Ten Threats: Wetlands – Where Life Begins

  • Great Lakes coastal wetlands filter water, give lots of wildlife a place to live and help prevent erosion. These wetlands are also greatly responsible for feeding the fish of the Great Lakes. (Photo by Lester Graham)

The Ten Threats to the Great Lakes were identified for us by experts from all over the region.
Again and again they stressed that the shores and wetlands along the lakes were critical to the
well-being of the lakes and the life in them. Great Lakes coastal wetlands filter water, give lots of
wildlife a place to live and help prevent erosion. But the coastal wetlands are also greatly
responsible for feeding the fish of the Great Lakes. Biologists are finding that when people try to
get rid of the wetlands between them and their view of the lake, it hurts the fish populations.
Reporter Chris McCarus takes us to where life begins in the lakes:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you the series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. One of the
keys to the health of the lakes is the connection between the lakes and the land.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham is our guide through the series:


The Ten Threats to the Great Lakes were identified for us by experts from all over the region.
Again and again they stressed that the shores and wetlands along the lakes were critical to the
well-being of the lakes and the life in them. Great Lakes coastal wetlands filter water, give lots of
wildlife a place to live and help prevent erosion. But the coastal wetlands are also greatly
responsible for feeding the fish of the Great Lakes. Biologists are finding that when people try to
get rid of the wetlands between them and their view of the lake, it hurts the fish populations.
Reporter Chris McCarus takes us to where life begins in the lakes:


(sound of walking in water)


About a dozen researchers have come to Saginaw Bay off of Lake Huron. They walk from the
front yard of a cottage into some tall grass and black mud out back. The coastal wetland is wide
here.


Don Uzarski is a professor from Grand Valley State University. He wants to see just how many
different kinds of microorganisms live in this wetland. He asks a colleague to dip a fine mesh net
into the muck.


“Why don’t you give us your best scoop there…”


The net’s contents are poured into a tray. The water and muck is pushed aside and tiny animals
are revealed. None of them is any bigger than an inch.


“There are a lot organisms right there. That’s a lot of fish food. Lot of water boatmen. We have
scuds swimming through here. We have snails. Probably a bloodworm. I don’t see it. But the
red thing.”


Uzarski says this is a healthy patch of wetland. It’s where Great Lakes life begins.


“The whole community starts here. And we’re talking about everything from the birds and fish
and all the things that people tend to care about more. But without this stuff we don’t have
anything.”


These microorganisms are at the bottom of the food chain. Lake trout, walleye and salmon are at
the top. But this natural order has been disturbed by humans. Only parts of the wetland are able
to work as nature intended. The bugs, snails and worms are supposed to be everywhere here. But
Uzarski says they’re not.


“Look at if we take 20 steps over there we’re not going to find the same thing. It’s gonna be
gone. And where’s that coming from? It’s coming from these disturbed edges. Which were
disturbed by? It was the spoils from dredging out that ditch right there.”


The dredging material is piled along the edge… a bit like a dike. Uzarski says that’s one of the
three main threats to coastal wetlands.


The dikes stop the natural flow of water. Farm and lawn fertilizers, sediment and chemical
pollution are not filtered out when they run off the land. Dikes also stop the water from carrying
food for fish out into the lake… and in the other direction, water can’t bring oxygen from the lake
into the wetlands. They’re at risk of becoming stagnant pools.


A second threat to the wetlands is alien invasive plants. Ornamental plants intended for gardens
have escaped. Phragmites, purple loosestrife, and European water milfoil among others all choke
out the native plants that help make the wetland systems work.


But… the greatest threat to the coastal wetlands is construction. We’ve been building homes,
buildings and parking lots right over the top of some of the Great Lakes’ most critical wetlands.


Sam Washington is Executive Director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the state’s
largest hunting and fishing advocacy group. He says we need healthy wetlands if we want to
keep fishing the Great Lakes.


“If we didn’t have wetlands, if we didn’t have the ability to regenerate the bottom foods in the
food cycle of these animals, we wouldn’t have the big fish that people go out in the Great Lakes
to catch everyday. They just wouldn’t be there.”


Washington says the way to fix the problem is easy… but it will require us to do something that
comes really hard…


“The best thing human beings can do for wetlands, even though we really believe we know how
to fix everything, is just to leave ’em alone.”


Sam Washington gets support from the biologists who tromp out into the wetlands. They say
we’ve got to protect the whole food chain… so we should leave wetlands alone and just let nature
do its job.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

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

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

What Is “Smart Growth?”

The rapid growth of suburban areas, what some people call urban sprawl, is getting renewed attention by states. New governors in several states are setting up commissions or task forces to address the issue and to find ways to adhere to what’s called “Smart Growth.” The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that there’s a lot of interpretation of what “Smart Growth” means:

Transcript

The rapid growth of suburban areas, what some people call urban sprawl, is getting renewed
attention by states. New governors in several states are setting up commissions or task forces to
address the issue and to find ways to adhere to what’s called “Smart Growth.” The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that there’s a lot of interpretation of what “Smart
Growth” means:


Many urban planners have been alarmed over the last couple of decades as metropolitan areas have
sprung up where farmland or wooded areas once stood. Following new subdivisions have been
strip malls, parking lots and fast food franchises in a not always attractive fashion.


Last year’s election saw a number of states with new governors and some of them are looking at
what can be done to control that kind of unbridled growth. Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm noted it
during her State of the State speech.


“We will develop a cooperative, common sense approach to how we use our land so we can protect
our forests and farms, prevent the sprawl that chokes our suburban communities and threatens our
water quality, and bring new life to our cities and older suburbs.”


Governor Granholm says she wants “Smart Growth.” It’s a popular term, but what is it? What
does it mean?


“I think that Smart Growth is really hard to – certainly hard to describe.”


Barry Rabe is a Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of Michigan’s School of
Natural Resources and Environment. He says “Smarth Growth” sounds great.


“I don’t know anyone who’s really against Smart Growth. But, you can spend a long academic
seminar or actually a lifetime in search of the one common definition of exactly what that means.
Again, it has sort of an intuitive appeal. It resonates. We can all think of examples that are not so
Smart Growth or dumb growth. But, I think clearly this is something that lends itself to differing
kinds of interpretations by different groups.”


And as you ask the people who’ll be sitting at the table debating “Smart Growth,” it becomes clear
that each one has a different definition.


Lynn Egbert is the CEO of the Michigan Association of Home Builders. He says “Smart Growth”
is a private citizen building a home wherever he or she thinks is an ideal site.


“Our basis continues to be and our primary focus is, and it will remain, that it’s private property
rights under the U.S. Constitution that have to be maintained and that is an individual right. It is a
citizen’s right. And we have to work with local and state government to make sure that that’s
achieved and balanced.”


Egbert says the culprit causing urban sprawl is not the choices that landowners make. He says it’s
too much government regulation. Egbert says, generally, municipalities that zone areas into large
lots stop home builders from building more houses on smaller plots of land.


Others also place much of the blame for sprawl on government, but for different reasons. Hans
Voss is with the Michigan Land Use Institute.

______________
“Landowners do have a right to live in the area in which they choose as long as they follow local
land-use regulations and pay the full cost of that lifestyle. And right now the taxpayers in the cities
and across the whole states are actually subsidizing that style of development.”


Voss says to implement “Smart Growth,” the government has to stop subsidizing urban sprawl by
building highways and sewer systems that all of us have to pay for with our taxes instead of just the
residents who benefit from them. He says that money could be better used to revitalize older
suburbs and the center of deteriorating cities.


There are a lot more ideas of what “Smart Growth” means… and there’s a bit of public relations
spinning because of the ambiguity of the term “Smart Growth.”


The University of Michigan’s Barry Rabe says we’ll hear a lot about “Smart Growth” for some
time to come.


“It’s one of these buzz words that everybody likes. But, to come up with a common definition of
it, much less figure out how that would be implemented in public policy is tricky.”


Ultimately, compromise will define “Smart Growth” as states grapple with trying to find better ways
to use land without losing so much farmland to sprawling subdivisions and paving over natural areas
for parking lots.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.