pressure. A Great Lakes-wide early detection program is required by 2015 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The goal of the research was to evaluate sampling designs that would help develop an efficient early-detection monitoring program for invasive species. To do so, researchers conducted intensive sampling to create a data set that could be used to explore different monitoring strategies.

One study concluded that species detection can be enhanced based on sampling equipment and habitat, making it an important step towards improving early detection monitoring. They found the most efficient strategy was to sample the mix of habitats or gear that produce the most species, but to also sample across all habitats.

In this study, researchers found high occurrences of certain invasive species such as zebra mussel and Eurasian ruffe.

In another study, researchers focused on determining the effort required for early detection of non-native zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, and fish in the Harbor. To do so, the research team tallied and identified roughly 40,000 zooplankton, 52,000 benthic invertebrates, and 70,000 fish during sampling.

In the early detection study, the researchers detected 10 non-native fish species and 21 non-native aquatic invertebrate, some of which were new detections for the Great Lakes. The central finding was that detecting 100% of species is unrealistic given resource limitations, but monitoring at a level that can detect greater than 95% of the species pool is possible. At this level of effort, there is better than a 50% chance of finding a very rare species, such as one that was recently introduced.

Overall, EPA’s invasive species research is yielding a substantial advance in the ability to design monitoring and early warning systems for aquatic invasive species. Together with prevention methods, that should go a long way in maintaining the biological integrity and sustainability of the Great Lakes. That would be welcome news for anyone who relies on “the lake” for their livelihood, their drinking water, or for a place to paddleboard.

 

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Water Justice and the Grand Cal

The Grand Calumet River after restoration work

The Grand Calumet River after restoration work

 

Not far from Chicago’s South Side Altgeld Gardens, where Hazel and Cheryl Johnson helped birth and nurture the critical work of environmental justice, meanders the Grand Calumet River.

The two branches of the Grand Cal come together to flow out through the Indiana Harbor Canal into Lake Michigan. These waterways are home for some of the heaviest industrial legacy pollutants in the country. Neighborhoods that line the river experience some of the toughest blight of any urban area. Some 90 percent of the river’s flow comes from municipal and industrial effluent, cooling and process water, and stormwater overflows.

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Taking Care of Our Coasts

Our coasts support jobs and everyday life for millions of people, and it’s no secret that we’re crowding them: more people are moving to them and more people are going on beach vacations. Coasts are also some of the most biologically rich places on Earth, including those on the Great Lakes, where fish go to reproduce and birds stop during migration.

It’s little wonder that so much demand for our coasts means that so little open coastline remains.

Here in the Great Lakes, that changed a little on September 16th when northeast Ohio’s Lake Metroparks added about 1.6 miles of coastline as a public space. When completed later this year, the park will encompass some 600 acres.

Lake Erie Bluffs-Kayaks-1

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Closing Thoughts, Reflecting on the Trip

By Julie Barker

The author enjoys a tow during the trip.

The author enjoys a tow during the trip.

Our Chequamegon Bay research cruise wrapped up Tuesday, one day early! Our early return was the result of a lot of hard work and the luck of great weather (except the heat, which we northerners are not accustomed to).

Here are some take-away facts of what we accomplished in 10 days:

  • 14 Benthic sleds (a sampling technique).
  • 274 Ponar grabs, which means…
    The Lake Explorer II

    Research Vessel Lake Explorer II

    • If you average three rounds of elutriation (separating the samples, as described in our previous post) per sample (normally our minimum), that’s at least 822 times we stuck our arms in sediments up to our elbows swirling round and round.  I must say, my right hand and arm are nicely exfoliated.
    • If you average 200 organisms per sample, that means we may have approximately 54,800 organisms to now pick out of woody debris, vegetation, or bits of sediment that didn’t get flushed out in elutriation.  Once picked, each organism will be individually examined under a microscope and identified as close to species as possible.
  • 830 person hours of work.
  • We filled out enough field sheets to fill a one-inch thick binder.
  • We collected approximately 28 gallons worth of samples (seperated out into varying sizes of sample jars).
    Sample bottles

    Sample bottles

In addition to accomplishing the goals of our study, we also had some fun adventures.  Last Friday we came across an unmanned boat while en route to a site.  It was evident that the boat got loose from its dock because the bow line had parted.  For the safety of others, we towed the boat to the nearest residential dock.  I had the pleasure of riding in the boat while we towed it, to keep it from fishtailing.  A nice lady answered our knock on her door, and agreed to let us leave the runaway boat at her dock for the coast guard.

All in all it was a productive and fun research cruise.  However, the work is just beginning.  We now need to process the samples in order to enumerate and identify all organisms.

Thank you for following our blog, we hope you enjoyed reading about our work!

Julie BarkerAbout the Author: Julie Barker is an ORISE fellow with EPA’s Midcontinent Ecology Division, part of the Agency’s Office of Research and Development. She has been participating in coastal field study assessments, and her research includes investigating how wetland-nearshore interactions affect coastal fisheries, and exploring novel ways to detect invasive species.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Chequamegon Bay – Day 6: Separating Samples

The Art of “Elutriation”

By Will Bartsch

The Lake Explorer II

The Lake Explorer II

The benthic survey is progressing nicely. The Lake Explorer II has already sampled all of the deep spots that it can safely access and was docked yesterday.

The 90-foot vessel can operate safely in water as shallow as five meters. However, much of Chequamegon bay is shallower than that. So, we’ve enlisted other boats to join the effort. The Prairie Sounder, being able to operate in one meter of water, got an early start and has been out taking Ponars (a heavy metal sampling device as described in my first post; see below for more about this) in the shallow, coastal areas of the Bay near Ashland. In anticipation of needing another small vessel that can operate in shallow areas, we towed the Research Vessel Tullibee from Duluth on Monday. The Tullibee is 26 feet long and has a cathedral hull that offers extra stability, and was also taking Ponars.

More About Ponars

A ponar

Deploying a Ponar.

A Ponar is a metal contraption that is designed to be lowered to the bottom of the lake using an overhead cable and winch. It is lowered in an open position and, because it is so heavy, will sink into soft or sandy sediment. Upon hitting bottom, the locking mechanism releases. This allows the jaws to close and collect a sample when it is retrieved. Because it needs to sink into the sediment to work properly, it is not an effective sampling method for areas with hard or rocky bottoms. Even sporadic gravel can cause problems as it doesn’t allow the jaws of the Ponar to properly shut.

Once the Ponar is out of the water, its contents are emptied into a large bin. The next step is to separate the sample into two parts. The first part is all the benthic organisms. The second part is everything else that we don’t want: mud, clay, rocks, sand, sticks and other large organic detritus.

Elutriating

Elutriating a sample.

This process is called elutriation. To elutriate, we mix the sample with water in a hinged basin that has an outlet connected to a fine mesh net with a bottle at the end. After mixing we pour the top water, along with any benthic creatures that were suspended in the process, into the bottle. This is repeated multiple times until only the things we don’t want remain in the basin. The sample that is captured in the bottle is preserved with ethanol and taken back to the lab.

Next we will investigate sites to deploy the benthic sled. We’ll let you know how it goes.

 About the Author: Will Bartsch is an ORISE fellow with EPA’s Midcontinent Ecology Division, part of the Agency’s Office of Research and Development. He primarily analyzes data collected as part of the NationalAuthor Will Bartsch Coastal Condition Assessment survey, and works on early detection methods for invasive species in Great Lakes coastal embayments.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Life Aboard the Lake Explorer II – Day 4

By Julie Barker

Research Vessel Lake Explorer II

Research Vessel Lake Explorer II

Yesterday was the fourth day of our efforts sampling the benthic community of Chequamegon Bay. We all got a break over the weekend, but for the next five days, the Lake Explorer II (LE II) will be home to the nine of us contributing to the sampling effort.

What is life like on board? The LE II has five “staterooms” (bedrooms), four of which sleep two, and one that sleeps three (that’s my room).  Each has a bunk bed, a small desk, a sink, and a space to keep your personal items (most rooms have high-school-type lockers).  One of my favorite things about the staterooms is that each of the bunk beds has curtains that allow the occupant some privacy while sleeping, reading or just taking a break.

By now you may be wondering about bathrooms on the boat.  Referred to as “heads,” there are two, and there are two showers aboard.  We also have laundry machines available for longer trips.  All of the potable water used on the vessel comes from a large storage tank that is filled before every trip.

The galley is where we eat and socialize.

The galley is where we eat and socialize.

The primary social area on the vessel is the “galley” (kitchen).  There are always yummy snacks there.  Often a group of us will spend time there in the evenings playing board games like Scrabble, or watching a movie (although we usually never finish because we are all too tired from the workday to stay up).  On a typical research trip we eat all of our meals aboard the LE II because we are out in the middle of Lake Superior or docked/anchored in some remote area.  However, since this research trip is based out of Ashland, WI, we have been eating breakfast and lunch aboard the vessel and going out in the evenings to explore the different restaurants in the area.

When you want to get a good vantage of your surroundings from the boat, the best place to go is the bridge (where the captain drives, controls, and monitors the vessel).  We do all our sampling and sample processing (which we will describe in an upcoming blog post) off the large back deck of the vessel. Although we are not doing much laboratory work on the LE II for this trip, the vessel does have a large science area.  We have been using this space primarily for research planning and organizing the benthic samples we have collected so far.

Back deck where we work.

Back deck where we work.

Overall, life on the boat is comfortable, enjoyable, and a unique experience.  Sampling trips such as these have been a great way to get to know my co-workers, and I’m sure we are all creating a lot of good memories.

Julie BarkerAbout the Author: Julie Barker is an ORISE fellow with EPA’s Midcontinent Ecology Division, part of the Agency’s Office of Research and Development. She has been participating in field study assessments of coastal embayments, and her research includes investigating how wetland-nearshore interactions affect coastal fisheries, and exploring if underwater video can be effectively used to detect invasive species.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Starting from the Bottom: Sampling the Benthic Community of Chequamegon Bay, Lake Superior – Day 1

By Will Bartsch

Today is the beginning of a twelve day effort to thoroughly characterize the benthic community of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay. The benthic zone is the lowest level of a body of water, including sediment at the bottom of a lake or ocean. The invertebrate organisms that live on the bottom of lakes and oceans form an important part of the lake’s food web. Because they all have varying degrees of sensitivity to environmental degradation, the presence or absence of certain species can help us determine the condition of the entire aquatic system.

Research Vessel Lake Explorer II

Research Vessel Lake Explorer II

At 8:00 am this morning, the Research Vessel Lake Explorer II cruised out of the Duluth Superior harbor on its way to the Chequamegon Bay.  The Lake Explorer II is a 90′ long EPA vessel that is based in Duluth, MN. It can accommodate up to eleven people. The six crew members and scientists aboard will reach their destination after approximately six hours of cruising.

 

By the time the Lake Explorer II arrives at the Chequamegon Bay, three other scientists in the 26’ Research Vessel Praire Sounder will have already started collecting Ponar samples of the sediment. A Ponar is a heavy, metal sampling device that is lowered from the boat into the soft sediment below. Its jaws automatically close upon retrieval and a sample is brought to the surface. During this survey we will take close to 300 Ponar samples and an additional dozen benthic sled samples (I’ll tell you more about the sled in a later post; stay tuned).

Chequamagon Bay - Sampling Sites

Locations of the survey’s sampling sites in the Chequamegon Bay.

On this twelve day sampling journey, we will travel all around the Chequamegon Bay to get samples that will give us an accurate characterization of the entire benthic community. To choose these sampling locations – or sample points – we used a method called Generalized Random Tessellation Stratified (GRTS). This method uses a spatially-balanced, random selection technique to ensure good areal coverage of the study location and minimize the chance of bias that can come from oversampling particular habitat types.

Throughout this project, my colleague Julie Barker and I will be chronicling our efforts in the field and writing a blog post every few days. We hope that you enjoy the posts and learn more about the methods used to characterize aquatic environments.

Author Will BartschAbout the Author: Will Bartsch is an ORISE fellow with EPA’s Midcontinent Ecology Division, which is part of the Agency’s Office of Research and Development. He primarily analyzes data collected as part of the National Coastal Condition Assessment survey, and he works on early detection methods for invasive species in Great Lakes coastal embayments.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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