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Groundwater Management, Fish Farming and the Asian Carp in Lake Erie: Highlights from the Most Recent Policy Forum

Two weeks ago, the Institute of Public Policy and Social Research held its most recent policy forum in Lansing focused on the health of the Great Lakes.

Rick Hobrla, from the state government's Office of the Great Lakes, opened the forum by highlighting the completion of Michigan's action plan for western Lake Erie. The lake has been mired in pollution from runoff originating in the states and Canadian province surrounding the lake.

The severe algal blooms plaguing Lake Erie led Michigan to designate the lake impaired in November 2016, but Ohio did not follow suit until just last month. Hobrla praised Governor Rick Snyder's commitment to plan intended to reduce phosphorus inputs to the lake — one of the dominant pollutants — by 25% by 2025.

Hobrla said the plan would utilize "a combination of regulatory and voluntary efforts" to achieve the reduction, and would coordinate with the Environmental Protection Agency to combine Michigan's plans with the plans of other states.

He said gave mention to addressing the issues of climate change and aquatic invasive species as priorities for the office.

Next to speak was Anthony Kendall, an assistant professor researching landscape hydrology in MSU's College of Natural Sciences. His presentation emphasized how protecting Michigan's waterways requires more than just managed the surface run-off that leads to them.

Instead, he noted, it's groundwater that moves most nitrogen and phosphorus into the Great Lakes.

 “Agriculture is the dominant source of nutrients and it’s a rapidly growing consumer of water resources,” Kendal said. “Groundwater is the primary means of nutrient movement across the basin and it’s really slow to respond to surface change. It’s not the same as surface water and we need to understand that in our management.”

He noted that surface watersheds and ground-watersheds are often quite different, meaning they move toward different sources.

Kendall made an example of the Jordan River in the northern Lower Peninsula, which surrounded largely by forest and is a popular destination for nature-seekers. But the ground-watershed for the Jordan River extends well outside the valley it's nestled in, and throughout the 1990s irrigated potato farms were established just outside the valley. Now the river has a nitrogen pollution problem.

"The problem isn't fixed," Kendall said. "The reason is because of that ground-watershed and the management that needs to occur outside of the surface watershed."

Part of the difficulty in addressing groundwater pollution is the length of tie it can take for polluted groundwater to reach a site where it can be reported. Kendall provided a map of the Huron River watershed where groundwater in some areas can take centuries to reach the river.

He also pointed out that since 1970, farmers nationwide have planted major crops increasingly early in the year. An indication, he said, of the agricultural industry responding to the effects of climate change.

Rochelle Sturtevant, a program manager in Michigan's Sea Grant Extension in Ann Arbor, provided a history of invasive species within the Great Lakes basin.

Sturtevant runs the Great lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS) which provides public data about the prevalence and range of the 187 aquatic invasive species established in the Great Lakes Basin.

In her overview of the history of foreign species in the Great lakes, she noted that some outside fish, such as rainbow trout and salmon, have been deliberately stocked in the Great Lakes since the 19th century.

Toward the middle of the 20th century, things began to worsen.

“Starting in the 1940’s and 1950’s we started to see an acceleration in the rate (of invasive species detected in the Great Lakes) much more rapid pace of invasion — almost two per year — which was almost entirely attributable to ballast water," she said.

Ballast water management, she said, has been crucial to slowing the rate of aquatic invasive species entering the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Sturtevant also provided an important update on one of the most politically prominent invasive species issues — Asian carp. While much media attention has been focused on the silver carp found in the Chicago River and “is probably the one we think of first,” when Asian carp are discussed, Sturtevant said, “Grass carp is probably the one that’s knocking on our door.”

Grass carp has been found in the Sandusky bay of Lake Erie, as well as eggs, but carp in the larval stage has not been found, which has led to disputes about whether the population could be considered established in the lake. The current status is "inconclusive," she said.

“The scientific community and management community are currently in deep arguments as to whether this species should qualify as established in the Great Lakes,” Sturtevant said.

Ron Kinnunen, who also works with the Michigan Sea Grant Extension, used his presentation to clear up some misinformation about the state of aquaculture and commercial fishing in the Great Lakes.

He noted the U.S. faces a $2 billion seafood trade deficit, and those in the industry face increasing regulations. Whitefish, an important fish for commercial fisherman, which was previously in excess of 10 million pounds, has essentially halved over the past ten years, Kinnunen said.

Kinnunen attributed the decline in part to food chain disruptions, specifically declines in a energy-rich species of zooplankton, Diporeia. While those plankton have high levels of essential fatty acids, young whitefish have resorted to eating another plankton lower in fatty acids, consequently the fish have been smaller and in worse condition.

He is a proponent of allowing fish farming within the Great Lakes, and believes placing them far enough offshore could help counter some of the nutrient imbalances the lakes are experiencing.

Hobrla ended the forum with a call to action.

"The greatest threat to the Great Lakes is complacency," he said. "It's thinking they are too vast for us to effect; it's thinking if we just leave them alone they'll take care of themselves."

Simon Schuster is a graduate policy fellow at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

IPPSR will be hosting two more policy forums this spring. The next, on career and technical education, will be held Wednesday, April 18. Attendees can register here. The presentations for this past forum can be viewed here.