Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Few Highlights From MSU's Great Lakes Conference

This past Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending Michigan State University's 2010 Great Lakes Conference "Learning from the Past, Looking Towards the Future." The presentations had a broad range of interesting topics and challenges that are facing the Great Lakes as we move forward into the new millennium.

“Quagga Mussel Impact on the Nearshore Zone: Why Do Our Beaches Stink?” By Harvey Bootsma Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Water Institute

Harvey Bootsma of Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Water Institute presented findings concerning the possibility that quagga mussels may be excreting phosphorous and thereby contributing to higher concentrations of near shore phosphorous. This coupled with more water clarity from the quagga mussels are perfect conditions for cladophora. Cladophora is algae that are known for contributing to unsightly muck on beaches. When cladophora die they can harbor botulism that get into fish and can lead to massive bird kills when the birds eat the fish.

While Bootsma concedes that there “is no smoking gun yet,” they suspect that quagga mussels are altering Lake Michigan’s phosphorous cycle. So far tests that they have conducted have indicated that quagga mussels are concentrating large amounts of phosphorus near the shore. The increased phosphorous acts as a nutrient source for the cladophora, while the increased water clarity of the quagga mussels also contributes to the growth of cladophora.

These findings are troubling, Bootsma says that while the knee-jerk reaction may be to limit phosphorous going into the lake, the problem is more complicated now. Further offshore, plankton need phosphorous so further limiting it could contribute to the decline of plankton that would lead to a decline of fish like alewives which feed off of plankton and in turn get eaten by bigger game fish like salmon and trout.

There is still much that needs to be known such as how the phosphorus mixes at the bottom of the lake and mussel bed, and how fast the phosphorus is at leaving the water table.

“Impacts of Climate Change on Great Lakes Ecosystems”

This talk by Dr. Kimberly Hall of the Nature Conservancy focused on how to anticipate and adjust conservation strategies based off of climate change.

According to Hall temperatures will be 6.5-7.5 degrees warmer by 2080 with increases in the winter minimum and summer maximum. There will also be more extreme heat events, and a longer growing season along with changes in wind and currents.

Hall’s talk focused on a climate adaptation clinic she took part in where they took the following approach in evaluating current conservation strategies in light of climate change:

-Estimate exposure to climate change
-Evaluate sensitivities/impacts
-Create system diagrams
-Create and revise hypotheses of change
-Evaluate conservation strategies

Other concerns related to temperature are that the warmer temperatures will broaden the range of other species in a northward push that will bring more invasive species to the region.

The other big problem will be phenological mismatches. Plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates all respond to temperatures at different rates. As they rely on each other for food, it will disrupt the food web as they respond to climate change differently.

The Nature Conservancy is currently working on making computer models to best figure out what ways are suitable to manage current ecosystems while accounting for climate change.

“Coastal Beaches: Status and Concerns” By Shannon Briggs Toxicologist MDNRE

Congress enacted the BEACH Act which appropriates $10 million per year to 35 different coastal states per year. According to Briggs Michigan does not get its fair share of funding despite having over 3,000 miles of coastline and 1183 public beaches.

When the EPA grants money, they focus more on the length of the beach season than the overall quantity of coastline. This is the reason that the American province of Samoa with its 126 miles of coastline gets the same amount of funding as Michigan. The Michigan’s coastline monitoring program has applied for some of the funds from the recent Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Otherwise the BEACH reauthorization act is threatened to be in a spending freeze until 2012.

Overall, Michigan’s beaches are doing really good despite the lack of funding for monitoring. Actions were reported only 2 percent of the time. Briggs still had concerns noting that you can’t report what wasn’t tested. They only have resources to test most beaches once a week during the swimming season. This will tell them if the water is safe to swim in or not, but it won’t tell them why the water has been fouled. One thing that they have done is to get volunteers to do routine beach sanitary surveys that ask questions like water color, if there are any smells, recent rainfall, or geese, etc. These surveys help provide a bigger picture of what is going on, giving a story behind the numbers and explaining the causes behind any pollution.

Here are some websites:

Has testing results of every Michigan public beach: Beachguard

Track CSO's and SSO's in your community

“Asian Carp: An Imminent Invasion?” By Dan O’ Keefe, Ph.D. Michigan Sea Grant

What more can anyone really say about the asian carp? O’Keefe compared the recent media hype to the Cuyahoga fire in Ohio that brought the Clean Water Act.

He highlighted some interesting facts including some of the ideal reproductive requirements of carp, which do need pretty specific conditions to reproduce:

-Temperatures above 64 degrees F
-A rise in water level
-Over 60 miles of free-flowing river that is upstream from a lake.
-Hard water

He did note that further study is needed and exceptions can apply.

O’ Keefe went on to show the areas of Michgan that are particularly vulnerable to asian carp. The lower western half of Michigan along the Lake Michigan coast is vulnerable as well as Saginaw Bay, and the southeastern part of Michigan from the St. Clair River down through Lake St. Clair and eastern Lake Erie.

O’ Keefe also pointed out that at the Lockport Lock and Dam there are three canals there. One of those canals is the old Illinois and Michigan Canal and there is the potential that the asian carp could bypass the electric barrier altogether and get through a culvert that empties into the Des Plaines River.

O’ Keefe advocated permanent ecological separation not only to stop the asian carp but a myriad of other invasive species that are found in the Chicago waterways but not the Great Lakes such as longspine daphnia, mottled fingernail clam, orangespotted sunfish, skipjack herring, and gizzard shad, just to name a few.

“Wind Farms and Coastal Communities” By Charles McKeown MSU Land Policy Institute

McKeown highlighted the current conflict that is currently going on with wind turbines and local communities and government. Michigan public act 295 required that 10 percent of Michigan’s energy should come from renewable resources. Michigan has a lot of untapped potential for wind resources, McKeown says that there is a 99 percent gap between Michigan wind power utilization and estimated capacity. Texas has already developed a third of its wind power capacity.

Mckeown compared wind power and public attitudes to puppies. Virtually everybody loves puppies and in Land Policy Institute surveys that asked the broad question of whether people were for wind power over 90 percent said they were.

There are no state guidelines for wind farms. It is an issue that is left to local planning committees. McKeown finds that the absence of local planning models, as well as the absence of knowledge for such a new technology in local governments leads to local fear and ultimately public opposition towards the issue. McKeown is looking to injecting science and rational thought to the debate.

The Land Policy Institute has been working on finding out what people like and don’t like about wind farms. In the slideshow the concerns were broke down into 5 different categories of environmental, visual, quality of life, economic, and fairness. Each issue has pros, cons, as well as the challenges of information gaps and remaining questions. The biggest issue seems to be the aesthetics and sheer enormity of the structures, as well as the feeling by some small towns that they are being exploited.

While these are all valid concerns McKeown said that renewable energy gets paid so much lip service on how it is going to help solve climate change, revitalize manufacturing, create energy security, and renew American innovation, while the reality is that we have a “wicked public policy program.”

McKeown had this following synopsis of the wicked problem in his presentation:

“A problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”

MSU Land Policy Institute will be having a 2010 conference on April 23 at the Kellogg Center in East Lansing.

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