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.
On a crisp Thursday morning last week, as the sun rose over the pond formed by Argo Dam in Ann Arbor, 25 owners and operators of small dams within the Huron River watershed gathered to discuss their management and responsibilities for the dams.
Here are some of the highlights:
Elizabeth Riggs provided background information and statistics about dams in the watershed, in Michigan and around the nation. The majority of dams in the watershed are more than 40 years old, which presents a significant maintenance issue across the watershed as these dams may be approaching (or passed!) their design life. Elizabeth also discussed the growing national trend of dam removal. She indicated that removal can be 3 to 5 times less expensive than dam reconstruction, and funding is available for removal, but not reconstruction.
Luke Trumble, environmental engineer with the Hydrologic Studies and Dam Safety Unit of MDEQ, spoke to the group about the state’s regulation of dams and how it impacts dam owners. He emphasized liabilities associated with dams and the importance of inspection for dam safety. He indicated that owners of high-hazard dams are about 95% compliant with inspection and maintenance regulations. MDEQ inspects state-owned and municipally-owned dams upon request. Private owners must hire private, licensed engineers.
Shawn Middleton, engineer with the Spicer Group, presented on dam inspection and maintenance considerations and the economics of dam management. He highlighted observable evidence of dam deterioration, what to do about it, and how to quantify and minimize cost. One interesting point of discussion was that most of the older dams were not designed for the flood sizes that can be expected in the near future. For example, storms have caused dam failure in western parts of the state in recent years.
Following the presentations, Laura Rubin facilitated a discussion with the attendees and speakers on topics such as restoring river systems following a long period as a dammed system; dam ownership and transfer; and hydropower cost vs. revenue. Cost/benefit analysis in Michigan is showing that converting to hydropower is a liability rather than a benefit financially.
Leading up to the seminar, HRWC has worked to inventory the dams in the watershed and collect information about the structures, their ponds, owners and management. Dam owners and operators were surveyed to update information in the dam database. During this process, more dams, many which are too small to be regulated by the state, were discovered. The large dam operators on the river mainstem recently formed an informal association to establish communication and share information. The smaller dam owners were invited to last Thursday’s seminar.
Presentations and Links of Interest are now available at www.hrwc.org/events/past-seminars.
Public Meeting, Monday, September 10, 7pm, Ann Arbor City Hall
In 2002, HRWC worked with partners to study severe erosion issues and recommend actions to restore the creek. The result was the Millers Creek Improvement Plan. The plan was recognized by the U.S. EPA as a model of an effective and complete plan. It made numerous recommendations for remediation and restoration, most of which focused on addressing the flashy flows. Many recommendations were implemented in a targeted neighborhood through the Millers Creek Rainwater Project.
The plan did not make recommendations to address the sediment that has been accumulating at the downstream portion of the creek, particularly in the City of Ann Arbor’s Ruthven Park. Sediment accumulation led to alteration of stream flow and periodic flooding across Geddes Road at Millers’ confluence with the Huron in Geddes Pond.
The City of Ann Arbor engaged Environmental Consulting and Technology, Inc. to characterize and and quantify the sediment accumulation and make recommendations for management in Ruthven Park. The consultants and city staff are hosting an initial public meeting on Monday, September 10 at 7 pm at the City Hall. To hear more about what they have learned thus far and what they are planning to do, or to get your questions answered, see the City’s press release and join me at the meeting!
I recently did a survey of USGS gage stations in the watershed. I noticed a couple interesting things. First, most are below average for this time of the year. It’s been dry, no surprise. Next, take a look at the Kent Lake level at the dam for the past quarter. One can observe how the Huron-Clinton Metropark Authority (who manages the Kent Lake Dam) allowed the lake to fill 3 feet over the span of about a month, and are now operating at “run of the river.” Three feet represents quite a volume in Kent Lake, and holding back that flow undoubtedly altered flow levels downstream until early May. Thankfully, it was done slowly so the effect would be minimized.
Levels downstream are somewhat below average, though. See the Huron @ Hamburg Rd. (between Ore and Strawberry Lakes). It is just below the 25th percentile for the 60 year record. This means that the river flow is among the 25% lowest for this time of year over the last 60 years. The result is much less supply for Strawberry Lake and other lakes in the Chain of Lakes that do not have managed water levels. It also contrasts with the last two years, which were wetter than average.
Further downstream in Ann Arbor, the river is even more below average rates. That station is well below the 25th percentile based on almost 100 years of recordings. It is also important to recognize the extreme fluctuations at this point in the river. Due to its location below a series of two dams and several large stormwater outfalls, the river experiences erratic flows that can take it from 150 cfs to over 1000 cfs and back again in the span of a few hours! These unnatural flow patterns make it difficult for aquatic life to survive and could pose a hazard to anyone in the river at that time.
In general, it looks like most of Michigan is seeing the same dryness. The state map shows conditions of USGS gage stations across the state prior to this week’s small rains. Red and orange are exhibiting below average flows, and green is within an average range. Flows have recovered somewhat with the rains, but will soon diminish again if it remains dry. Given the lack of snow this winter, we may be in for a long, dry summer.
A section of Traver Creek that runs through Leslie Park Golf Course in Ann Arbor will be reconstructed later this year to improve and restore many of its natural features. The City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner are funding the project to address a section of the creek that has eroded over time.
The project partners are holding a public event to discuss the draft design tonight, April 30 at 7:30 pm at the Leslie Science Center. The meeting is open to all.
The project will also reconstruct portions of ponds at either end of the creek section. Those ponds will be deepened to provide more rainwater storage capacity and be redesigned to provide sediment settling areas.
Eroded stream banks will be reshaped and repaired, and a new floodplain area will be created along a portion of the creek. This “two-stage” design provides streamside wetlands that slow flood waters down and filter out nutrients and pollutants. Additional wetland areas will also be recreated where there is evidence of their previous existence. The wetlands provide further stormwater filtration capacity as well as wildlife habitat. A secondary stream channel will also be re-established where it used to run prior to construction of the golf course. The whole project will be vegetated with native plant materials.
The project will begin following the end of the golf season and should be mostly completed by the spring start of the 2013 golf season. HRWC are monitoring the site before and after construction to measure its impact. Benefits should include runoff volume, phosphorus and sediment reductions to address problems identified in watershed management plans.
HRWC’s Water Quality Monitoring Program begins the 2012 season.
A sure sign of Spring is here — and early again this year! In a few weeks, a large group of volunteers will undergo training for HRWC’s Water Quality Monitoring Program. Volunteers will learn how to measure flow and scientifically sample the water from tributaries in Livingston, Washtenaw and Wayne Counties. Labs at the City of Brighton Waste Water Treatment Plant, City of Ann Arbor Water Treatment Plant and Ypsilanti Community Utility Authority will analyse the samples for key components such as phosphorus, sediments and bacteria.
We use this data to better understand where pollutants are coming from and to determine if HRWC, partner communities and individuals have been effective at reducing these pollutants. Last year’s results helped develop targeted plans to reduce pollution. HRWC identified several key tributaries for needed stormwater projects.
Further, the results have been good. Phosphorus has decreased since 2003 (when the program began), and more so in tributaries where investments have been made to improve stormwater infrastructure and reduce pollutant sources. Water quality also appears to be improving and in good condition in Livingston County and some indicators are improving in the Lower Huron. Many problems such as altered hydrology persist, however. See the Water Quality Monitoring Program page for more detail on past results.
Please consider joining the effort!
Training will take place on two dates:
- March 22, at 6pm in Wayne, MI; and
- March 24, at 1pm in Ann Arbor.
Click here to register for the program and sign up for one of the training dates.
We look forward to seeing you at a training and in the water this Spring and Summer.
Information and “how-to” for shoreline property owners.
There are a couple of opportunities for lakeshore residents this spring to learn about innovative practices to protect their shorelines now and in a changing future climate. One is a local workshop in Oakland County and the other is a statewide conference.
The local workshop on natural shorelines, Creation, Restoration, and Management of Natural Shoreline Landscapes on Michigan Inland Lakes is being held on Saturday, March 17, 2012, 9 am- 12:30 pm, at the Independence Oaks County Park, Wint Nature Center in Clarkston. See the workshop flyer for more information and to register by the March 9 deadline.
For those interested in more detailed technical information and broad-ranging discussion on a number of shoreline-related topics, the 2nd Annual “Shoreline and Shallows” Conference may be for you. The conference will be held in Lansing on Wednesday, March 7. Visit the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership’s website for more information on the conference. Register by March 1.
As I came back from a holiday of reflection, I have been wondering more and more, “who really is watching out for our water resources?” At first glance it seems like a simple question to answer, and, as a professional Watershed Planner, one would think that I should have a quick answer. However, the deeper one looks, the more complicated the answer becomes.
We can start at the top with the federal government and look to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). True, they are responsible for implementing the Clean Water Act and a number of other water resource protection laws, but they really pass most of the responsibility down to the states. So, is the Michigan DEQ responsible? To some extent, yes. They report to EPA (and all of us) on the state of our waters, but they base that on limited data that they collect once every five years. And when it comes to acting on that data, the DEQ has a limited response unless there is a toxic contamination issue. They generally look to local agencies and organizations to develop plans and implement projects to address broader impairments like excessive nutrients, bacterial contamination, erratic flows, erosion, or aquatic wildlife and habitat degradation. They are leaving those problems to all of us to figure out at the local level.
The bottom line is there is no water czar to manage our water resources. No single organization is responsible. If we are to restore the Huron River to what we want it to be, we have to work together. That’s what we try to do here at the Watershed Council — work with you and your local government and business representatives to plan and execute programs that identify problems and promote collaborative solutions to improve the river and its watershed a little bit at a time.
We can’t do it alone, though. There’s a lot to do as you can see from the variety of projects we’re involved in. As you think about what you accomplished in 2011 and what you want to do with 2012, consider working with us to continue to improve the Huron River and watershed. If you don’t, who will?
I just recently finished the final editing on 6 plans to address impairments to the watershed in Washtenaw and Livingston counties. The problems we addressed in those plans were the things we spend most of our time here at the Council trying to address, namely excessive nutrients, degraded aquatic habitat and periodic bacterial contamination. Each plan is written to address the problem locally and remedial activities are recommended that addressed specific potential problem sources based on extensive monitoring and modeling. One theme cut across all the plans, however: FLOW.
Over the many years we have inhabited this watershed, we have altered the natural stream flows a little bit at a time. We’ve directly changed hydrology by building dams and straightening out channels. We’ve also affected the streams indirectly by hardening the ground surfaces and forcing storm runoff to head quickly to the stream channels rather than working through the soil (groundwater). We now know that this led to channel and streambank erosion, added nutrients, diminished in-stream habitat and washed wastes and pollutants directly into our waterways.
I recently looked at one large storm in August to see what the response was in two neighboring tributaries (see figure). Thanks to conservation of natural cover, Fleming Creek has much less hardened (impervious) surface than does highly paved Swift Run. Their different responses to a large storm (2.5 inches) is stark. Swift Run rises to peaks almost immediately following downpours, that initially, despite its watershed being 6 times smaller than Fleming’s, reach nearly the same height. Within hours, the flow in Swift returns to where it was before the storm, while 3 days later Fleming has yet to do the same. It’s easy to understand, then, why Fleming has much lower pollutant levels and much better populations of stream life.
This is why we encourage, within the recent plans and elsewhere, greater investment in “Green Infrastructure” across the watershed. Look for more to come on this in the near future and ask what your community is doing to improve its green assets, save money in infrastructure cost, and help us restore our streams.