Ten Threats: Protecting Crumbling Shorelines

  • This is a private beach Charles Shabica developed for a homeowner on Chicago's North Shore. The grasses in the background are native to the area and help stabilize the beach and bluff. They also help trap and filter runoff. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ Our
guide in the series is Lester Graham. He says the next report looks at protecting property
and protecting nature:


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:


Great Lakes shorelines naturally change over time. Beaches erode. Dunes shift.
Sometimes, even the rockiest bluffs collapse.


That’s OK for nature, but maybe not for a house sitting on top of it. So it’s no wonder
that landowners try to stabilize their shorelines. To do that, they sometimes build walls
of steel or concrete to block incoming waves. It’s a tricky process. If the walls are too
short, they won’t stop erosion. But if they’re too long, they trap sand that moves
naturally along the lakeshore.


When nearby beaches can’t get sand, they degrade into muddy or rocky messes.


Charles Shabica is a coastal engineer. He’s been working at the problem for decades
now.


“My dream is to see the shores of the Great Lakes ultimately stabilized, but in a good
way and not a bad way where you’re causing problems.”


Shabica takes me to a small private beach north of Chicago. He engineered it to keep the
shoreline intact. The keys to that are two piles of rock that jut out into the lake.


The piles are just the right size – big enough to protect the shore, but small enough to let
some sand pass by. There’re other elements to the design as well.


Tall, blue-green grasses line the beach’s perimeter.


“Not only do waves tend to move sand around, but wind is also really an important agent,
too. So the beach grass and dune grass tends to stabilize the sand. And what will happen
is, you can see these things are seeding now, wind will blow the seeds and pretty soon
you get that stuff growing all over the place.”


A lot of homeowners and city planners applaud Shabica’s work. But not everyone does.


Some environmental groups say, once a landowner builds a wall or rock formation,
others have to follow suit, just to preserve their own sandy shoreline.


The environmental groups’ alternative? Keep development farther away from shorelines
and allow more natural erosion.


But that hands-off approach is not likely to happen. The majority of Great Lakes
shoreline is privately owned. And in many states, landowners often prevail in court when
they try to protect their investments.


Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute says the question isn’t whether to
build near the shore, but how to do it.


He says, in the past, landowners tried to get off cheap. They didn’t pay for quality
construction or get expert advice on local geological systems.


“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to these systems, it’s gonna cost you a lot of money.
And if you build inappropriate structures or inappropriate recreational facilities, you’re
going to either be paying a lot of money to sustain them or you’re gonna lose them.”


A lot of coastal geologists agree that, for much of the Great Lakes coast, private
shoreline protection efforts – even the bad ones – are here to stay.


In urban or suburban areas, housing developments near the shore often include a buffer or
wall.


Michael Chrzastowski is with Illinois’ Geological Survey. He says, in these cases, the
shore can look natural…


“But it’s going to be a managed, engineered facility, because wherever you are on the
shore, you’re influenced by some other construction or historical development along the
shore that’s altered the processes where you are.”


That’s definitely the case along highly-developed, urban coastlines, such as Illinois’.
Other parts of the region are catching up, though.


“What’s going to happen is, other places along the great lakes as they become more
developed and they become more urbanized, they’re going to use Illinois as a model.”


That could bring more projects like Charles Shabica’s little beach. Shabica says that’s
not necessarily a bad thing.


It’s just a way to come to terms with our presence along the lakes.


“Human beings are here to stay. It’s our responsibility I think to make our environment
better for us, but not at the expense of the biological community, and your neighbors.”


That sounds reasonable enough. But it will ultimately mean the vast, natural coastlines of
the Great Lakes will be engineered, one beach at a time.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Tug-Of-War Over Great Lakes Seawall

  • Some people who escape to Promontory Point from the "concrete jungle" of Chicago are worried about the Point's future. (Photo by James Lin)

Cities along the Great Lakes often depend on sea walls to keep the crashing waves from eroding the shoreline. Some of those walls have been around for close to a century. One city wants to rebuild its protective walls. But the neighborhood near one popular section is not happy about it. They say the huge limestone blocks give the area character. They don’t want concrete to replace any of it. But the structure is deteriorating, and the city and Army Corps of Engineers want to shore it up. The plan for repairing the seawall is igniting an age-old debate between historic preservation and shoreline protection… and it’s got an entire neighborhood ready to fight. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lynette Kalsnes has more:

Transcript

Cities along the Great Lakes often depend on sea walls
to keep the crashing waves from eroding the shoreline. Some of
those walls have been around for close to a century. One city wants
to rebuild its protective walls. But the neighborhood near one popular
section is not happy about it.


They say the huge limestone blocks give
the area character. They don’t want concrete to replace any of it. But
the structure is deteriorating, and the city and Army Corps of Engineers
want to shore it up. The plan for repairing the seawall is igniting an
age-old debate between historic preservation and shoreline protection…
and it’s got an entire neighborhood ready to fight. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lynette Kalsnes has more:


(Sound of water)


Jack Reed stands on the edge of the huge limestone rocks that make up the seawall, drying himself off. He just swam a mile along the shore of Lake Michigan. He drapes a big flannel sheet over his head that he’s fashioned into a makeshift changing tent, and modestly gets out of his swimsuit.


The 67-year-old has been swimming off this rocky peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan for forty years now. He says the trees and the giant limestone rocks made him appreciate nature and realize how much he needs a break from the city.


“I sort of hate to leave and go back to the grind, ’cause when you’re out here, you can relax and look at the sky and get in the water and watch the birds and the clouds go by. It’s like a vacation trip, just as long as you have time for.”


The place where Reed comes to swim and relax is called Promontory Point. The point is lined with large limestone blocks that stretch along the water like a chunky, irregular staircase.
People come here to swim, fish and bicycle. They have picnics, walk their dogs and throw Frisbees.


The city and Army Corps want to replace a lot of the limestone with concrete. They say the limestone seawall is getting weak. They just overcame an important obstacle by winning approval for their concept from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency which recognizes the limestone wall as a historic part of Chicago. Jack Reed says replacing the limestone with concrete would make the Point seem sterile.


“The thing about concrete is it’s artificial. It’s manmade. We spend most of our lives inside buildings and buses and subway tunnels; that’s all manmade.”


Reed says he comes here to escape what he calls the “concrete jungle” of the city. He says the limestone makes a soft, naturalistic transition between land and water. But the lakeshore isn’t as natural as it looks.


Less than a century ago, this whole area was part of the lake. The point was created by dumping debris into the lake in the 1920s. Workers built the limestone seawalls on top of wood shorings. Now the wood is rotting, and the rocks are shifting. The city and the Army Corps say that’s dangerous for people and for the shoreline.


And the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency says there needs to be balance between safety and historic preservation and making the shoreline accessible to people with disabilities. David Blanchette is with the state agency. He says the wall has to be reconstructed to stabilize the shoreline.


“Our job is to make sure that this historical resource, which was built for a specific purpose quite some time ago, preserves as much hisotric character as possible, but still allows it to function for its intended use.”


The work at Promontory Point is part of a 300-million dollar project to replace miles of old limestone revetments along the city’s lakeshore, but the point has caused a snag in the plan. Community members and preservationists have stalled the work at Promontory Point for years now.


The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois put the point on its list of ten most endangered historic places in the state, putting it at odds with the Historic Preservation agency.
And Council president David Bahlman says it’s one of the few spots left where the lakeshore hasn’t been hardened with concrete.


“Let’s say it’s an unacceptable compromise that moves closer to ensuring that two-thirds of the point is going to be destroyed.”


Most critics acknowledge something needs to be done to protect the shore from erosion. But they say it’s entirely possible to come up with a plan that preserves limestone on the entire seawall, not just part of it. A community group is now lobbying the U.S. Senate for legislation to prevent funding for construction unless the limestone wall is preserved much as it is. A similar measure has already passed the U.S. House.


For the GLRC, I’m Lynette Kalsnes.

Related Links

Urban Vegetable Farm Takes Root in Brownfield

  • Just outside the Greensgrow compound (photo by Brad Linder)

A farm is a strange thing to see in the middle of a gritty, urban area.
But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder recently visited a small
farm on what used to be a polluted site in an industrial neighborhood:

Transcript

A farm is a strange thing to see in the middle of an gritty, urban area.
But the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder recently visited a
small farm on what used to be a polluted site in an industrial
neighborhood:


One of the first things you notice about this one-acre plot in
Philadelphia is how out of place the farm looks. About a block away is a
busy interstate highway that jams up with rush hour traffic twice a day.


The farm itself is surrounded by rowhouses, a steel galvanizing plant, and
an auto detail shop.


Chino Rosatto runs the auto shop. About 8 years ago, he first met his new
neighbors – a small group of farmers.


”It was weird at first, you don’t see no farm in the city.”


But Rosatto says he got used to the farm started by Mary Seton Corboy
pretty quickly.


“It was an empty lot. Nothing there. Just fenced up, and that was it. She
came up, did something with it.”


Before it was an empty lot, this city block was a steel plant. In 1988
the building was demolished, and the EPA declared the site hazardous.


It was cleaned up, but Rosatto says it was nothing but concrete slabs
until Mary Seton Corboy and her small group of volunteers came and started
the farm they call Greensgrow.


Corboy moved to Philadelphia from the suburbs nearly a decade ago. With a
background as a chef, she’d always been concerned about how hard it was to
find fresh produce. So she decided to grow it herself.


“The question that just kept coming up over and over again was, is there
any reason why you have to be in a rural area to grow food, given the fact
that the market for the food, the largest market for the food, is in the
urban area?”


Corboy says usually food travels an average of 1500 miles from its source
to wind up on most Americans plates. And she says when it comes to flavor
– nothing is more important than how fresh the food is.


“If you eat strawberries that are commercially available,
you have no taste recognition of something that people 40 years ago would
say is a strawberry, because of the refrigeration, because of the way they
are picked underripe, because of the things they are sprayed with to give
them a longer shelf life.”


Corboy says her first choice for a farm wouldn’t have been an abandoned
industrial site. But the rent was cheaper than it would be at almost any
other spot in the city.


And even though the EPA and scientists from Penn State University
confirmed that there were no toxic chemicals left, Corboy doesn’t plant
anything edible in the ground.


She grows some plants in greenhouses. Others are planted in raised soil
beds. And she grows lettuce in PVC pipes that deliver nutrients to the
plants without any soil at all.


Corboy still regularly sends plant samples out for testing. The results?


“At one point Penn State sent us back a report, we talked to
them on the phone about it, and they said your stuff is actually cleaner
than stuff that we’ve seen grown on farms. Go figure that. We feel very, very comfortable
with the produce that we grow. Because, you know, I’ve been living on it
myself for 8 years.”


And restaurant owners say they’re happy to buy some of the freshest
produce available.


Judy Wicks is owner the White Dog Cafe, a Philadelphia
restaurant that specializes in locally grown foods and meat from animals
raised in humane conditions. She’s been a loyal Greensgrow customer for 8
years.


“As soon as we heard about Greensgrow, we were really excited
about the idea of supporting an urban farm on a brownfield – what a
dream! To you know, take an unsightly, unused block, and turn it into a
farm. It’s just a really exciting concept.”


Wicks says she’s never had a concern about the quality of the food,
because of the care taken to prevent it from touching the soil.


In addition to its restaurant business, Greensgrow sells fruit and
vegetables to Philadelphia residents at a farmer’s market twice a week.
The farm also operates one of the only nurseries in the city, which begins
selling plants this spring.


Mary Seton Corboy says running the farm has taught her a lot about food,
the environment, and waste. She says she doesn’t look at empty lots the
same way anymore. She’s learned to squeeze fruits, vegetables and flowers
out of every space of this city block. And she sees value in the things
other people throw out.


On a recent night Corboy was driving home with her farm manager Beth Kean,
and they spotted a pile of trash beside a building.


“But what they had dumped were all these pallets. And Beth
was with me in the car, and we both turned and looked at them and went,
Look at those pallets! Let’s come back and get them, they’re in great
shape!”


Urban farming is tough. Corboy originally had lofty goals for her farm.
Greensgrow was going to be a pilot project, something she’d expand to
include 10 farms throughout Philadelphia.


8 years later, Greensgrow is still anchored on its original one-acre site.
But by keeping her costs low and selling to loyal customers, Corboy sold
200-thousand dollars worth of produce last year. That was enough to make
2004 the farm’s first profitable year.


For the GLRC, I’m Brad Linder.

Related Links

Rethinking Water Runoff Design

  • Rainwater that falls on paved areas is diverted into drains and gutters. If the rainfall is heavy enough, the diverted water can cause flash flooding in nearby rivers and streams. (Photo by Michele L.)

Some planning experts are worried that the rapid development in cities and suburbs is paving over too much land and keeping water from replenishing aquifers below ground. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
reports:

Transcript

Some planning experts are worried that the rapid development in cities and suburbs is
paving over too much land and keeping water from replenishing aquifers below ground.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


In nature… when it rains… the water slowly soaks into the ground and makes its way
through the soil and rock to eventually be stored as groundwater. Some of it makes its
way underground to be stored in aquifers. And some of it slowly seeps through the rock
for a while and then resurfaces as springs to feed streams during times when there’s not a
lot of rain. It’s a natural storage system and a lot of cities rely on that water.


But when we build buildings and houses and parking lots and roads, a lot of the land
where the rain used to soak into the ground is covered up. Instead the rainwater runs off
the hard surfaces and rushes to stormwater gutters and ditches and then overloads creeks
and rivers. Even where there are big expansive lawns in the suburbs… the rain doesn’t
penetrate the ground in the same way it does in the wild. The grass on lawns has shallow
roots and the surface below is compact… where naturally-occurring plants have deep
roots that help the water on its way into the earth.


Don Chen is the Executive Director of the organization Smart Growth America. His
group tries to persuade communities to avoid urban sprawl by building clustering houses
and business districts closer together and leave more natural open space.


“With denser development you have a much lower impact per household in terms of
polluted runoff.”


Chen says the rain washes across driveways and parking lots, washing engine oil, and
exhaust pollutants straight into streams and rivers instead of letting the water filter across
green space.


Besides washing pollutants into the lakes and streams… the sheer volume of water that
can’t soak into the ground and instead streams across concrete and asphalt and through
pipes can cause creeks to rise and rise quickly.


Andi Cooper is with Conservation Design Forum in Chicago. Her firm designs
landscapes to better handle water…


“Flooding is a big deal. It’s costly. That’s where we start talking about economics. We
spend billions and billions of dollars each year in flood damage control.”


Design firms such as Cooper’s are trying to get developers and city planners to think
about all that water that used to soak into the ground, filtering and being cleaned up a bit
by the natural processes.


Smart Growth America’s Don Chen says those natural processes are called infiltration….
and Smart Growth helps infiltration…


“And the primary way in which it does is to preserve open space to allow for natural
infiltration of water into the land so that there’s not as much pavement and hard surfaces
for water to bounce off of and then create polluted runoff.”


People such as Chen and Cooper are bumping up against a couple of centuries or more of
engineering tradition. Engineers and architects have almost always tried to get water
away from their creations as fast and as far as possible. Trying to slow down the water…
and giving it room to soak into the ground is a relatively new concept.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to get communities to give the idea
some consideration. Geoff Anderson is the Acting Chief of Staff for the EPA’s Office of
Policy, Economics and Innovation.


“Anything you can do to keep that water on site and have it act more like it does in its
natural setting, anything you can do to sort of keep that recharge mechanism working,
that’s helpful.”


The EPA does not require that kind of design. It leaves that to local governments and the
private sector. The Conservation Design Forum’s Andi Cooper says sometimes getting
companies to think about treating water as a resource instead of a nuisance is a hard
sell…


“You know, this is risky. People tell us this is risky. ‘I don’t want to do this; it’s not the
norm.’ It’s becoming less risky over time because there are more and more
demonstrations to point to and say ‘Look, this is great. It’s working.’ ”


But… corporate officials are hesitant. Why take a chance on something new? They fear
if something goes wrong the boss will be ticked off every time there’s a heavy rain.
Cooper says, though, it works… and… reminds them that investors like companies that
are not just economically savvy… but also have an environmental conscience.


“A lot of companies are game. They’re open. If we can present our case that yes, it
works; no, it’s not risky; it is the ethical thing to do; it is aesthetically pleasing; there are
studies out there that show you can retain your employees, you can increase their
productivity if you give them open spaces to walk with paths and make it an enjoyable
place to come to work everyday.”


So… doing the right thing for the environment… employees… and making investors
happy… make Wall Street risk takers willing to risk new engineering to help nature
handle some of the rain and get it back into the aquifers and springs that we all value.


For the GLRC… this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

RETHINKING WATER RUNOFF DESIGN (Short Version)

  • Rainwater that falls on paved areas is diverted into drains and gutters. If the rainfall is heavy enough, the diverted water can cause flash flooding in nearby rivers and streams. (Photo by Michele L.)

An Environmental Protection Agency official wants local governments to take a broader view when making land use plans for their communities. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

An Environmental Protection Agency official wants local governments to take a broader view
when making land use plans for their communities. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham reports:


Often planners don’t look past their own city borders when making decisions. Geoff Anderson
wants that to change. He’s the Acting Chief of Staff for the EPA’s Office of Policy, Economics
and Innovation. Anderson says city officials often look at land use planning one site at a time
instead of looking at how their decisions will affect the entire area…


“The two scales are very important and I think in many cases too much is paid to the site level
and not enough is given to the sort of broader regional or community context.”


Anderson says that’s especially important when planning for stormwater drainage. He says too
many communities think about getting the water to the nearest stream quickly without thinking
about how that rushing water might affect flooding downstream.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Venturing Down Into the Seaway Locks

  • People have depended on the locks of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway for decades. (Photo by David Sommerstein)

The locks and channels for ships in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway are getting old. Some were built more than 75 years ago. The U.S. and Canada are conducting a multi-million dollar study to determine how to keep the aging waterway functional, so ships can continue to haul cargo between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. While the Seaway is closed in winter, workers empty the locks of their water for annual maintenance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein climbed eight stories down to the bottom of one lock on the St. Lawrence River to see how it’s going:

Transcript

The locks and channels for ships in the Great Lakes
and St. Lawrence Seaway are getting old. Some were built more
than 75 years ago. The U.S. and Canada are conducting a multi-
million dollar study to determine how to keep the aging waterway
functional, so ships can continue to haul cargo between the Great
Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. While the Seaway is closed in winter,
workers empty the locks of their water for annual maintenance. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein climbed eight stories
down to the bottom of one lock on the St. Lawrence River to see how
it’s going:


If you’ve never seen a lock before, it’s basically a long, concrete channel filled with water. A freighter goes in one end. Gates close in front and behind it, so the water level can be raised or lowered to move the ship up or down, and out the other end.


Here, that channel’s empty and dry and you can see how huge this lock really is. I get a queasy feeling as I ease onto the steep metal stairs. I can see the lock floor 80 feet below me. Maintenance director Jesse Hinojosa radios down to the bottom. He says workers lose track of how often they climb the stairs.


“We should get a good count of that. They go up and down all day long on it.”


(sound of steps)


I take it step by step. There’s a temporary roof overhead. The only light comes from floodlamps.
The lock gates are open so they can be worked on, so at one end of the lock are stoplogs – stacked steel that temporarily keeps the river out. Still, some water rushes through and has to be pumped out.


(sound of water rushing)


Paul Giometta tops off the fuel tank of one of 10 furnaces that heat the area. He wears a fleece hat and big yellow boots. During the shipping season, he helps guide freighters’ in and out of the lock. But in the winter, he shifts to a totally different line of work.


Giometta: “Chipping concrete, stuff like that, painting, whatever has to be done.”


Sommerstein: “It’s an old lock, there’s a lot of chipping concrete.”


Giometta: “Oh, yeah, there’s no end to that. What you fix today, years later you start all over again.”


Winter maintenance has been an annual job on this lock since the Seaway system opened in 1959. The scale of the work is almost impossible to wrap your mind around. To raise or lower a freighter, the lock flushes 22 million gallons of water in just 7 minutes. It uses gears, valves, tunnels, and huge gates to accomplish the task. Most of that equipment is original, now almost 50 years old. Every winter, it all has to be checked out and tested. Some parts are replaced.


Tom Levine directs the Seaway’s engineering department. He points to the lock’s crumbling concrete walls. He says that’s one of the biggest problems.


“The bad stuff, where the bad concrete is, you take a hammer, it sounds like a hollow wall, and these walls where you’re looking at are like 60 feet into the backfill. I mean, solid concrete, I mean, you wouldn’t believe it.”


Albert Jacquez holds his hardhat and looks up at the walls. He’s the St. Lawrence Seaway’s U.S. Administrator, based in Washington. His demeanor is like that of a homeowner wincing at his rickety porch or rotting roof.


“Well, what I see is a system that has worked well for half a century, but that in the near future needs a major overhaul.”


There are 22 other locks in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Most are owned by Canada. A binational study is underway to answer a critical question: how much will it cost to keep repairing all these locks and other infrastructure so they work for another 50 years? Jacquez says the answers the study finds could determine whether the Seaway gets a facelift or is left as is until it fails.


“Whatever those decisions are will be what they are, whether it’s ‘we’re gonna invest or we’re not gonna invest’, but they at least need the baseline numbers so that they know what they have ahead of them.”


But the study has been delayed. Lawmakers will have to wait at least a year longer than they expected because the project is so big. And President Bush has cut funding for the study in his budget plan by more than a half, which could delay it even further.


Meanwhile, keeping the Seaway open becomes more of a challenge every year. Jacquez says it’s like an old car.


“As it ages, we have to spend more and more time on it because we have more work to do.”


And workers face a hard deadline. Before spring shipping begins, where we’re standing will be flooded under 30 feet of water, so the lock can be ready to welcome the first freighter of the season.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

Essay: Tuning in to Urban Frogs

  • Ed Herrmann tries to hear some frogs through the traffic near the Rouge River. (Photo by Ed Herrmann)

Each Spring, thousands of people spend their evenings listening to frogs and toads. It’s not just for fun. They’re helping assess the water quality of rivers and wetlands around the country. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ed Herrmann joined the search for amphibians, and has this essay:

Transcript

Each Spring, thousands of people spend their evenings listening to frogs and toads. It’s
not just for fun. They’re helping assess the water quality of rivers and wetlands around
the country. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ed Herrmann joined the search for
amphibians, and has this essay:


I’ve always enjoyed being outside and listening to nature. Recording nature sounds is a
hobby of mine. So when I saw an ad asking for people to listen for frogs and toads, I
thought, “All right. Beats watching campaign commercials.”


I called up Friends of the Rouge…(that’s a local group dedicated to helping out the Rouge
River watershed) and a few days later I got a package in the mail. It was full of maps and
information, and had a CD with the songs of the local frogs and toads. I studied my area,
and found some good looking wet spots where I thought they might live.


I memorized the sound of the Wood Frog (sound), Chorus Frog (sound), Spring Peeper
(sound), and American Toad. Then, on the first night when the temperature and wind
conditions were just right, I headed out to hear some frogs.


(sound of traffic roaring by)


I don’t know what I was thinking. This is suburban Detroit, not exactly a wildlife refuge.
In fact, the only animal I see is a rabbit dodging traffic. And the only thing I hear is…
(more traffic sound)


The Rouge River flows into the Detroit River and then Lake Erie. It used to be one of the
dirtiest rivers around, mainly from all the industry down by the mouth. That problem is
more or less under control but now there’s a larger one.


If you look at a map from the 1970s, you see miles of wetlands, small farms and
orchards. Today you see nonstop subdivisions and shopping malls. It might seem like
progress to you, but for the river, the constant barrage of fertilizers, pesticides, soap and
other chemicals that everybody uses to keep their suburbs looking pretty is a lot worse
than an occasional dose of battery acid from a factory. Also having acres of concrete
instead of wetlands means there’s nothing to soak up and filter the water, which means
after a big rain, it floods. It’s obvious this river needs some help.


(sound of river)


In 1998, volunteers began surveying the frogs and toads in the Rouge watershed. These
creatures were chosen because they sing, so they’re easy to track. The reason they’re
good indicators is that, like other amphibians, they absorb water through their skin. That
means they get poisoned by everything that we in the civilized world pour into the water.
Plus, their eggs hatch in water and their larvae (the tadpoles) live in water. It’s pretty
simple: if the water is good, there’s plenty of frogs and toads. If not, they disappear.


So, night after night, I’m out there listening. Listening in the dark. Listening hard.


Not a peep.


I’m beginning to think that the price of all these well-manicured lawns is a silent spring.
Then finally one night, (sound of American toads) the good old American toad! All
right, it is the most common species around, but at least it’s a start.


(sound of chorus frogs and green frogs)


A few weeks later, I join a group at a “mitigated” wetland. That means that when a
developer decided that a real wetland would be the perfect place to build condos and a
golf course, the government said, “Sure, go ahead. Drain it. Just be sure to dig a hole
over here and fill it with water.” Now, five years later, some frogs have moved in and
seem to be fine.


But they still have a little problem…


(jet roars overhead, followed by a few green frogs)


Ah, location, location. This new wetland is right
next to the airport.


Now, the reason these frogs sing is to attract a mate. So if nobody hears them, there are
not going to be any tadpoles to make next year’s frogs. In order to survive, they need not
only to sing, but to be heard.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ed Herrmann.


(frogs fade out)

Related Links