"the Great Lakes are the ultimate receiving body of everything we do on land in the basin"
Why are coastal areas so important ecologically to the Great Lakes?
Rachael Franks Taylor:
Coastal areas, including shoreline, are the biological engines of the Great Lakes – they are the centers of diversity and productivity, stemming from the dynamic processes that occur where land and water meet. These attributes also mean that coasts are important for people - people love our shorelines. Migratory birds stop here to rest and refuel – and so do people. Not only do we find beauty and enjoyment in visiting them, many depend on coasts for their livelihoods. Fisheries, shipping, and tourism are all industries that rely on the coastal interface.
What are The Nature Conservancy’s current coastal and near-shore health strategies?
Rachael Franks Taylor:
The Nature Conservancy has been engaged in land protection and management, including invasive species control, on Michigan’s coasts for many years – these are still very important strategies. As the Conservancy embraces whole system conservation, we must also consider the processes, functions, and services that those whole systems provide – for nature and people. This approach leads us to expanded conservation effort in different types of places than we might have worked in the past, including Great Lakes Areas of Concern. In particular, in Western Lake Erie, we are examining the role and needs of people in pursuit of conservation goals, and how community well-being can be advanced through restoration of ecosystems services such as clean drinking water, flood protection, erosion control, and recreation and enjoyment. This work is proceeding with generous private support from the DTE Energy Foundation.
Green Bay, our other principal coastal conservation project, has a lot of similarities with Western Lake Erie - high biological productivity and diversity, fragmented ownership and management, centers of population, and high degree of threat. We’re also doing a lot of work on Eastern Lake Michigan, encompassing the largest freshwater dune system in the world, and along the southern and eastern shores of Lake Ontario. At each of these sites, we’re trying to achieve landscape-scale improvements as well as test practices and policies for potential application elsewhere in the Great Lakes. For example, the large-scale invasives management in Eastern Lake Michigan is the basis for a study with the Grand Valley State University to analyze the economic benefits of treatment on shoreline property values. If such an increase in property value results in additional property tax revenue, can these projected future tax gains help fund the removal of Phragmites, maintaining higher property values and improving coastal health?
At the same time, we’re focusing on the large-scale, dynamic coastal processes that determine where coastal habitats will form and persist. One important strategy is ensuring the adoption of adaptive lake-level management across the Great Lakes that mimics natural variation and meets the needs of multiple interests, including coastal systems that are reliant on periodic fluctuations. Lake level fluctuation is a natural, cyclical process in the Great Lakes, and indeed some coastal habitats are specifically adapted to those fluctuations, but past management regimes, like Lake Ontario’s lake level management at the Moses-Saunders Dam, have removed a lot of the variation in the system to the detriment of coastal health. We’re also looking at some of the current engineering approaches to protect people and property, which can interrupt coastal processes, particularly sediment movement, leading to different patterns of erosion and accretion. How can alternative, natural approaches improve coastal health while still offering the same protection? We’re looking at how to enhance coastal systems’ ability to persist under a range of future conditions (especially given changing climate) and to reduce hazards for surrounding human communities through coastal wetland restoration, installation of “living shorelines,” and other natural solutions.
How do decisions made upstream affect the Great Lakes’ coastal areas?
Rachael Franks Taylor:
The Great Lakes are the ultimate receiving body of everything we do on land in the basin, and activities in the greater watershed can have profound impacts on coastal systems. As naturally vegetated landscapes – forests and wetlands – are converted to other land uses, water moves through the system differently.
Watershed activities can change the amount and timing of sediment and nutrient delivery, availability of oxygen in rivers and nearshore waters, and other factors that affect habitat quality. Once a landscape is changed, water can pulse through the system more rapidly than it normally would, with less time for the sediments, nutrients, and contaminants to sift out as it travels across impervious landscapes or other altered waterways. Formerly, that water would be slowed by vegetation and routed through riparian wetlands where the free services of nature improve water quality.
The construction of dams and other barriers, like culverts under roads, also accelerate and increase sediment and nutrient loads in the bays. And, when poorly designed, they pose an obstacle for river-spawning fishes and other aquatic critters to access key upstream habitats. We need a stronger link between upstream actions and downstream implications.
The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Project recognizes this in its strategic priorities, which include watershed approaches to addressing downstream impacts of sediments and nutrients, and connectivity between rivers and the lakes themselves. Activities like floodplain restoration and natural drain management in agricultural watersheds are not new for the Conservancy, but this work is new in terms of setting priorities and tracking progress relative to our coastal and nearshore conservation goals. These are necessary activities that complement restoration and management activities that happen directly on coasts. Issues like algae blooms, for example, are occurring in a much broader context than just nearshore areas; that’s where the symptoms manifest, but the causes – and cure – are more widespread.
What are some of the things that we don’t know about coastal and near-shore systems in the Great Lakes, and how can we begin to fill those gaps in understanding?
Rachael Franks Taylor:
Certainly, we wish we knew more about offshore and coastal terrestrial systems, but the most significant knowledge and data gaps are those that relate to nearshore habitats and physical processes. While these areas are regularly inventoried for fisheries management purposes, those reports tend to emphasize the status of game species rather than taking a holistic look at the health of the shoreline as it relates to the larger coastal – and Great Lakes – system.
Unfortunately, studying shallow waters is more difficult logistically (you need smaller boats to access these areas, and therefore, more time and people-power). But, these systems are highly dynamic and complex, offering us a wealth of potential data and information. Many agencies and organizations recognize this, and are seeking to improve our understanding.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has made a lot of research and on-the-ground restoration possible, so we know more now than we ever have about these areas. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’ s Digital Coast have developed and made available high-resolution bathymetry data that shows the complexity of our coastlines as part of the Great Lakes Coastal Flood Study, a Federal Emergency Management Agency effort to comprehensively and consistently update coastal flood insurance maps.
The Nature Conservancy is working with partners on the University of Michigan-led Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Framework, an effort to develop a comprehensive coastal and offshore classification that will provide a means to describe Great Lakes ecological units and associate many types of data and knowledge (new and existing) so that we can more completely assess current condition and track habitat changes and trends over time.
Of course, ultimately, we need to make sure that this information is made meaningful for decision-makers and conservation practitioners.
How will increased federal funding help places the Conservancy has been working on for years, like Erie Marsh (near the Ohio border)?
Rachael Franks Taylor:
Western Lake Erie is a great demonstration of how federal investment through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is serving as an important catalyst throughout our region. A good example of this is at our Erie Marsh Preserve, which is managed in cooperation with the Erie Shooting and Fishing Club and is enrolled as part of our Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Ducks Unlimited had developed a plan to upgrade infrastructure on the preserve needed to control water levels, manage invasive Phragmites, and adaptively manage the coastal wetland units behind the dikes.
The first critical phase of this restoration project was funded by NOAA’s Restoration Center, and we’re seeking additional funding to complete additional phases. Conversations that began around restoration at this site have opened the door for deeper and wider dialogue with partners from Michigan DNR , the U.S. Geological Survey, Ohio EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and others to broaden the restoration efforts across boundaries. All of these partners are helping us go beyond considering restoration at one place to working toward a holistic vision for a healthy North Maumee Bay and, ultimately, Western Lake Erie Basin. We are now approaching $10M in on-the-ground restoration investments as well as complementary efforts to build the queue of coastal restoration projects in Western Lake Erie.
The evolution of these conversations represents a paradigm shift that is welcome in coastal systems. Rather than implementing a single action in a single place for a single species, we’re wrestling with how to protect and restore a network of functional coastal habitats for the full suite of biodiversity. That’s the scale at which coastal conservation makes the most sense and will be most effective.