It was 2010 when after a decade of lobbying by Great Lakes advocates, federal funding in the U.S. to restore the Great Lakes began to flow to the tune of $475 million.
Beneath the radar in that first year, Central Michigan University received $10 million to lead a team of regional scientists who would study coastal wetlands that had been severely degraded over time. The degradation was to the point that 50 percent of Michigan’s coastal wetlands had been lost. In some areas like the Detroit River, the loss was 90 percent.
Among the universities joining CMU in the region were the University of Minnesota, Notre Dame and in Canada, the University of Windsor and Environment Canada.
Biology Professor Don Uzarski had just become the Founding Director of CMU’s Institute for Great Lakes Research and he would direct the program.
Fast-forward to 2023 and the program has been renewed twice by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has received a total of $30 million.
Great Lakes Now contributor Gary Wilson recently spoke with Uzarski where he cited success stories in the Saginaw Bay area and Muskegon County in Michigan. He described the “tremendous” impact that climate change and diminishing ice cover are having on the Great Lakes.
And stepping out of his role as a scientist, Uzarski commented on the recent criticism of Canada by Michigan elected officials who alleged that Canada wasn’t investing enough money in Great Lakes restoration.
Editor’s note: After the interview, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that limited the U.S. EPA’s authority over wetlands. The decision will have limited impact in Michigan as it has authority to regulate wetlands under state laws.
The phone interview was recorded, transcribed and edited for length and clarity.
Great Lakes Now: In 2010, CMU received the first of what would become three, $10 million grants from the U.S. EPA to assess and monitor coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada. That work continues today. For lay people and city dwellers, why is wetland monitoring so important to the ecosystem?
Don Uzarski: I like to compare it to every time you see your physician. The first thing they do is take your temperature, measure your blood oxygen and take your blood pressure. The reason they do that is because, say you have a slight fever… the fever itself won’t hurt you but it’s an indicator that something is wrong. That process was done on many, many people to get normal ranges. It prompts the doctor to dig deeper to find the problem. That’s what we’re doing with wetlands.
GLN: Coastal wetland loss in Michigan is approximately 50 percent since the arrival of European settlers and as much as 90 percent in some areas like the Detroit River. Has the tide turned or are the losses continuing today?
DU: It has actually turned. We’re probably restoring more than we’re losing at this point. So we have turned the corner, for example, in Saginaw Bay where we’d lost over 95% of wetlands but we are in the process of restoring them today. And Al Steinman at Grand Valley State University is working with groups in Muskegon County. They’re taking two, longtime celery flats that were originally coastal wetlands and they’re turning them back into coastal wetlands. And that’s happening all across the Great Lakes basin.
GLN: What’s driving that progress?
DU: The federal Great Lakes restoration program. It provides the funding. And we know now through our research the importance of those systems to the overall condition of the Great Lakes.
GLN: Spending money on projects grabs the headlines. But what are the outcomes of your wetland program to date? Success stories and areas where the program may have come up short?
DU: I’ll start with the latter. The hard part is that $10 million every five years sounds like an enormous amount of money. However in 2010 we received that first $10 million to study over five years more than 1,000 Great Lakes coastal wetlands basin-wide in the U.S. and Canada. Turn to 2020 when we received our third grant, we still have the same amount of money and the same amount of work but of course everything is much more expensive now. That’s the closest thing to a shortcoming.
On success, every coastal wetland in the basin being restored in the U.S. and Canada is studied. We are measuring how we’re doing. Previously it was common for restoration to take place then you pat yourself on the back and walk away, not knowing how well you did. We’re providing accountability and determining where we made mistakes and how we fix them. We’re currently working at 62 sites that are being restored.
GLN: At the recent conference attended by approximately 700 Great Lakes scientists and researchers in Toronto, climate change and adapting to it was top of mind. Since 2010, how have climate issues affected your wetland work?
DU: Tremendously, because it comes down to hydrology which is everything.
Climate change is impacting hydrology. We went from extreme lows in the early part of our work to record highs recently without the normal up and down around the long term average. Coastal wetlands need that fluctuation, to go above and below average. But not for long periods of time in either direction. That’s not how the systems naturally function. With climate change we see twelve years of low, or more. That may be followed by seven to ten years of record high. These systems change drastically because of that. They’re not the same structure and function under what were natural conditions.
GLN: At the conference, the diminishing ice cover on the lakes due to climate change was documented by a plenary session presenter from York University. Loss of ice affects many things including recreation, shipping and lake levels. How do you see loss of ice cover and warming temperatures impacting coastal wetlands?
DU: It impacts them drastically because that ice cover controls water levels to some degree. You can imagine that water levels are controlled by water coming in and evaporation, water exiting. Ice cover caps evaporation and when we see these drastic changes in air vs. water temperature, the greater the difference between the two the more evaporation takes place.
We can look at November when we get severe cold air, yet the lakes, because of the high specific heat of water, hold onto the summer heat so the water is relatively warm and the air is extremely cold and we get huge evaporation. Ice cover would normally cap that evaporation. That would cause low water levels.
So, why the high water levels? It’s because the climate is changing to the degree that now, we can’t predict where water is coming from and how much should come into the basin. We’re getting water into the basin that under normal, non-climate change conditions doesn’t belong here. So we get these huge fluctuations in water levels and like I said, with coastal wetlands, hydrology is everything.
GLN: Earlier this year, several Michigan elected officials complained about Canada not pulling its weight when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes. Specifically, not providing enough funding for conservation programs. Your work has a Canadian interface, do the Michigan politicians have a legitimate point? Or was this political posturing?
DU: To some degree they had a point, even my Canadian colleagues were saying the same thing. But Canada is stepping it up and I’ve heard that they announced something comparable to the U.S. Great Lakes restoration program.
That was only a matter of time.
You could also turn the table. Canada is probably regulating impacts better than we are. They could say you’re pumping this money into the lakes but you’re not regulating them, we are. So, everybody is right and wrong to some degree. The issue will even out.
GLN: What is the state of Great Lakes science and research, writ large? How does it perform compared to other large ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf Coast between Florida and Texas?
DU: In science, we have tremendous momentum and we probably have more science taking place because of the federal restoration program. USEPA used to claim that our wetlands program alone was the biggest in the world. That’s an indication.
GLN: In 2017, Great Lakes Now visited your Lake Michigan Beaver Island facility and I observed an enthusiastic group of students working in the lab and on the research vessel, the Chippewa. Does that same level of interest in the Great Lakes exist with students in 2023?
DU: It has increased. We get applicants from across the country who want to come to Beaver Island and our biological station to work with our Great Lakes scientists on Great Lakes issues. Since 2017, our applicant pool has increased to around 80 applicants even from Ivy League institutions and from across the country. The Great Lakes have received so much attention and now people realize their importance and how interesting these systems are.
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Featured image: Wetlands. (Photo courtesy of Central Michigan University via Don Uzarski)