Great Lakes Restoration Efforts & Issues Focus Of CMF’s Green & Blue Network Conference

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mike Gallagher, Correspondent

Every day, both state and federal environmental agencies are gathering myriad data on the health and viability of the Great Lakes, but local government officials and public and private water stewards should continue their ongoing efforts to continually identify and assess problems and issues impacting local waterways.

That was one of the key messages shared by a group of environmental experts with foundation leaders at a two-day conference of the Council of Michigan Foundation’s Green & Blue Network held recently in Bay City, Michigan.

The Green and Blue Network was formed to be a strategic, action–oriented environmental learning-and-doing group. The funders bring in topical speakers during various events and explore ways to make targeted grants with pooled resources for greater impact.

“No one can better assess immediate issues that are affecting our Great Lakes, rivers and streams than those who live, play and work along these precious resources we all need and enjoy,” said Cameron Davis, senior advisor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Administrator.

Other keynote speakers at the event included Mary Fales, project director, Saginaw Bay Watershed Project at the Nature Conservancy; Jason Hill, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited; and Michael Kelly, director of The Conservation Fund’s Great Lakes Office in Bay City.

Explaining the current status of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) – Davis said it was launched in 2010 to accelerate efforts to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world: the Great Lakes.

“During FY15-19, federal agencies will continue to use the GLRI to strategically target the biggest threats to the Great Lakes’ ecosystem and to accelerate progress toward long-term goals for this important ecosystem,” noted Davis.

These actions, he said, will build on restoration and protection work carried out under the first GLRI Action Plan which has a major focus on:

  • Cleaning up Great Lakes’ Areas of Concern
  • Preventing and controlling invasive species
  • Reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to harmful/nuisance algal blooms
  • Restoring habitat to protect native species

“Additionally, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada was

renewed in 2012. The two governments came together to renew commitments to one another. At the end of the day if only the U.S. is trying to save the Great Lakes, it’s a little like trying to clap with one hand. It just doesn’t work.

“We need both federal governments at the table. Both governments with their funding authorities working to move forward with a Great Lakes agenda. And that’s what’s under way,” added Davis.

Targeting his speech on the nearby Saginaw Bay, Kelly told funders, “One of the things that make it so unique is the fact that the bay – and the entire Saginaw area river system - is an officially designated ‘Areas of Concern’ of both state and federal environmental officials.

“Areas of Concern are those locales that were identified in the late 1980s as having exhibited persistent problems around the Great Lakes…those issues are identified as falling under one or more of 14 problem designations (i.e. fishing restrictions, beach closures, habitat destruction, sewage overflows, etc.).

“The Saginaw Bay area is on that list,” noted Kelly. “At one time Saginaw Bay held the record of having 14 Areas of Concern. It was the only one that had that many issues. Since then a couple have been dealt with, but we still have 12 significant issues that need to be addressed.”

While that is not a good thing, added Kelly, “It does, however, give the Saginaw Bay some priority for GRLI funding.”

Fales explained the role of the Nature Conservancy in areas such as Saginaw and Bay City.

“All of the solutions we are looking for at the Nature Conservancy have to work for both people and nature,” she said. “We are not coming into areas or regions saying we want to return this all to nature and turn it into a preserved site with no use.

“That’s especially true in an area like the Saginaw Bay region where industry and agriculture is so important. The win-win solution we are trying to look for with the environment also has to work for the communities (i.e. businesses, government, residents) as well.”

Protection of the Saginaw Bay through land purchases is not the primary focus of the Nature Conservancy, noted Fales. “We do a little bit of that, but we don’t intend to actually own land in the Saginaw Bay Watershed. You are lucky there so many strong land conservancies in the area. Our protection efforts are focused around helping the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge expand their landholdings.”

Hill said his role at Ducks Unlimited is aimed at creating and supporting conservation programs throughout Southeast Michigan and Wisconsin.

“Great Lakes coastal wetlands exist in severely altered watersheds and landscapes that can result in degraded wetland conditions (e.g., monotypic vegetation, invasive species),” said Hill.

“Management action required to maintain biologically diverse wetlands can sometimes be ecologically limiting (e.g., diked wetlands with minimal hydrologic exchange),” he added.

Hill noted he keeps abreast of three GLRI-funded projects designed to improve coastal wetland ecosystems by restoring hydrologic connectivity, increasing fish passage, and enhancing wetland ecosystem functions and services. 

“Biological monitoring is an integral component of each project and includes traditional and innovative research efforts focused on results with broad application across the Great Lakes basin,” said Hill.

All four speakers thanked the Green & Blue Network funders for their efforts at educating communities about environmental issues in Michigan, funding important ecological projects – large and small – and for making land and water resources a priority.

“What you are doing is truly making a difference,” said Davis, “both in Michigan and Washington D.C. The federal government is aware of your work and dedication.”

As part of the Green & Blue Network conference, participants also took a cruise on Saginaw Bay aboard the Appledore schooner, an environmental-learning ship where Katy Hintzen, Extension Educator with Michigan Sea Grant, led various sessions on marine life, water testing processes and pollutant observations and studies.

Run by BaySail, the shipboard programs are geared to educate elementary through high 

school students – and grantmaking environmentalists – about the ongoing work to preserve not only the bay, but the Great Lakes as well.

Tom Cook, Green & Blue Network co-chair and executive director of the Cook Family Foundation, called the two-day event “a wonderful learning experience. It also helps us focus our attention on the issues, problems and successes of protecting the Great Lakes.”

“Informative and thought-provoking,” shared Mike McCuistion, vice president of physical resources at the Edward Lowe Foundation. “A great way to learn about environmental issues that are important to all of us.”

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