River and creek sampling
Thanks to 137 volunteers who contributed a total of 548 volunteer hours, the 2013 Fall River Roundup was a great success! Our volunteers split into 25 teams and traveled to 50 different creek and river locations across the Huron River Watershed to assess the aquatic benthic macroinvertebrate community.
This study is one of the most effective ways that HRWC has to keep its finger on the pulse of the stream. From the data collected from this semi-annual event, we get a better understanding of which creeks and rivers are getting better, which are getting worse, and how we can direct our management activities.
You can see all the results in Fall 2013 River Roundup Report.
Current Watershed Health
In a nutshell, the health of the watershed as judged by our macroinvertebrate sampling is holding steady. Of the 62 sites that we monitor to judge this, 30 sites have had no statistically significant changes over time, and 6 sites are too new to make this judgment.
12 sites are declining, and these include locations on Chilson Creek, Davis Creek, east branch of Fleming Creek, Norton Creek, and South Ore Creek. The majority of the declining sites are in Livingston County. Eight of the declining sites are in Livingston, two are in Washtenaw, and three are in Oakland.
14 sites are significantly improving. 11 of improving sites are in Washtenaw County, including Boyden Creek, Horseshoe Creek, the main and west branches of Fleming Creek, Huron Creek, the Huron River in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and several places on Mill Creek. 2 sites are improving in Livingston County (Horseshoe Creek at Merrill Road and Mann Creek at Van Amberg Road), and 1 site is improving in Wayne County (Woods Creek at the Lower Huron Metropark).
1. For many years HRWC has held up Millers Creek in Ann Arbor as an example of what can happen to an urban creek- the stream flow is flashy, the channel is incised, the riparian vegetation is shrubby invasive plants, and there is little life in the creek. In 2009 HRWC finished up a green infrastructure project in the headwaters of Millers designed to reduce the amount of stormwater rushing into the creek, and at the same time the City of Ann Arbor finished a major streambank stabilization project where the creek crossed Glazier Way.
The efforts spent restoring Millers Creek seems to be paying off. The sample taken in Millers Creek at Glazier Way contained the most insect families ever seen since sampling began in 1993. While the overall trend since 1993 is unchanged, from 2004 when the creek was at its worst (3 insect families), until now in 2013 (12 insect families), there is a statistically significant increase. Insects that are particularly susceptible to pollution and disturbance have yet to be found here however, and we will continue monitoring in hopes that these insects will make their way back to the stream.
2. Starting in this past January, HRWC has been sending volunteers to two new stream sites on Portage Creek near Stockbridge. This is a long drive from Ann Arbor and we appreciate the volunteers who have made this journey. This Roundup, volunteers in the Portage Creek at Rockwell site found a treasure trove of insect diversity. Twenty insect families were found which puts this new site up there with the very best places we go. We will look forward to visiting this site again in the future!
Norton creekshed in Oakland County is a Detroit suburb and industrial hub. Historically, the creek has suffered from numerous impairments and has seen little improvement as the area has become increasingly suburbanized.
In terms of the macroinvertebrate community, samples taken here have always had terrible diversity and low abundance, but in recent years things have gotten worse. When sampling started in Norton Creek at West Maple Road in 2000, it was normal to find between 8 and 10 insect families. However, volunteers during the past four fall River Roundups have found 3, 4, 4, and 3 insect families. Two of the insect families found are actually water striders, which are only semi-aquatic as they live on top of the rather than in the water.
These poor samples have made Norton Creek the worst location of all of those that HRWC monitors. For more information on Norton Creek, see our Norton Creek page and associated creekshed report. http://www.hrwc.org/norton
On January 26th, HRWC staff and volunteers will gather for the 19th annual Stonefly Search. This event is very similar to a River Roundup except that we are only looking for stoneflies. Some of these little guys can be found year round, but there are a couple of stonefly families that are only reliably found in the winter months, and they are great indicators of healthy water. We hope you and your family and friends will join us for this fun outdoor event! Register here! http://www.hrwc.org/volunteer/stonefly/
Portaging Argo Dam is a bit of a challenge. Do you float the cascades, or walk your watercraft around them and the dam?
This video, developed for the Huron River Water Trail, will give the proper directions for your trip! And hopefully it will make you laugh a little bit too. Make sure your sound is on!
The Huron River Water Trail website contains many useful trip planning tools to guide you on your next paddling excursion. The website include online maps, a store to purchase the waterproof Paddler’s Companion, tips on river safety and trail etiquette, real-time river flows, fishing updates, and suggested itineraries.
As reported last September, HRWC is compiling all of our data on a creekshed scale, looking specifically at our creeks and the land that affects them. We are synthesizing all of our knowledge on these creeksheds and putting them into easily digestible and colorful 4 page reports.
There are now seven creekshed reports available, including the Woods Creek report, which was just finished.
Woods Creek, located near Belleville, is the healthiest lower Huron River tributary. There are several ordinances protecting the creek and there are many invested citizens who live in the watershed, including the Woods Creek Friends.
A wet and wild spring
On April 20, teams of HRWC volunteers poured from our office and explored the Huron Watershed in search of aquatic insects, snails, clams, and crustaceans. The data that these volunteers collect enables HRWC to keep a finger on the pulse of the Huron River and it’s tributaries; to understand where streams are degrading and where they are getting better.
This year’s event was marked by very high water, just like our Spring Roundup in 2011. And just like in 2011, data interpretation has been difficult. The data collected from a River Roundup are meant to show overall conditions across the watershed and be comparable to past year’s data in order to tell us how things are changing over time. In flooded conditions, the stream systems are not comparable to past years, often because the volunteers are forced to sample in an unusual manner (like standing on the bank and reaching into the swollen river rather than entering it).
QAPPs are useful- yes, seriously!
HRWC follows a quality assurance project plan (QAPP) to make sure that we deal with the issue of bad samples in a consistent manner.
From the QAPP:
“The resulting measures of Total Insect Taxa for each site will be compared to the median from the site’s whole data record and there should be a relative percent difference of less than 40%. The same comparison will be made for Total Abundance (for all taxa).
Sample results that exceed these standards will be noted as “outliers” and examined to determine if the results are likely due to sampling error or a true environmental variation. If sampling error is determined or if the environmental variation is not reflective of normal conditions (ie extreme flooding), the data point shall be removed from the data record.”
13 samples were removed from the official data record for failing to meet these requirements. The rejected samples had on average total abundances 50% less than the median of past results, and coincidentally 50% less insect diversity than the median of past results. (We would expect these two numbers to be related but it is strange that they are exactly the same).
2 samples were at new sites where past data didn’t exist to test results against the QAPP
requirements, but volunteer descriptions make it plain that the sites could not be sampled properly. These samples were also rejected.
27 samples were accepted. For all accepted samples, total abundance was down 20%, and insect diversity was only down 14% from the median of past results. This amount of variation is normal even in unflooded conditions.
You can see all the results in the Spring 2013 River Roundup Report.
Current Watershed Health
In a nutshell, the health of the watershed as judged by our macroinvertebrate sampling is holding steady. Of the 59 sites that we monitor to judge this, 28 sites have had no statistically significant changes over time, and 6 sites are too new to make this judgment.
13 sites are declining, and these include locations on Chilson Creek, Davis Creek, east branch of Fleming Creek, the Huron River at Flat Rock, Norton Creek, and South Ore Creek. It should be pointed out, as it was after the 2012 Fall Roundup, that the majority (though not all) of the declining sites are in Livingston County.
12 sites are improving, including Boyden Creek, Horseshoe Creek, the main and west branches of Fleming Creek, Huron Creek, the Huron River in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and several places on Mill Creek. The majority (though not all) of the improving sites are in Washtenaw County.
The rejected samples aren’t thrown away. They are placed into a separate database and flagged with the reason for their exclusion. Such data may prove useful in the future- for example, quantifying the effect of high flows on macroinvertebrate populations… as a way at getting at how climate change could be changing our watershed.
Let’s hope for a drier fall- but if it is wet and flooded again- we know how to deal with it!
For those who own houses on lakes, or who spend any amount of time on them, being able to boat and swim in clean water is of paramount importance. Nothing will ruin your enjoyment and reduce the value of your property faster than the encroachment of invasive aquatic plants. They clog motors, they ruin beaches, and they smell when rotting in massive quantities.
If your lake is still free from these plants then you should seriously consider doing all you can do keep it that way, and the best way to do so is to monitor your lake for the plants. If you expect someone else to do it for you, expect to be disappointed; it is highly likely that no one cares about your lake more than you do.
The Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program offers the Exotic Plant Watch program at the cost of only $25 a year. If you enroll, you will be trained to find and identify four common invasive aquatic plants: European Milfoil, hydrilla, curly-leaf pondweed, and starry stonewort. It will then be up to you and your neighbors to monitor your lake, though the program staff will give advice and can confirm your plant identifications.
If you don’t find any plants, that’s great! But if you do, the best way to stop their spread is to act quickly, before the plants become widespread. It is relatively simple to treat and remove a small amount of invasive plants; it is extremely expensive to control them once they have spread throughout the lake and virtually impossible to eradicate them.
- A beautiful Huron River, where it crosses Zeeb Road. credit: John Lloyd
- Dave Wilson samples Woods Creek! credit: Nate Antieau
- Digging through the muck of Port Creek. credit: Mark Schaller
- A quick break for the camera! credit: John Lloyd
- "Do you see anything?" credit: John Lloyd
Bring on the “brrr!”
On January 26, 110 intrepid volunteers faced the harsh winter elements and spread across the Huron River watershed in search of stoneflies, which are only found in clean and healthy streams. Everyone made it back safe, which is the number one priority, and it seemed that a good time was had by all.
In 2012 the Stonefly Search volunteers had to deal with melting snow and flood conditions, but this year we had a deep freeze in the week preceeding the Search, and most of the teams had to break their way through the ice in order to sample the stream macroinvertebrates. Despite this challenging problem, stoneflies were found in great abundance at many locations. The results are in, and are given in this pdf report.
1. The status quo is being maintained for most of the sampling sites. Sites that have had stoneflies in the past are still able to support them, and sites that were not healthy enough to hold stoneflies still do not have them. That being said, we did see a few changes this year which are detailed below.
2. Four sites had the best stonefly samples that had ever been seen at those locations: Chilson Creek at Chilson Road, Fleming Creek at Galpin Road, the Huron River at Flat Rock, and Woodruff Creek at Buno Road. At each of these sites, the stoneflies normally found at the location were there, but also new stonefly families were found that had never been seen there before! A greater diversity of stoneflies indicates greater stream health. These are promising results and hopefully it will continue into longer term trends.
3. The team searching for stoneflies in Woods Creek in Belleville came back disappointed. Wood’s Creek at the Lower Huron Metropark has been sampled 12 times since 1997, and this is the first time that stoneflies could not be found. The problem likely comes from the thick ice and difficult conditions rather than pollution or disturbed stream habitat, but we will keep an eye on Wood’s Creek next year.
4. Traver Creek is a stream in north Ann Arbor that has typical urban stream problems- in particular, flashy flows and runoff, oil, and sediment from roads. In the past couple of years, part of the train track berm washed out and released a large plume of sediment to Traver Creek. However, we were pleased that both of the sites sampled on Traver Creek this year turned up stoneflies. The sites were both upstream and downstream of the wash-out.
Next on the horizon!
Interested in doing more with our macroinvertebrate searches? Think about becoming a trained leader or collector by coming to the next training on March 24. This is an extremely important job because every team needs both a trained leader and collector, and we often do not have enough to meet the demand. Sign up for the training!
On October 6, one-hundred twenty brave and intrepid volunteers spread across the Huron River watershed to collect benthic macroinvertebrates: the crustaceans, insects, and mollusks that live in our creeks and rivers. Typically, only the healthiest streams will have abundant and diverse populations. Polluted streams and other streams that are heavily impacted by human activities will hold fewer of these creatures, and may only contain the most pollution tolerant types. By watching the long-term trends of these populations, HRWC can tell where pollution may be becoming a problem and that helps direct HRWC’s time and effort.
Overall watershed assessment
In order to get an overall sense of the health of the Huron River Watershed, HRWC samples macroinvertebrates from sixty-six 300 foot sections of the creeks and rivers. The sampling sites have been selected to provide equal geographic representation from the various areas throughout the watershed.
In regards to their overall quality:
- 2 sites are excellent (The best, most pristine areas)
- 17 sites are good (Their macroinvertebrate populations are higher than we would expect based on the stream size, water temperature, and stream substrate).
- 24 sites are fair (Their macroinvertebrate populations are slightly lower than we would expect based on the stream size, water temperature, and stream substrate)
- 10 sites are poor (Pollution and other human impacts have severely damaged the macroinvertebrate populations at these sites)
- 10 sites are new to the program and cannot be judged until more data is collected.
In regards to how the macroinvertebrate populations are changing at these sites:
- 28 sites have remained largely unchanged since monitoring began on them
- 15 sites have improved
- 13 sites have declined
- 10 sites are new to the program and cannot be judged until more data is collected.
Trend analysis shows tremendous variation by County
Three counties contain most of the Adopt-a-Stream sampling sites: Livingston, Oakland, and Washtenaw. When HRWC analyzed overall trends by county, a clear distinction appeared. The upstream counties, Oakland and Livingston, both showed roughly one third of sites declining, and no more than one tenth of sites improving. On the other hand, in Washtenaw County hardly any sites were declining and nearly half the sites were improving!
With results such as this, it is easy to start pointing fingers or consider the amount of money spent by these counties in improving water quality. However, streams are complex systems, with many stressors, and this analysis does not address the reasons for the differences we are seeing between the counties.
The two additional watershed counties, Wayne and Monroe, had too few study sites to detect overall trends.
Other noteworthy results
Drought causes influx of “marsh-loving” species into the Huron.
- This year we saw a marked increase in marsh flies, marsh beetles, mosquitoes, and water treaders in the River Roundup samples. These critters prefer a habitat of slow-moving or stagnant water. This year’s drought has caused the flow in the Huron and it’s tributaries to slacken, and smaller regional pools, marshes, and wetlands to dry up. Whether these critters are moving in from dried-out-homes or flourishing in a sluggish creeks (or most likely both), the recent changes in weather patterns are certainly affecting the types of insects found in the Huron River. (For comparison, last autumn’s heavy rains caused a corresponding drop in the prevalence of these species).
Good News at Mallet’s Creek: Restoration efforts look to be paying off!
- Mallets Creek is one of the Huron’s most disturbed streams, earning an overall rating of poor. The creek is “flashy,” flooding dramatically with rainfall, which results in erosion and an influx of pollutants. To address this problem, the City of Ann Arbor, the Washtenaw County Office of Water Resources Commissioner, and the Michigan Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) are collaborating on restoration efforts in the area. Ongoing projects include the creation of a 15 million gallon wet meadow, stream bank stabilization, and seeding of native vegetation. These efforts, along with homeowner-installed rain gardens and rain barrels, help decrease stormwater flashes. Source: annarbor.com
- This fall’s sampling of Mallet’s revealed encouraging improvement; An unusual increase in insect families were found. For instance, volunteers collected 11 insect families compared to the recent average of 7.2. Species not seen at this site since 1996 were discovered, including the water boatman, finger-net caddisfly, and marsh beetle. While these improvements are not yet statistically significant, they are a great sign that local restoration projects are making a difference for our waterways.
Special note: Volunteer Genevieve Leet contributed extensively to this data analysis and this blog. Thanks for your help, Genevieve!
A watershed is an area of land that drains to a particular point; for example, everything in the Huron River Watershed eventually slopes downhill to the mouth of the Huron River on Lake Erie. A “creekshed” is simply a small version of a watershed that is defined by the land draining a particular creek. The Huron River Watershed is full of creeksheds: Arms, Honey, Davis, Mill, Fleming, Horseshoe, Norton, Chilson, Portage, and Hay are all examples.
Over the last year, HRWC has been thinking on the creekshed scale by looking specifically at our creeks and the land that affects them. We have been synthesizing all of our knowledge on these creeksheds and putting them into easily digestible and colorful 4 page reports. The front page of the reports contains basic information such as the size of creekshed and creek, a map of the creekshed, and either history or a point of interest about the creekshed. The middle two pages summarize all of our monitoring data for the creekshed and give a simple three level rating (poor, fair, or excellent). The final page highlights some of the environmental successes in the creekshed and discusses some of the major environmental challenges still facing the creekshed and its residents.
This is a great process not only for the residents of the Huron River Watershed, who get to see the results, but it is a great exercise for the HRWC staff. It provides us with the opportunity to think wholistically about a creekshed and come to a better understanding of it by sharing what we know with each other, and along the way discovering new things that none of us knew before.
Four creeksheds have reports currently available:
More will be available in the future at http://hrwc.org/the-watershed/features/huron-river-creeks/
Lend us a hand!
We couldn’t have written these reports without our volunteers. Volunteers contribute a lot of time and effort to help HRWC collect monitoring data. This data is used to help us understand the quality of the Huron River Watershed and indicate where extra planning, education, or restoration work is needed.
We glimpse the future under a changed climate
Weeks of air temperatures above 90 degrees F have lots of people talking about extreme weather and the role of climate change. Such extreme heat yields myriad human and environmental effects. A previously unexplored effect is the stress that court-established water levels on lakes will have on the Huron River system under drought conditions that are projected by climate scientists to occur with greater frequency over the next 30-50 years.
State laws at odds
Michigan law prohibits reduced river flows under Section 324.301 of the 1994 Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act. The section states that diminishing an inland lake or stream is prohibited without a permit. ”Diminish” means to reduce flows to a creek, as happens when gates of a lake level control structure are closed.
However, read a bit further and you’ll see that Michigan law allows for reduced river flow under Section 324.307. Under this law, lake residents are allowed to obtain a regulated lake level by building a lake-level control structure that maintains a lake’s water level while reducing flow to downstream lakes and rivers. Lake residents are motivated to pursue lake levels to make it easier to boat, recreate in the lake, and build docks that they can reliably use despite changes in weather conditions. Many lakes in the watershed, including in-line lakes that are impoundments of the Huron River, have court-ordered lake levels.
Lake residents are able to obtain these designations through a process with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Once a lake level is set by a judge, then the county government (often the Drain or Water Resources Commissioner) is responsible for altering the outflow of the water from these lakes via structures so that the the lake is able to maintain a constant depth. Dams are one type of structure used to control flows. Other structures like the one pictured above also are present in the watershed.
Typically, though not always, the DEQ gives section 307 precedence over section 301, meaning that permitted lake-control structures are allowed to diminish the downstream lake or stream in order to maintain their lake levels.
Keeping a lake level in drought conditions
Maintaining a court-ordered lake level may go unnoticed during periods of normal or wet weather. But this manipulation of a natural system has the potential to stress the ecology of the lake during drought periods. Since the county is obligated to maintain a certain water level it is possible that they would need to “hoard” incoming water and only allow reduced flow — or even no flow — downstream. The graphics below show a simple input and output system to illustrate the issue.
Under typical flow conditions, the amount of water entering a lake will equal the amount of water leaving the lake, plus any additions from rain, and minus any water lost through evaporation. Under drought conditions, the amount of water entering the lake is already reduced from low stream flows, no additional input is provided from rain, and the amount of evaporation can be significantly high. As a result, it is possible that the county would have to close the gates altogether to maintain the lake’s court-ordered water level, and no water or very reduced flows will reach downstream to keep the fish alive or provide water to the next lake or river section downstream.
How can the situation be improved?
For the waterfront resident
Given the current hot and dry conditions in southeastern Michigan, waterfront residents likely are seeing reduced water flow especially if living downstream of a lake with a court-mandated lake level. Understandably, this imbalance of “water power” may feel unfair and residents could be looking for a fast and easy solution to secure more water for their section of the river or lake. Such a solution doesn’t exist. Aggrieved residents have sought justice through our legal system. Typically, these cases are eventually dropped since droughts end and rain, and consequently higher water flow, mute the problem.
Yet, droughts are predicted to become more common and more severe over the next several decades, and we may see a resurgence of court cases.
A measure of relief may be found in the operation of the structures. Some lakes have an ungated pipe or dam bypass that drains downstream, so that some amount of water is always flowing downstream, even when the dam’s gates are completely closed. However, such a bypass is not a requirement in obtaining the establishing a legal lake level. Building this in a requirement would be an important and wonderful safeguard to ensure that some level of water is always going downstream.
And for the river
The DEQ has the responsibility to examine the problem with stream flow as it relates to drought and mandated lake levels. In particular, giving the priority of maintaining lake levels over allowing for run-of-the-river flows is dangerous for the survival of downstream ecosystems when facing drought situations.
After speaking with DEQ staff, I am happy to report that the issue is on their radar and under consideration. HRWC will keep an eye on this complex issue at the state level, and work with local partners to find workable solutions to this increasingly urgent problem.
The future of fish
This past week I had the opportunity to attend a two-day workshop exploring the connections between streams, climate change, and fish populations. The centerpiece of this workshop was a climate change-fish vulnerability model developed by a partnership between the US Geological Survey (USGS), Michigan State University, and state agencies in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. This model makes predictions of how likely stream fish populations are to change under a range of climate change scenarios. The information can be used by water resource managers trying to understanding which fish and which streams are most at risk from climate change.
Nuts and bolts of the fish vulnerability model
Global circulation models (GCMs) are used by climate scientists to make predictions about how the Earth’s climate is going to change in the future. There are a wide variety of GCMs, all based on differing assumptions, and as a result they produce different results in terms of the predicted rates of climate change. Interestingly, all of the models do share some commonalities:
- The Earth is warming
- Winter is going to warm more than the summer
- Winters will be wetter
- The northern US will warm more than the south
- Inland areas will warm more than along coastlines
- Extreme events will be more common
The fish vulnerability model produced by the USGS and its partners uses ten of these differing GCMs and combines their climate predictions with predictions of fish presence and absence. An example is the best way to show how this works. Let’s say a particular stream holds brook trout currently. Due to temperature increases and changes in water flow by 2050, this stream is predicted to have lost the fish under GCMs #1-7. However, under GCMs #8-10, the fish is still expected to remain in the creek. Therefore, 7 out of the 10 climate change scenarios predict that the fish will be eliminated from this creek by the year 2050. The fish’s vulnerability to climate-change is said to be 70% for this particular stream.
The USGS and its partners ran this model across the Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota for 14 species of fish (i.e. brook trout, brown trout, mottled sculpin, northern pike, smallmouth bass, common carp, etc). For each fish and on every stream in these states, they have produced a predicted vulnerability for that species- the percentage chance that the fish will disappear in the future.
If the model predicts a fish to be missing from a stream under all 10 of the GCMs, this means that even under lenient climate change scenarios, this fish will disappear and managing this stream for the preservation of the fish is most likely to be a lost cause. The predicted vulnerability of this fish in this stream is 100%.
If the model predicts a fish to be present in a stream under all 10 GCMs, this indicates that this fish is very resilient against climate change, or that the stream is not expected to change much, even under the most severe climate change scenarios. Managers can leave these streams alone; the predicted vulnerability of this fish in this stream is 0%.
However, if the model predicts that under some GCMs the fish will leave, and under other GCMs that the fish will stay, then water resource managers have something to work with. This model result means that the stream may be borderline for the fish in the future, and managers have a chance to keep the fish there if they can work towards making the stream more “climate change resilient”. Management activities should center on promoting rainfall infiltration and groundwater recharge. Activities like building rain gardens, maintaining and expanding our natural areas, and reducing the amount of impervious surface will provide greater opportunity for rain to percolate into the ground rather than running overland to the stream.
Groundwater is the key to climate change resiliency because in the summer when fish populations are most stressed due to high water temperatures and low rainfall, groundwater inputs maintain flow and cooler temperatures. Groundwater temperature is usually the same as the average annual air temperature because of the length of time the water spends underground. Therefore in the summer, groundwater is relatively cold as compared to surface water. Also, groundwater is released consistently to the stream, unlike sporadic rainfall, thus giving constant flow even under drought conditions.
The USGS is in the process of developing a web-based map to display their model results so that the information can be readily used by water resource managers. This web-based map and the model results are not ready for public consumption, but I will post a link from this blog when it is.