Saginaw Bay Watershed Lake Sturgeon Release, Flint River

Meeting the Future: Water

Changing The Game In The Great Lakes And Global Aquatic Resources

Lack of adequate water is a global crisis that affects more than a billion people worldwide. Sustainability challenges associated with population growth, climate change, land use, energy choices, and global poverty must be addressed to increase water quantity, availability, and quality around the world. The SEAS community responds by working to generate water security for human needs.

Great Lakes On The Rise

Record high water levels in most of the Great Lakes this summer caused flooding and erosion in coastal communities, while inland, an overabundance of water threatened damage to storm water systems, sewer systems, roads, and bridges. While heavy precipitation is the major contributor to high water levels, lower evaporation rates—due to extremely cold winters—exacerbate the problem.

“In 2014, evaporation rates slowed down, and they slowed down drastically,” explained hydrologist and associate professor Drew Gronewold. “That led to a net increase in water levels across the entire region.”

“While fluctuations in lake levels are common, the excessive duration and intensity of the variabilities are likely connected to climate change,” related Gronewold. “These events are quite consistent with what scientists have been expecting,” he said. 

As they prepare to meet the future, Gronewold and his colleagues are focusing on the ability to forecast events in a ladder of time scales—from five days out to 30 years. “We want to be able to provide predictions for citizens, for municipalities, and for other stakeholders in the region who make vital management decisions,” said Gronewold.

What Lurks at the Bottom of Lake Erie?

SEAS Assistant Research Scientist Casey Godwin described the first steps to understanding manganese cycling in Lake Erie:

“Our stakeholders for this work are water treatment plants along Lake Erie, where hypoxic or low-oxygen water can enter intakes bringing with it high levels of manganese, a heavy metal that can turn drinking water yellow. We’re working to pinpoint the conditions that trigger Lake Erie sediments to release manganese and how it is transported within the lake. To do this, we collect sediment cores and water from the bottom of the lake and bring them back to the laboratory where we hook them up to sensors, circulate the water via jets, and then, as sediments are essentially breathing and the oxygen in the water drops, we take samples to analyze for manganese.

“We’ve learned that manganese is released from the sediments more quickly than we anticipated and, after it is released, it can remain in the water for a long time. Now we are putting all of this together in a product that can help water utilities anticipate these changes in water quality and how it will impact their treatment process.

“The most pressing research need for addressing water sustainability is prediction.”

Masters Project: Great Lakes Blue Communities

Enhancing community water stewardship in the Great Lakes Basin is a vital frontier of natural resource protection—especially during a time when federal and state governments are stepping back. While communities across the region are poised to take the lead, many of them lack a useful template for proceeding in ways that deliver environmental, community, and taxpayer benefits.

FLOW (For Love of Water), a water law and policy nonprofit organization committed to clean water for the Great Lakes, engaged a five-student master’s project team, advised by SEAS professor Paul Seebach, to promote tangible protection of waters across the Great Lakes Basin by creating a model Blue Communities initiative.

As part of that project, the student research team verified remotely sensed data on location (also referred to as “ground-truthing”) in the Grand Traverse region of northwest Lower Michigan. They also took an inventory of existing and emerging threats to critical community water resources, evaluated ideas for initiatives proposed by community members, conducted scientific, engineering and policy analyses—and ultimately, prepared a Great Lakes Blue Communities’ template that can guide plans, practices, and policies across the Basin.

The capstone master’s project, requiring an integrative approach drawing on science, data, modeling, legal protections, innovative land-use planning, and community engagement, necessitated collaboration both among the students and diverse stakeholders—and provided an opportunity to substantively inform public policy while setting a new precedent in Great Lakes protection.
Masters students Adam Arend (MS ’19), Lingzi Liu (MLA ’19), Kaitlin Vapenik (MS ’19), Nancy Ye (MS ’19), and Kangyu Yu (MLA’19) formed the Great Lakes Blue Communities project team.

Return of the Cisco

FISH FACTS: The cisco belongs to the same family as salmon and trout (Salmonidae). The common name “lake herring” is misleading, because it is not a member of the herring family (Clupeidae).

Cisco once was the dominant native prey fish in the Great Lakes food webs. Populations plummeted between 1920 and 1970 due to overfishing, habitat loss, and interactions with invasive species. Today, habitat conditions are beginning to improve and key invasive species populations have declined. Fishery managers are now discussing what it might look like to restore cisco populations in Lake Michigan.

Although many stakeholder groups are interested in restoring cisco, they disagree on the best approach. Some advocate helping existing remnant populations recover, while others recommend stocking Lake Michigan with young cisco from elsewhere in the Great Lakes region. Still others note that ecological conditions in the lake have changed drastically and question whether cisco would still be viable as a self-sustaining population.

Associate Research Scientist Sara Adlerstein is leading a project to discover how restoration efforts can be tailored to fit the needs of the diverse groups of stakeholders. To understand the multiple perspectives, including potential areas of consensus or disagreement, the research team is running an integrated assessment—by interpreting existing data, holding workshops, and distributing an electronic survey. Along with her team of co-investigators, including Associate Professor Julia Wondolleck, Adlerstein hopes to “create a path” toward restoration.

“This research combines an understanding of the underlying natural science with social science,” said Adlerstein. “It’s the decision-making process that we’re trying to facilitate. That’s what makes this project unique. We’re working with an interdisciplinary team in current Great Lakes issues that have significant relevance to people.”

Pop Quiz

How does gold mining impact fishes in the Guiana Shield of northern South America?

A) It changes the topography of their habitats by homogenizing the river bed
B) It increases the turbidity and siltation altering availability of food resources
C) It increases the toxicity of their habitats with the introduction of mercury contamination
D) It alters the shoreline due to deforestation
E)  In other ways still being discovered by an interdisciplinary team of U-M researchers
F)  All of the above

SEAS Professor Dr. Karen Alofs, along with Dr. Hernán López-Fernández (LSA: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) and Dr. Aline Cotel (Civil and Environmental Engineering), are measuring the effects of mining on the fishes in the upper Mazaruni River on  the Guiana Shield. It’s possible that 95 percent of the fishes in this area are endemic species, found nowhere else in the world. Many of these species were unknown to science until recently and remain undescribed.

Bringing together expertise in conservation, fish biology, and hydrodynamics engineering, these researchers aim to fill a knowledge gap on the impacts of environmental disturbance on ecological communities in tropical rivers. Their findings will illuminate the complicated, interacting effects of mining in the region—with the ultimate goal of developing holistic, comprehensive, effective conservation and restoration recommendations.  F is correct (All of the above)

Green Stormwater Infrastructure

Stormwater runoff is a major contributor to water pollution from urban environments, collecting contaminants as it travels over rooftops and lawns through streets to lakes and streams. Meanwhile, the effects of local flooding and erosion, accelerated by climate change, threaten property as well as the safety of roadways. Conventional gray infrastructure pipes stormwater away from buildings, roadways, and sidewalks to keep them dry, but this does not mitigate pollutants or reduce downstream flooding.

Green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) can be designed to improve downstream water quality and mitigate flooding. Technically speaking, GSI is an approach to stormwater management that “uses vegetation, soils, and other elements and practices” to retain, detain, infiltrate, or evapotranspire stormwater where it falls. Through innovative landscape design, GSI can also deliver other environmental, social, and economic benefits.

Over the past five years, U-M researchers have used a design-in-science approach to work closely with the City of Detroit decision makers and residents to develop and implement GSI designs on vacant property in Detroit’s Warrendale neighborhood, and to assess how well these designs manage stormwater and also enhance the well-being of neighborhood residents.

Their project, “Neighborhood, Environment, and Water research collaborations for Green Infrastructure” (NEW-GI), is led by SEAS professor Joan Nassauer. Her team includes SEAS colleagues Allen Burton and Catherine Riseng, along with colleagues from multiple disciplines at U-M, U-M-Dearborn, and Wayne State University.

Launched in 2014, project collaborators, including the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), developed bioretention flower garden designs and constructed two research designs on four pilot sites, which were vacant property owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Then, over the next five years, the team monitored stormwater flows and water quality on the sites and surveyed neighborhood residents before and after construction to investigate how a wide array of GSI designs might affect their well-being and their investment in their homes.  The team also visited cities around the country to investigate governance for converting vacant property to GSI and maintaining GSI.

“Our close coordination with DWSD and other City departments, and our collaboration with spectacular, generous neighborhood leaders, has made this research highly motivating for all of us who bring insights from different disciplinary backgrounds,” said Nassauer.

Based on this work, the team developed guidance for GSI development on vacant property in Detroit and other American post-industrial cities. Their most recently published report, Green Stormwater Infrastructure on Vacant Land: Integrated Assessment with Implications for Detroit, conveys good news for potential GSI solutions: 1) The pilot sites manage stormwater flows and remediate pollutants very effectively. 2) Residents appreciate the pilot bio-retention gardens even more highly two years after construction, and measures of their sense of well-being and safety relate to key, replicable garden characteristics.
The report concludes that, toward becoming an equitable, green city, Detroit could implement GSI not only to manage stormwater but also to provide cleaner, safer, healthier, and more walkable neighborhoods.

NEW-GI Researchers: Joan Nassauer (U-M SEAS), Alicia Alvarez (Michigan Law), Allen Burton and Catherine Riseng (U-M SEAS), Margaret Dewar (U-M Urban Planning), Shawn McElmurry (Wayne State, Engineering), Natalie Sampson (U-M Dearborn, Health and Human Services), Amy Schulz (U-M Public Health), Noah Webster (Institute for Social Research)

The University of Michigan Water Center supports NEW-GI with a grant from the Erb Family Foundation.