Fix our rivers, fix the Great Lakes

Riverkeeper Schapiro

As scientists and policymakers work to devise ways to manage the Great Lakes as a system – a long overdue undertaking – their focus should turn to its inputs, namely its rivers.

As far as I can tell after attending several high-level confabs, the efforts to preserve and protect the Great Lakes have been well-intended, but very fragmented. Who’s in charge?
The new Great Lakes Commission? The Great Lakes Governors’ Council? The Army Corps of Engineers? The EPA?

The answer appears to be all of the above or none of the above, depending on how you look at it.

The approach of looking at inputs – and outputs – to and from the relatively closed basin makes sense, but no one agency has taken that overall systems approach that I can see.

My views are informed as a board member of the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT). TNC has taken on systemic studies of two water sheds: the Duck and Pensaukee Rivers that flow into Green Bay and the Sheboygan River as it flows into Lake Michigan. Much is being learned about how to improve the quality of those inputs, such as reconstructing thousands of upstream culverts for better flow and movement of aquatic species.

Such work will inform the OWLT strategy of preserving the banks of the branches of the Milwaukee River. The land trust is action oriented as it acquires shoreline easements, but it needs more scientific help. Do we need to acquire, for instance, 50-feet strips along the backs or 500?

What does the optimum culvert look like? Should a dam be removed or not?

If there were some pre-eminent political body overseeing the restoration efforts of this invaluable Great Lakes resource, surely it would have a systemic plan for each and every tributary that flows into the five bodies of water.

Implementation would, of course, have to be delegated down to the eight states and two Canadian provinces that contain the lakes, to local government and to local non-profits, like TNC and OWLT.
There are many inputs to the lakes, such as rain, acid rain, sewage out-falls, sediment runoff, road salt runoff, industrial pollution and ballast waters from ocean-going ships.

One organization, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, is demonstrating how a systemic approach can be taken to one of the Great Lakes tributaries. It is serving as a watchdog and policy expert for the whole Milwaukee River Basin.

Using 80 trained volunteers, it is monitoring the quality of water in the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers and their tributaries at 96 sites. They measure dissolved oxygen, acidity, temperature, clarity and phosphorous levels.

Those readings resulted in an overall B-minus grade for the system in 2011.

Said Karen Schapiro, executive director, “We still face significant hurdles to the realization of a future where all people within Greater Milwaukee can enjoy clean, drinkable water and fishable, swimmable rivers.”

Forty years ago, when I moved to West Bend, the Milwaukee River was literally a sewer. Today, families fish from its banks. So, there’s been lots of progress.

Such progress, and the work of Riverkeeper, show how one system within a larger system can be improved over time, to the benefit of both.

Precipitation renews only about 1% of total volume in the five lakes annually. The reality that the Great Lakes, which hold 20% of the world’s fresh water, are essentially a closed system amplifies the need to understand and manage their major contributors – its feeder rivers – and more comprehensively.

There are a finite number of those river sheds, so integrated management should not be a mission impossible.

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  • Jim Lenfestey

    JOHN – Good piece.  There IS a overall moderator of the Great Lakes – the IJC, International Joint Commission – consisting of appointed reps from all surroundings states and Canadian provinces.  Been around sicne 1909, doing good ecosystem work.   In the end, the Great lakes are no long natural ,but a managed ecosystem, and we have to face up to that challenge, as we do now the oceans and the atmosphere as well.   JIM LENFESTEY

    • Anonymous

      Him, Good to know. What kinds of powers does the Joint Commission have? I don’t think I even know who’s on it from my state. I’ll check it out.

  • David Ullrich

    Hello John,
    Dave Ullrich with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative here in Chicago.  I heard about your ideas from Mary Jean Houston over lunch last week.  I agree completely that the tributaries play a huge role in defining Great Lakes quality, and that there are real questions about who is in Charge.  No IJC commissioners from Wisconsin, but you have a rep on the IJC Water Quality Board.  I also understand that you have an interest in indicators of quality and progress on the Lakes.  I strongly share that interest and would enjoy speaking with you about it some time.  Dave