An excessive amount of nutrients is the top water quality concern in the Huron River watershed and the Great Lakes region, if not the entire county. This summer’s drinking water crisis in Toledo is a prime example of the potential impact. Waters in the Huron River watershed have suffered similar impacts, though somewhat less dramatic. Still, multiple millions of dollars have been invested within the watershed to reduce the sources of phosphorus (the growth-limiting nutrient in the region). So, where are we today, as we close out 2014? Have the programs, projects and other investments made any impact? HRWC’s Water Quality Monitoring Program results should shed some light on this question.
The first look at the phosphorus trends suggests that we have made little recent progress. As shown in the first chart, raw phosphorus concentrations in the middle Huron River watershed steadily declined from the beginning of the monitoring program (2003) through 2009, when the average phosphorus concentration rose above target levels (red line). From 2010 through this year, concentrations were much more variable, but averages were distinctly above the target. Phosphorus concentrations were also well above the target in the Lower Huron watershed over the last three years (not shown).
These raw results do not provide a complete picture, however. Concentrations can vary tremendously (just look at the error bars) depending on a number of variables, most importantly stream flow. 2008 was a particularly dry year, for example, while stream flows were well above average in 2011. HRWC storm sampling shows that, as stream flows increase during a rain storm, phosphorus concentrations increase, often dramatically.
When we account for the stream flow at the time of sampling, we get a somewhat different picture. The second chart shows phosphorus concentrations at Ford Lake, when adjusted for river flow (also shown as the blue line). The chart shows four periods — 1995 when the state DEQ sampled to set a phosphorus control policy, and three periods after the monitoring program began.
From this view, it is obvious that concentrations have come way down from original ’95 levels. Also, phosphorus concentrations have come back up since 2009, but by less than it seems from raw concentrations.
It is unclear why we have seen the recent increase in phosphorus concentrations. It does not appear to be linked to sediment concentration (i.e. erosion) as those data are not well correlated. Some national studies suggest that historical fertilizer application may be dissolved and slowly moving through the groundwater. If that is the case, while direct application of phosphorus in fertilizer has been addressed (through fertilizer policy in the City of Ann Arbor and later statewide law), we are still seeing the legacy effects of over-fertilization in our urban/suburban areas. There also has been an increase in phosphorus loading from the more heavily agricultural Mill Creek watershed, which could partially explain the increase.
HRWC provides a more detailed tributary evaluation in its annual monitoring report. For reports, presentations and 2014 raw data, see the Water Quality Monitoring page.
HRWC recently received final approval to release a new watershed management plan to address impairments in Honey Creek, a tributary to the Huron River in Scio Township. The creek is identified as “impaired” by the state Department of Environmental Quality because water samples routinely show levels of bacteria above the state’s water quality standards.
HRWC developed the plan in consultation with partner organizations and stakeholders in the watershed following two years of extensive study. The study included sampling throughout the creek watershed, genetic “fingerprinting” of bacteria source animals, as well as in-stream and neighborhood surveys. Overall, the study helped to identify a few critical areas of possible septic contamination and it eliminated as problem areas some other parts of the watershed. Beyond septic sources, HRWC identified pet waste, livestock waste (e.g. horses and chickens), and manure application as sources of bacteria.
Key recommendations in the plan include:
- Identification of specific septic sources, elimination of illegal connections to the creek and remediation of failing septic systems;
- Establishment of an ordinance in Scio Township requiring the removal of pet waste combined with the installation of pet waste stations at key locations;
- Targeted agricultural funding in the creekshed for manure and nutrient management, animal exclusion from waterways, and the restoration of stream buffers and wetlands; and
- Education throughout the creekshed on issues contributing to bacteria contamination.
HRWC is working with partner organizations like Scio Township, the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office, Washtenaw County Environmental Health, and the Washtenaw County Conservation District to raise funding to implement plan activities in 2015 and beyond.
HRWC recently completed work with local government partners in Washtenaw County to better understand how to use and plan for Green Infrastructure to capture and treat stormwater. Green Infrastructure (GI) is the collective natural areas (like woods, wetlands, and even gardens) in our watershed that provide ecological benefits to the river. This is in contrast to the gray infrastructure (like roads and pipes) that is traditionally used in municipal development. Funded by a grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the project focused on the ability of GI to capture and treat stormwater runoff.
At the beginning of the project, HRWC staff conducted interviews and workshops to gather information about how local communities were using GI. Over the course of two years HRWC produced the products below to help municipalities utilize GI practices to reduce stormwater costs and improve the quality and volume of stormwater discharge to our natural water resources:
- “Barriers to Green Infrastructure” report – details key barriers that are limiting the use of Green Infrastructure and ways to overcome them;
- Growing Green Infrastructure Forums – summary and presentations from three educational and planning forums;
- Green Infrastructure Project Inventory – a map of projects by type across the county;
- Green Infrastructure Opportunities Map – assesses available geographic information to highlight the most effective locations to use Green Infrastructure for stormwater treatment;
- Comparative Project Design – illustrates the use of conventional and Green Infrastructure designs for a road project along with projected costs and benefits;
- Green Infrastructure Communications Strategy – establishes a plan for educating and communicating the use and value of the GI approach to relevant stakeholders; and
- Web Resources – organized by topics such as economics and funding, and operations and maintenance.
A fact sheet was also produced that summarizes the efforts and outcomes. HRWC also participated in the Southeast Michigan Council of Government’s (SEMCOG) regional Green Infrastructure Vision development. Finally, HRWC will be presenting at the DEQ’s Green Infrastructure Conference on May 8 and 9 (www.michigan.gov/deq. Search “green infrastructure”). Join us!
What do you do if someone wants to lease your oil/gas development rights?
That is a question we have been hearing recently. There may be new interest in potential natural gas reserves beneath the watershed that could be accessed via traditional drilling, directional drilling or hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”), which we have been hearing so much about nationally. The companies interested in leasing drilling rights and their representatives (colloquially referred to as “landmen”) often are quite aggressive in their pursuit of lease signatures. Oil or gas exploration and extraction can have a significant impact on the land and our water resources, so careful consideration should be given before signing away your rights.
Folks in the northern half of the lower peninsula have been dealing with this issue for a number of years now, so I called one of our sister organizations, the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, for some advice. Here is what they recommend if the landmen come knocking on your door with promises of riches:
1. Get a lawyer experienced in oil and gas leases to review any contract prior to signing. It’s just too easy to sign away your rights and once you do, it is hard to stop the drillers if they start mucking things up. Your county bar association can refer you to qualified attorneys or HRWC can suggest one (call or e-mail Ric).
2. Check out Michigan State University’s information for land owners. Consider going to a landowner meeting. http://msue.anr.msu.edu/program/info/oil_and_gas
3. If your neighbors do start signing leases and drillers start planning for exploration, get your surface and groundwater tested. You want this done professionally in case you need to prove damage later down the road. The Michigan DEQ maintains a list of certified labs at https://www.michigan.gov/deq/0,4561,7-135-3307_4131_4156-36940–,00.html. Tip of the Mitt has some great advice on deciding what to test and when at http://www.watershedcouncil.org/learn/hydraulic-fracturing/baseline-testing/.
Thanks to the staff at Tip of the Mitt for the helpful advice.
If you have been contacted about selling your oil/gas rights, let us know in the comments. We are interested in tracking this issue and it’s spread across the watershed.
Final results of a 1.5 year study of sediment transport in Millers Creek within the City of Ann Arbor were recently released at a public meeting on February 5. The city contracted with Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc. to conduct the study following a series of flooding events near the mouth of the creek. These floods were due to a new course the creek was taking following sediment build-up in its floodway. The study estimated that 47 tons of sediment were deposited in Ruthven Nature Area over a five-year period.
The study recommends a range of small and large projects to reduce future accumulation or sediment transport to the Huron River. Recommendations run from simple annual maintenance activities priced at $2-3,000 per year, but yielding little sediment removal, to the $1.5 million stream restoration design HRWC helped develop for the former Pfizer property (now owned by the University of Michigan). Recommended projects include a sediment trap and removal approach, as well as channel modification (and restoration) to reduce sediment loading at the source. Some recommendations can be undertaken directly by the City of Ann Arbor alone, while others require participation from Ann Arbor Public Schools or the University of Michigan. All recommended projects would further benefit the Huron River by reducing sediment and nutrient loading from Millers Creek.
City staff will share the study with the city council and submit select recommendations for stormwater funding. Take a look for yourself at the project website.
It’s the end of the first week of September, and, for many of us, the start of a new school year (at least for our kids). As the days start getting shorter, the leaves start falling and the nights begin to cool, this time of year often causes me to reflect on the past year or at least the past summer.
In particular, last night, as I ran along the river, I reflected on the many ways I’ve interacted with the Huron over the past summer and year. Like a number of us on staff, I like to run along the many trails that border the river. Last night, as sunset was approaching, the river and natural area views were particularly striking. It reminded me how hard many of us have worked to protect these important ecosystems and how lucky we are to have a high quality river because of it.
As I ran along the river, I observed some bikers out for a challenge among the riverside hills, a few paddlers out for a late afternoon float, two sets of high school seniors posing for their senior photos, and different sets of rowers perfecting their technique on the impounded quiet waters of Argo Pond. People experience the river in many different ways, and, for most of us, the relationship is a personal one. The river can be a source of challenge, a source of inspiration and energy, a muse, or a place of solitude. The river can provide provide physical, emotional and spiritual sustenance.
I personally have found myself in the Huron’s waters quite often this summer in many old and some surprisingly new ways. Each experience provided a slightly new perspective on this tremendous resource that I spend so much of my life working to maintain. I invite any of you reading this post to share your experiences with the Huron (or any other of Michigan’s many waters) this summer. We would love to read about them.
I hope your summer was as refreshing as mine and that you will continue to work with me and the rest of the staff here at HRWC to pass along this tremendous legacy to those who just embarked on a new year of learning and exploration. Roll on, sister Huron!
For the first time in the three-year run of the event, I was finally confident enough to give the Huron River Single-Fly Tournament a try — and I am so glad that I did! It was great to meet the 24 passionate anglers and hear how much they knew about the river, the fish, their food and habitat. Many told me how happy they were to have a quality river with lots of healthy fish running through a dynamic, urban population center.
Proceeds from the entrance fees and donations went to our “River Up!” initiative. The tournament raised over $3,000 for the program, as all fees and donations were matched by the Erb Foundation. That money will be used in the program to clean up areas along the river, improve access, and transform the Huron River corridor into a recreation destination.
Mike Schultz, partners and staff at Schultz Outfitters did a great job organizing the event and making sure everyone had a fun and safe time. He and his crew provide equipment and advice to make it easy for noobs like me.
As all the teams went to to their favorite spots, I was impressed by the number and variety of good fishing locations offered to me and my partner, Sean (pictured below at an undisclosed location). We chose a busy section at Island Park in Ann Arbor to start, where we met dozens of paddlers and tubers all interested in what we were catching (quite a few little small-mouth bass, as it turned out). It was great to see such a variety of activities taking place on our river.
As we moved to a different site, the traffic subsided and I was reminded about the power the river possesses. The ample rain we’ve had has kept river flows up, which has made for interesting paddling and fishing conditions. While it had not rained much over the previous week, the river flow was still up, thanks to the abundant natural land cover that keeps the groundwater flow slow and strong. We noticed that some earlier canoeists may not have been ready for these conditions earlier in the season.
While I enjoyed my time casting into spots that looked like good hiding places for big fish, as the river gently, but noticeably embraced me, I was reminded of the connection to the natural world that inspired me to become a watershed planner in the first place. Whether it is fishing, paddling, rowing, swimming, or just taking a stroll along its banks, I encourage you all to get out and enjoy this wonderful resource we have in our back yards. Then come back and do what you can to make it even better.
To see who won the Single Fly Tournament and plan for your participation next year, visit the tournament webpage.
On Thursday, I met with 26 folks from around Washtenaw County to talk about how we can transform stormwater infrastructure from grey to green. In this first of our Growing Green Infrastructure Forums, we talked broadly about the differences between conventional grey stormwater infrastructure (the gutters, ditches and pipes) and green infrastructure (practices using natural landscapes to infiltrate stormwater runoff). We also differentiated the broadly planned green infrastructure (GI) approach from site-focused Low Impact Development (LID) (see our webpage on LID vs GI). Josh Miller, an HRWC intern this year, discussed barriers to GI development that he discovered in interviews and research over the last year. Finally, I gave the group some maps of the watershed in Washtenaw County with GI opportunity areas identified and asked them to think about what was possible in each of their jurisdictions.
There was quite a bit of good discussion about what is possible and what is holding GI development back. It was clear from the discussion that the GI approach to stormwater management is being applied all around us and throughout the country. There is ample information about the water quality, aesthetic and economic benefits of the GI approach, and its applicability in the upper midwest. However, local examples need to be better promoted and policies and funding mechanisms like stormwater utilities need to be used more broadly.
All the discussion got me to thinking about a trip my family and I just took to Seattle and Vancouver earlier this Spring. There, GI is the norm rather than the exception for new projects and redevelopment. Neighborhoods around the city are vibrant, active and becoming even greener than they were (see photos). People there strongly identify with and take advantage of their connection with water, and this mindset drives their commitment to address what, according to the US EPA, is the greatest source of water pollution in the country — stormwater runoff. Sure, the Emerald City is not SE Michigan, but as Scott Dierks said at the Forum, “rain is the same, good-draining soils are the same, and deep-rooted plants all crave water the same.”
It is time for us to acknowledge that Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and Milwaukee are no longer the exceptions, and get to work greening our stormwater systems. Those who participated in the Forum are making a good start in their communities in Washtenaw County.
2012 was a dry year for the watershed. No significant storms occurred after mid-April, and very little precipitation fell at all through the entire month of July. Flows in the river and tributary streams hit record lows in late July and early August. What effect did this dry spring and summer have on the water quality in the watershed? Results from HRWC’s Water Quality Monitoring Program help answer this question.
The program had a banner year in 2012 with the greatest number of volunteers (49) trained and deployed to the most sites (36) across three counties. HRWC added 14 new sites in 2012 alone as the program expanded into Wayne County. This diligent corps of dedicated volunteers collected nearly 500 sets of water quality samples for analysis at municipal labs administered by the cities of Ann Arbor and Brighton and the Ypsilanti Communities Utility Authority (YCUA).
The state of Michigan does not have a numerical standard for phosphorus levels, but 50 µg/l is used for area lakes as a level to stay below in order to avoid serious algae blooms and fish kills. Concentrations of total phosphorus (TP) in monitored streams were roughly the same, on average, as the past two years. Wayne County streams (which include some that drain directly to the Detroit River) had the highest mean concentration at 100 µg/l, while Washtenaw County streams averaged 80 µg/l, and Livingston County streams were much lower at 30 µg/l. The portion of the watershed in Livingston County retains more wetland area (wetlands filter phosphorus), and a smaller developed or urbanized area than in Washtenaw or Wayne County. Mean stream flow, or discharge, was much less in 2012 than in previous years resulting in an overall “load” of phosphorus (i.e., the total mass of phosphorus moving downstream over a given period of time) from these streams that was lower than in previous years. Also, sediments (measured as Total Suspended Sediments or TSS) were slightly lower on average this year. Fewer storms means less erosion, or soil runoff, which may have also helped to keep phosphorus levels down, since phosphorus readily attaches to soil particles.
Bacteria Still a Health Concern
Bacteria levels, as measured by Eschericia coli, continue to be high in several areas of the watershed during 2012. Levels regularly exceeded state standards for human health in most monitored tributary streams in Washtenaw and Wayne counties. Notable exceptions were Woods Creek, Fleming Creek, and the Huron River upstream of Ann Arbor. Efforts to identify specific sources of bacteria in Honey Creek in Scio Township were not particularly fruitful. Bacteria counts were high throughout the streams of Honey Creek, and genetic tracking showed that a wide variety of animals contributes to the problem (including humans).
Stormwater Runoff Problem Persists
While the lack of major storms this season may have reduced the overall amount of erosion and other runoff pollution, tributary streams continue to exhibit unnatural flows. Streams throughout Wayne County (with the exception of Woods Creek) and the urbanized areas of Washtenaw County exhibited much higher peak flows following storms than would be expected from the size of their watersheds, and the flows returned to low flow much more quickly. Notably, at the driest points in July and August, some smaller creeks stopped flowing altogether. Typically, unaltered perennial streams should continue to receive sufficient groundwater in-flow even through the drought experienced in 2012.
Some of these flow characteristics also led to dissolved oxygen levels that were below state standards set to protect aquatic life. The streams in question are ones that were severely channelized (straightened and deepened), and the low water levels isolated sections from in-flow of oxygen-rich water, causing them to stagnate for long periods. Bugs, fish and other aquatic life will return to these creeks as flow returns, but they will have a difficult time sustaining a healthy, diverse population over the long term with such periodic oxygen starvation. While a number of programs and projects to reduce stormwater runoff are encouraging, these results suggest there is still a long way to go.
The Water Quality Monitoring Program is funded by local government agencies through HRWC partnerships for stormwater and watershed management.
The Washtenaw County Rain Garden program has been building and planting rain gardens for 7 years, and in that time, they have learned a thing or two about what makes them successful. They are offering Master Rain Gardener training beginning this month. While I have not taken the class myself, I have seen the work of some of the graduates, and their gardens inspired my own efforts at home.
Rain Gardens provide working Green Infrastructure for home owners to clean and cool stormwater so that our streams and rivers run clean. Stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution, and rain gardens can help address the problem. Anyone can plant one in their own back (or front) yard. Visit the Master Rain Gardener Hall of Fame (photos).
Help spread the word in the tradition of the MSU Extension’s Master Gardener program by becoming a Master Rain Gardener Volunteer.
Master Rain Gardener Training Class
Wednesday mornings 9:30am-12:30, January 16 – February 13, 2013.
Attendees must attend all five classes, and plant a rain garden to receive their Master Rain Gardener “Blue Thumb” certificate.
Location: 705 N. Zeeb, MSU Extension Classroom
Cost: $80 (Scholarships available)
Instructors: Harry Sheehan, Shannan Gibb-Randall, RLA, Susan Bryan, MLA
To register, visit the Master Rain Gardener information page.