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Matt Kleitch displays a baby’s breath plant which is threatening the shoreline, above. Quagga and zebra mussels, left, can hitchhike on boat hulls and trailers to other lakes if
boaters are not vigilant about cleaning.

Saving the Lake

Several coalitions of West Michigan residents are fighting invasive species, pollution and the removal of water from Lake Michigan.

By Mary Radigan
Photography by Brian Confer

No one would deny the breathtaking beauty of a Lake Michigan shoreline. But what if beaches were closed to swimming on a regular basis because of sewage making the water unsafe, or if charter fishing disappeared due to toxic fish? What if the lake’s fragile sand dunes became as hard as cement, or if recreational boating were jeopardized by huge water withdrawals?

Consider the increasing havoc in the aquatic food chain as invasive zebra and quagga mussels decimate prey-fish populations and spread toxic algae that alter the taste and smell of drinking water.

It reads like science fiction, but the threats are real, and dozens of citizen and environmental groups are working feverishly to ensure the Great Lakes are protected and preserved for future generations. From the land to the sea, efforts are under way to improve water conservation, upgrade sewer systems, stop new invasive species and control the invaders that are already here. It’s an ongoing battle, one that is drawing more people to the fight as the dismal possibility of what could loom ahead stares Michigan residents in the face.

Lake Michigan alone has a surface area of 22,400 square miles and an average depth of 279 feet. It is the largest freshwater lake in the United States and the fifth largest lake in the world. It is home to a variety of fish, and thus a major charter and commercial fishing industry. Miles of shoreline contain recreational beaches, sand dunes, parks, campgrounds and lighthouses.

No one wants those treasures to be lost.

Chuck Pistis, a scientist and program coordinator for the Michigan Sea Grant Extension in Michigan State University’s West Michigan office, called the ecological system a puzzle — with the pieces constantly changing. Once you change the system, it allows new organisms and species to show up, and that creates instability.

Invasive plants
Matt Kleitch, a West Michigan land steward for nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, patrols the lake’s sand dunes, attacking invasive plant species that choke the life out of native plants. “Baby’s breath,” a seemingly innocent plant often used in floral bouquets, is a major threat to the shoreline in Benzie and Emmet counties, including Sleeping Bear Dunes and Zetterberg Preserve at Point Betsie, Kleitch said.


The conservancy, the National Park Service and other organizations train teams from volunteer organizations such as AmeriCorps and Landmark to perform backbreaking work through the spring and summer to eradicate the invader, which has deep root systems and can grow higher than 3 feet.

“Some areas of the dunes are solid with baby’s breath by July, and it doesn’t allow for the natural shifting of the dunes’ sand,” Kleitch said.

Kleitch said private landowners along the lakeshore are being contacted for permission to conduct the eradication beyond state and federally owned land. He believes it will be a successful effort once the threat is understood.

“People who fish here, or recreational boating and other activities, are very aware of the unique beauty,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, it would drastically change the appearance of the shoreline. It is so important to take note of what is happening and preserve the ecological integrity of these dune systems.”

That effort is being helped by a three-year partnership with Meijer Inc. The grocery giant is donating $450,000 to help reduce invasive plants and save the Lake Michigan shoreline.

“Once baby’s breath gets established, it turns the dunes into cement,” said Melissa Soule, spokesperson for the Nature Conservancy. “It’s a very big deal for our scientists to say we can eradicate baby’s breath rather than just ‘manage’ it. The Meijer money will help us do that over the next three years.”

Invasive animals
In 2007, legislation was passed to require oceangoing ships entering the Michigan water basin to obtain certification to treat ballast water to kill organisms in it — or else agree not to empty any ballast. So far, more than 100 permits have been issued, said State Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, the initial sponsor of the landmark bill.

“Study after study shows that the major entry by invasives is through oceangoing vessels,” she said. “The bottom line is that they decimate the ecosystem. I don’t want to see a dead sea.”

Birkholz said zebra mussels have become so invasive that water quality is threatened. A few years ago water treatment plants were scraping the invaders off intake pipes and pumps once a year; now it takes as many as four or five expensive dives annually to get the job done.

“We’re paying for that in our (utility) bills and we don’t even know it,” Birkholz said. “It’s become an accepted cost of doing business, and it shouldn’t be an accepted cost of doing business.”

Birkholz is hopeful that the recent passage of the Coast Guard Authorization Act by the House of Representatives, and an expected similar response by the Senate, will bolster Michigan’s bill and establish the country’s first ballast water treatment standards.

Public awareness is increasing as the invasive species make their way up inland rivers and streams. Birkholz said she’s heard horror stories about people who have been stranded in their pleasure boats miles offshore when their engines suddenly quit.

“They had to be hauled into shore, and discovered their engines were plugged with zebra mussels,” she said.

Poor water quality resulting from invasive species affects everything from recreation to the water used in manufacturing to the cleaning and processing of the state’s crops that are being readied for shipment.

“The zebra mussel has become the poster child of invasive species since it started showing up, but I think the sea lamprey still is a real issue,” said MSU’s Pistis. “It’s a parasite on our lake trout and other sports fish that’s been around for a long time, and we still have to keep treating the water to keep it at bay.”

Willis Kerridge, owner and captain of Thunderduck Charters in Grand Haven, isn’t as worried about foreign mussels as he is about the Asian carp knocking on Lake Michigan’s door from its home in the Illinois River. An electric barrier has been put in place to prevent its spread, but conservation groups believe it is not enough.

“I worry about the Asian carp because they are so large,” said Kerridge, who’s been in the fishing business for 36 years. “They all compete for the same kind of food.”

One recent success story involved the withdrawal of a permit request by oil giant BP, which wanted to increase its discharge of ammonia and sludge into Lake Michigan from its refinery plant in Whiting, Ind. State and federal officials, environmental groups and residents expressed outrage, despite BP’s guarantee of adequate treatment and safety measures.

“There will be more of these kinds of applications, and we’d be dumb to think a request like that won’t happen again,” Birkholz said.

The Great Lakes are much cleaner in some ways than before the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. Phosphorus pollution is down in many rivers, while PCB and DDT levels have declined significantly. But other problems are increasing, with toxic chemicals not covered under the Act now showing up in fish, wildlife, human blood and breast milk. Pollution continues to be a problem in part because of aging and poorly designed sewage and storm-water systems.

“Beach closures due to storm-water run-off are a big problem across the state of Michigan,” said Ann Rubley, field director for Environment Michigan, an environmental advocacy group based in Lansing. “As our green spaces continue to decrease, and storm-water run-off increases, our beaches will suffer.”

Sewage is also a concern.

“Nothing hurts us more for coastline tourism than E. coli closing a beach,” Birkholz said.

Rick Hert, executive director of the West Michigan Tourist Association, concurred, saying, “There’s great concern when you see beach closures because of sewage problems, and it reflects on the whole state.”

Missing water
Jim Cordray owns the Happy Mohawk and Livery on the White River in Montague. His main concern is the water being drained for export and for bottling by companies such as Nestlé Waters North America for its Ice Mountain brand.

“They are searching for more sources of water and we know that water won’t be replaced,” Cordray said. “We know there are rivers and private wells that have been impacted by the pumping done by Nestlé at its plant in Evart. Once you start the trickling of water out of the pipeline, it puts the state in danger.”

He said river dredging also can take its toll on the Great Lakes because all bodies of water ultimately lead to the lakes. More authority has to be placed in the hands of the Department of Natural Resources and local governments, said Cordray, who is a member of the Great Lakes, Great Michigan coalition and also a member of the Blue Lake Township Planning Commission in Muskegon County.

“We are on the right track, and there’s much more awareness of the lakes’ ecosystem sensitivity and the fact that there are many thirsty states and nations who not only covet but have definite designs on our water,” Birkholz said. “We need to make a very large investment to maintain the health of the basin. Our manufacturing, agribusiness and tourism depends on it to make us successful as a state and region.”

Economic impact
The Great Lakes may be Michigan’s most important asset to lure leisure travelers and draw business growth, said Dave Lorenz, spokesman for Travel Michigan, the state’s tourism arm. The industry produces $19 billion in revenue, with more than half coming from West Michigan.

In 2006, Great Lakes fishing trips brought in more than $1.3 billion in trip-related expenditures. In Grand Haven, the top fishing port in the state with around 1,900 fishing charters every year, more than $1.3 million was spent in related lodging, dining, groceries, gas, shopping and entertainment expenses, according to the Michigan Sea Grant program.

Lorenz credited the Michigan’s West Coast campaign and the tourism partnership with Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau and its lakeshore neighbors for drawing visitors.

Janet Korn, director of marketing for the visitors bureau, said the lake attracts a broad spectrum of people, with some simply finding peace in a sunset or a stroll along the beach.

“People are beginning to feel very possessive of our waters and how important the quality and quantity is to our economy,” she said.

But Cordray commented that politics and lobbyists play a large role in what happens, and it’s hard for small businesses and citizens to keep up with all the proposals.

“It’s a complicated process of protection, with a lot of governmental bodies and organizations involved,” agreed Korn. “We have great resources, and as long as we keep the big picture present, we’ll (protect) the natural resources as the key asset to our region.”

Preservation planning
Soule said The Nature Conservancy has a 10-year preservation plan for the Great Lakes.

“It’s not just the preservation of the beach, but the interplay between the water, forests and sands we need to figure out how to protect,” she said. “There’s a lot scientific research going on behind the scenes, with a huge push to restore functionality to the Great Lakes and ensure they will be healthy and viable for generations to come.”

A Great Lakes Restoration Plan, introduced by the Bush administration in 2005, calls for more than $20 billion in funding to address the numerous threats. The money could be spent to upgrade sewer systems and treatment plants, and install buffer strips along farmland adjacent to Great Lakes tributaries in order to intercept and reduce pollution from fertilizer, farm animals and pesticides. It also could help the cleanup of contaminated bays and harbors, increase efforts to stop new invasive species, and control existing plant and aquatic aliens.

The Michigan legislature passed a water conservation law in 2006, but many environmental groups want more. That includes provisions to extend the Public Trust Doctrine to include all water, wetlands, streams and groundwater resources. Water packaging, sales and water diversion would be addressed. Water permit applications would be better scrutinized, restoration initiatives better defined and more community and local government involvement allowed.

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition is a 90-member organization launched in 2004 by nationally recognized philanthropist and environmentalist Peter Wege of Grand Rapids. He stepped in with a $5 million grant from the Wege Foundation to help create a united strategy to preserve the Great Lakes. The coalition is led by the National Wildlife Federation and the National Parks Conservation Association. It works with Congress to establish funding and restoration policies to preserve a healthy ecosystem.

Over the years, Wege and the foundation have focused on collaborative efforts to find solutions for problems facing the environment, including green-building solutions, farmland preservation, energy conservation and water quality issues.

Four years ago, Wege decided to form the coalition to take his concerns beyond Grand Rapids and Michigan as the environmental problems in and around the Great Lakes increased.

Another coalition, the Great Lakes Compact, involves eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces and is designed to provide the glue to coordinate protection, restoration and preservation efforts.

“We have to adopt a visionary stance in how we treat our water by closing loopholes in current laws,” said Marta Johnson, a spokesperson for the local arm of Clean Water Action. “There are a lot of issues facing the lakes; we have more than 60 organizations that make up the Great Lakes, Great Michigan coalition. We have to start protecting all of our water — and we are mobilized to do this.”

Adaptable waters
Pistis said that more than 160 foreign species have affected the Great Lakes ecological system over the last 200 years. The national Sea Grant College Program works with major universities and coastal communities around the country to provide education, public awareness and research to address environmental and economic issues.

Pistis said the lake will never fully rid itself of invasive species; it’s a matter of staying on top of each situation.

“I don’t think the lake will change a whole lot, but … we have to be ready to adapt,” he said.

Pistis said the system will continue to adjust. For instance, while the zebra and quagga mussels are blamed for the decline in the algae, which serves as the base for the aquatic food chain, the additional consumption of algae also allows for blue, clear water.

“That’s a benefit, but the mussels take away and make the algae unavailable for the rest of the system,” he said. “The pie becomes smaller and some (species) may do well, but others may not. There are going to be winners and losers. …”

Increased efforts
“ As a lay person, I’m far more aware and concerned about the environmental problems then I was five years ago,” said Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We had a beach closing last year, and that’s the first one I can remember in my 14 years as a director.”

But Laukitis is encouraged by the increasing citizen participation when Holland has beach and park clean-ups and trash removal, and by increased recycling efforts and day-to-day attention to the environment.

“The great thing is the sheer numbers of people who have taken their personal time to ensure that quality standards are maintained for the lakes,” agreed Lorenz. “That says a lot about the people of the Great Lakes region.”

Those efforts will have lasting implications.

“We have 11,000 lakes and the Great Lakes to claim as part of our heritage and future,” said Hert. “The beauty and stewardship of the environment is a lasting reputation. We are identifying the problems — and we must take care of them.” GR

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