Western Lake Erie Basin Project

The Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) is the most prolific Great Lakes system in terms of commercial and private fish catches, and it supports the greatest diversity of plant and animal species, including the densest mussel beds. The basin covers portions of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The WLEB provides a wide array of economic and ecological services to Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. It is the source of drinking water for millions and an important resource for industry that operates along its banks. It contributes to agriculture, energy production, and community development. The rivers and lakes are popular recreation areas providing opportunities to fish, swim, kayak, canoe, hike, and camp.

A critical piece that cannot be excluded from this effort is the human element. Practical, cost-effective solutions govern our goals which, based on science, strive to be compatible with social and economic goals. The reoccurring flooding problems, resurgence of harmful algal blooms, poor aquatic biodiversity within the streams and high phosphorus and sediment loads of the WLEB tributaries and Lake Erie must be addressed. The legacy of the Maumee and other tributaries to the WLEB should not be what it is present day, but rather what it can be when timeless, natural principles are respected and adhered to preventing more degradation and increasing conservation throughout the basin. The Nature Conservancy is working to protect the Western Lake Erie basin’s freshwater resource through policy and conservation for the health of communities and nature while balancing the needs of both people and nature.

Location & Size 

The basin covers portions of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Agriculture is the predominant land use (66.0%). The entire basin is over 8,000,000 acres in size covering portions of 40 counties and encompassing over two million citizens. Currently the Conservancy is focusing on watersheds which have predominately an agricultural land use, River Raisin, Maumee River and Sandusky River watersheds.

The largest watershed within the WLEB is the Maumee. Beginning in central-lower Michigan and northwestern Ohio the tributaries of the Maumee meet in Fort Wayne, Indiana and continue forming the Maumee on its course toward Lake Erie flowing through Toledo, Ohio. The Maumee River watershed is nearly 7,000 square miles in size covering all or portions of 25 counties in the three states with over 70 percent of the land base in agriculture. Due to the massive size of the basin there are striking differences between the northern and southern reaches 

Species of Concern

The Nature Conservancy has had a long presence in the WLEB due to the aquatic assemblages found in the tributaries of the Maumee River. Within the Maumee watershed, several listed species occur, including Blanding's Turtle, Copperbelly Water Snake, and the Blue-spotted Salamander, Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, Spotted Turtle, as well as several rare mussels in the tributaries. The St. Joseph River contains three federally endangered mussel species: White Cat’s Paw Pearly (last population found on Earth in Fish Creek), Clubshell, and Northern Riffleshell. The Auglaize (specifically the Upper Auglaize), River Raisin, and Sandusky Rivers have been identified as important headwater streams within the WLEB and are considered targets as well due to various state listed species occurring in these subwatersheds.

The WLEB coasts are also an important stopover site for many species of birds as they migrate north from non-breeding grounds in Latin America each year. Even though WLEB is a vital stop on their migration route, only small pockets of habitat remain. Many of the hydrologic features once visible in wetlands, riparian floodplains and oak savanna prairies are now scarce. Consequently, many species of migratory birds are declining, too.

What The Nature Conservancy has Done and is Doing

Given the size and scope of the Western Lake Erie Basin, a single group alone will not be able to make an impact. Thankfully, there are many groups already in existence working on conservation and farm management projects here. We can contribute to that effort by engaging and empowering others to direct their resources to the combined concern for hydrologic and nutrient impacts to the WLEB.

Increased sediment is impacting the quality of water, as are man-made changes to how water flows into this area. Planting trees, encouraging the use of no-till practices, cover crops and precision ag technology and fencing creeks to keep out livestock are a few of the tactics being used to keep this river clean so that mussels and fish can thrive while maintaining and/or improving agriculture’s viability.

The WLEB staff is currently working on an exciting venture with local farmers on ways to improve the function of drainage ditches while improving the environmental benefits that these watershed arteries could provide to the river systems. The Nature Conservancy is working with partners to design, test and install innovative practices like the two-stage, alternative ditch designs as well as strategically placed treatment wetlands, floodplain habitat restorations and managed tile systems.

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