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
boaters are not vigilant about cleaning.
coalitions of West Michigan residents are
fighting invasive species, pollution and
the removal of water from Lake Michigan.
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.”
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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.”
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
“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.”
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
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. …”
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
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