by Peg Bostwick, ASWM
This photo of the Grand River flowing through downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan was taken from my hotel room window last week, while attending the Michigan Wetlands Association Conference – New Directions in Wetland
Protection and Management. Imagine this beautiful urban
setting made even more so by restoration of historic river rapids through the city. That is the plan described by Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell in his address to the opening plenary. Mayor Heartwell is known for progressive thinking on land and water management, and also spoke enthusiastically about green infrastructure, climate change adaptation, and stormwater management in the city and surrounding area, along with art, education and the lively nature of the downtown area. The Mayor also stressed the importance of wetland protection as a critical component of flood control plans. It is inspiring to hear this message coming FROM local government.
The August 27-29 conference brought together a very diverse group of about 57 speakers and equally diverse attendees. Here are a few tidbits from the breakout sessions that I was able to attend, addressing an array of issues including climate change, wetland restoration, and Great Lakes protection and management.
• On climate change: Anne Garwood of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) outlined a climate change strategy for coastal wetlands, developed as a component of the state’s Coastal Management Program §309 strategy for 2012-2016. This strategy builds on and implements recommendations previously developed by the DEQ in cooperation with ASWM. Click here to review the white
paper authored by ASWM for the DEQ.
• Multiple speakers noted the recent microsystis contamination of Toledo’s drinking water supply from Lake Erie, and the relationship between this crisis and climate change.
Recent flooding in Detroit was also raised as an instance of the more extreme weather that has been predicted. The role of wetlands in water quality protection and water management was noted.
Tinka Hyde – head of Water Division at EPA Region 5 – explained that under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, phosphorus loading targets and allocations will be established for each country by 2016. Multiple related recommendations outline approaches to achieving target phosphorus levels for each of the Great Lakes.
• Kurt Kowalski of the Great Lakes Sciences Center reported that the soils of Great Lakes coastal wetlands store more carbon than most North American soils. Something to think about.
Kurt also displayed a fascinating digital elevation model image of the Great Lakes clearly showing low-lying areas of the state, and making it easy to believe that Michigan was once about 30% wetland. It is also easy to see where to focus wetland restoration efforts. Matt Cooper of Notre Dame – a team member in the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Project – noted that data being gathered by that consortium will also be useful in supporting restoration decisions.
• Businessman and former gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos spoke at the opening plenary about “Project Clarity” – a coordinated effort to improve the quality of Lake Macatawa through watershed management, including wetland restoration. The terminology is different – Mr DeVos spoke of the importance of “return on investment” rather than “ecological outcomes” but the goals were the
same. This ambitious project has a budget of almost $12 million, and a 5 year project period. For more information and a video presentation, click here.
• On Farm Bill programs and wetland restoration: Brandon Fewins, representing Sen. Debbie Stabenow (who was in Africa during the conference) reported on Farm Bill programs, and in particular on the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program. This program streamlines four previous Farm Bill programs, and will provide significant funding for watershed projects, particularly in designated priority conservation areas. Click here for more information from USDA.
Brandon also discussed new “swampbuster” provisions which continue to require conservation compliance, but an appeals provision and an opportunity to come into compliance within 1 year after appeals before losing financial support.
The Wetland Reserve Program is now wrapped into the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. Rulemaking is underway.
• Our Ducks Unlimited partners reported on accomplishments in Michigan to date, including conservation of over 72,000 acres in Michigan, with funding of more than $31 million. Go Ducks!
• Doug Marcy of the NOAA Great Lakes Science Center reported that the jury is still out on the predicted impact of climate change on Great Lakes water levels. Current levels are up significantly after a winter of ice cover (which reduces evaporation) and high precipitation. Models are showing that in the future, there could be a more limited reduction in water levels than previously feared, or even a modest increase in water levels. Doug also demonstrated NOAA’s new on-line viewer showing the impact of changes in Great Lakes water levels. This tool will help coastal communities and others plan for land and water management. It should be available “soon” – watch for it. When released, the viewer will be posted at osc.noaa.gov/llv.
Another climate change note: ongoing studies at the University of Wisconsin on acidification of the Great Lakes indicate that acidification of the Lakes may be an even greater impact than on ocean waters. I’m sure we will be hearing more on this.
• MWA board member Dave Mifsud of Herpetological Resource and Management provided an overview of the herp Best Management Practices manual developed for Michigan. This is a great tool to incorporate measures for protection of reptiles and amphibians in a wide range of other construction or resource management measures. These practical and very doable recommendations range from how high the grass is cut and when to conduct controlled burns, to recommended shoreline structures and road construction practices. It is not available in print (unless you would like to donate for printing – which would really excite Dave) – but can be downloaded here at no cost.
• On the MDEQ wetlands program: DEQ staff including Director Dan Wyant spoke of the importance of the state-assumed 404 permit program, and discussed the state’s ongoing coordination with EPA in identifying changes needed to maintain the program at the state level. Changes in federal regulations present a particular challenge to states attempting to maintain federal consistency.
Overall, conference presentations time and again focused on collaboration, cooperation and community or watershed-wide approaches. Applied science and interagency cooperation were the reported norm. Perhaps because of this, the overall mood was confident, forward looking and pragmatic even in the face of multiple challenges to wetland managers. All in all, this was a rewarding conference, with many more presentations than I could attend or note here. You can review the presentations as they are posted (soon) on MWA’s conference page: click here and watch for them!