Great Lakes issues discussed at summit
Anne Hokanson, Great Lakes coastal wetlands ecologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, answers questions on Monday at the fifth annual Lake Michigan Summit, held in Charlevoix and sponsored by the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. (Sheri McWhirter/News-Review)
Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council hosted the event on Monday at Charlevoix Area Library, when state and federal officials spoke about Michigan’s environmental climate and various Great Lakes restoration and protection policies. About two dozen people attended the free event.
Frank Ruswick, deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of the Great Lakes, said aquatic invasive species are among the greatest threats to the Great Lakes, including zebra and quagga mussels, as well as the recently much-discussed Asian carp. The mussels are already here and have cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up from water intake pipes alone, he said.
“To a large extent you’re never going to get rid of them. It’s important to try to keep them out,” Ruswick said.
That’s where things stand with Asian carp, he said.
Currently the electric barrier on the Des Plaines River in northern Illinois is the primary means to prevent the non-native fish from moving into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan beyond that. The Des Plaines and Chicago rivers are not naturally part of the same hydrologic system, but were connected to achieve a viable shipping lane between southern Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.
“Our position is that the most effective means of preventing Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes system would be to separate this hydrologic connection,” Ruswick said.
Beyond invasive species, certain industrial developments on the Great Lakes are gaining ground.
Ruswick said there is a growing interest in offshore wind turbines and it’s expected to be a “fairly long, drawn-out process” to determine where to lease Great Lakes bottomlands and then hold auctions for the right to study and potentially build the large-scale windmills on the water. One key difference between Great Lakes offshore wind and similar projects along ocean coastlines is that the states — like Michigan and Wisconsin — own the Great Lakes’ bottomlands, while the federal government controls the ocean floors in U.S. waters.
Summit participants also learned about fluctuating Great Lakes water levels and how federal officials monitor the changes.
Keith Kompoltowicz, meteorologist and water level forecaster for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit, said there are 5 quadrillion gallons of water in the Great Lakes system and they all are impacted by environmental factors that can shift the liquid around. Most of the variables are directly connected to weather patterns, he said.
“I like to think of the Great Lakes as a large, slow-moving river,” Kompoltowicz said.
Natural impacts to water levels include precipitation, groundwater, ice and vegetation, storms, Earth crustal movements and others. Human impacts are diversions, regulations, dredging and consumptive uses.
The city of Chicago creates the largest withdrawal of Great Lakes water, Kompoltowicz said, but two diversions into Lake Superior in Ontario more than make up for that amount.
In the end, it’s seasonal factors that are the main cause of water level fluctuations, he said.
Over the last 10 or 12 years, Great Lakes water levels have generally been below normal, save for Lake Ontario. The last system-wide high lake level occurred in 1997, Kompoltowicz said.
This year, Lakes Michigan and Huron are predicted to be near last year’s levels or as much as six inches higher, though that remains about a foot below long-term averages.
More information about fluctuating Great Lakes water levels is available online at www.lre.usace.army.mil/glhh, including a place to sign up for monthly updates.
The last speaker at Monday’s summit was Anne Hokanson, a state wetlands ecologist, who spoke about the various types of permits and application processes for developments on or near Michigan wetlands.
Ed and Diane Strzelinski, of Boyne City, attended the summit and said they came away with a lot of good information.
“We’re environmentalists. We spend our lives giving our volunteer time to environmental causes,” Diane Strzelinski said. “This has definitely encouraged me to write to my congressman.”
More information is available on the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council’s website at www.watershedcouncil.org.