Great Lakes Projects

Planning for Climate Change in Habitat Restoration

 

Black River slag 

The National Wildlife Federation is partnering with NOAA’s Great Lakes Habitat Restoration Program and EcoAdapt to include climate change in the design and implementation of Great Lakes restoration projects. Past use of the Great Lakes has degraded the ecosystem's water quality, biological diversity, and productivity. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a major effort to restore the vitality of the Great Lakes. 

NWF’s guide “Restoring the Great Lakes’ Coastal Future” describes a practiced suite of tools and methods to assist in the planning and implementation of climate-smart coastal restoration by NOAA, its partners, and others. The guide highlights seven case studies of climate-smart restoration projects in the Great Lakes region, including the goals, approaches, and implementation of each project.

NWF and our partners are making sure that Great Lakes restoration projects are climate-smart. 

If restoration projects do not consider the impacts of climate change in the Great Lakes, they are less likely to endure over the long-term and be self-sustaining. 

Learn more:  Black River, Buffalo River, Clinton River Spillway, Crow Island, Maumee Bay, Muskegon Lake, St. Marys River

Lower Black River Habitat Restoration Lorain, OH

Project Partners: NOAA, National Wildlife Federation, EcoAdapt, Coldwater Consulting LLC, ARCADIS- US, Inc, City of Lorain, USFWS

The Lower Black River is an Area of Concern (AOC) because of its high levels of contamination from a century of heavy industrial activity, which also caused extensive loss of stream and riparian habitat. Much of the project site and nearby lands were buried in slag (a by-product of steel production).

Black River

Restoration activities include slag removal followed by river bank restoration, restoration of fish habitat, control of invasive species and revegetation of riparian zones. Assessment of the vulnerability of the site to climate change indicated that restoration of fish habitat could be compromised by greater variability in water flow and greater extremes in flooding and drought. To account for these vulnerabilities, the project was modified to install fish habitat shelves at several water depths (instead of one) so that some habitat would be available in most water conditions. This minimizes occurrences of all fish habitat shelves being too deep in the water, or all fish habitat shelves above the water level during increasingly extreme droughts. To account for increased stream velocity associated with more-extreme floods, the size of boulders in boulder piles for fish habitat were increased to minimize their washing away.

The suitability of various tree species for planting in restored riparian zones was assessed to identify species suitable to both existing climate and projected future climate in the area. Tree species for which either the existing or projected climate (or both) were unsuitable, were avoided for planting.

While the vulnerability assessment and identification of climate-smart alternatives was about 5% or less of the total project cost, implementation of the climate-smart alternatives had no net increase in cost. Changing tree species for restoring riparian habitat had no change in cost as they were readily available from nurseries. Using larger boulders cost more because they are more difficult to move, requiring larger machinery. This increase in cost however, was offset by lower cost for installation of fish habitat shelves as some fish habitat shelves were installed at higher more-accessible stream channel levels.

Riparian Restoration in the Buffalo River Area of Concern Buffalo, NY
Buffalo, NY

Project partners: NOAA, NWF, EcoAdapt, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, and a host of local stakeholders.

This project covers the creation of design and engineering specifications for the restoration of 1,520 feet of shoreline along the Buffalo River, as well as 3.5 acres of upland and riparian habitat. The area formerly housed steel- and coke-making facilities that have left a legacy of contaminated sediment and large debris both on land and in the river. As the federally-designated Buffalo Remedial Action Plan coordinator, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is carrying out this project in coordination with a suite of other in-river, shoreline, and upland restoration efforts, leveraging the value of individual projects to contribute to a healthy ecosystem.

Conceptual restoration methods and practices identified for this site include slope regrading to increase stability and expand shallow aquatic habitat, removing invasive plant species and shoreline debris, enhancing tree cover, and adding water-capturing topographic features like swales and berms. In assessing vulnerability to climate change the project tem considered seasonal and year-to-year variability in water levels typical of the region in conjunction with longer-term directional changes due to climate change, such as a long-term drop in average water levels and an increase in heavy rain events.

Vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning for this project revealed that current plans are fairly robust to climatic changes. In large part this stems from the fact that existing site conditions are so harsh that species capable of surviving current conditions are also likely to fare well under climate change. Likewise the design elements geared towards creating topographic complexity were included to remedy the site’s current condition as a flat, windswept, and barren plain, but will also increase resilience to climate change by creating numerous microclimates on the site.

That said, bringing in the climate change component led to discussions of what baseline information could be collected as part of this 2-year project to facilitate assessment of longer-term changes, as well as to inform regional assessments of ecosystem changes in response to climatic change

Clinton River Spillway Habitat Restoration Planning & Design, Macomb County, MI

Project partners: NOAA, National Wildlife Federation, EcoAdapt, Macomb County Public Works Office, Hubbell, Roth, & Clark, Inc., Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Clinton River Watershed Council.

Clinton River Spillway Weir

The Clinton River Spillway is a two mile-long canal that extends between the Clinton River confluence and the mouth of Lake St. Clair, northeast of Detroit, Michigan. The Spillway is part of the broader Clinton River Area of Concern (AOC), which has many of the same problems pervasive throughout the Great Lakes region after generations of urban development, agriculture, and industrial activities.

The Spillway itself, which includes an adjustable weir to modify flows, was originally designed to alleviate local and regional flooding associated with land use change and altered runoff patterns up the Clinton River watershed. While it has been effective in that role, however, its design and operation have adversely affected habitat conditions for fish and wildlife, both in the Spillway and the natural river channel. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the challenges at hand, as extreme precipitation events increase the potential for flooding; more-intense heat waves contribute to higher water temperatures; and greater variability in water levels of Lake St. Clair disrupt the connectivity and flows between the Spillway, the main river channel, and the lake itself. Taking these and other changes into consideration in the design and engineering of the Clinton River Spillway Habitat Restoration Project will improve the likelihood of restoration success now and into the future.

The restoration plan incorporates three different types of activities: instream restoration, riparian restoration, and lakeshore restoration. For instream restoration, the project is designed to restore ecological features that would support target fish species, but to do so in a climate-smart way. In particular, the project team has incorporated features including deep pools and areas of downed tree debris to provide refugia during low flow and high temperature conditions. They also included several off-channel habitats for pike spawning and step pools for stormwater conveyance. In the riparian zone, the restoration design considers planting native species that can survive in variable climate conditions to control erosion as well as provide shading to buffer water temperatures during heat waves. And they plan to remove coastal armoring at the mouth of the spillway and developing natural-type shorelines that will accommodate variability in lake levels.

Crow Island State Game Area Marsh Enhancement Project

Project partners: Ducks Unlimited (lead), Michigan Department of Natural Resources, NOAA, National Wildlife Federation.

Photo of Great Lakes restoration

The Crow Island State Game Area is a complex of wetlands and fields straddling the Saginaw River near Saginaw, MI . Historically, these marshes have been important waterfowl habitat, though much was degraded or lost to agriculture and other uses (e.g. fur farming) by the early 20th Century.  Restoration efforts began when the state purchased the land in 1953 and today approximately 3,500 acres is managed by Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The area is popular for hunting, fishing, birding, and other activities and it is an important stopover site for migratory birds. 

Restoration will occur on both the east and west sides of the river at the site and will focus on improving water level management to better address threats such as invasive plants and impacts of a changing climate.  On the east side, this work is funding design work to install new culverts and replace a failing pump that is the sole source of water to 1,250 acres of wetlands . Project partners have also explored options for wetland enhancement on the west side of the river, where wetlands  rely upon precipitation and Saginaw Bay and wind events pushing river water upstream for water.  The potential for altered water supply with climate change (such as drier and wetter periods, and shifting of prevailing wind directions) has led to consideration of other options for more reliable water supply for the west side units, and consideration of design changes (e.g. in pump depth) for the east side.

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Restoration in Maumee Bay Area of Concern, Benton Township, OH

Project partners: NOAA, National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, USFWS, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

Maumee Bay

The Maumee Area of Concern (AOC) is located from Ft. Wayne, Indiana spanning 130 river miles to Lake Erie. This specific project is working to restore approximately 600 acres of wetland, forest, rivers, and sedge meadow for one of the largest migratory landbird habitats in the country.

The project site, which is adjacent to Lake Erie and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, is currently fallow agricultural land. Many nutrients from fertilizers and pest control chemicals remain on and around the site, making it less desirable habitat for fish, birds, and other wildlife. Restoration efforts are focused on creating areas for fish passage, replanting forests, rehabilitating wetlands, and controlling harmful invasive species. The restored habitat will also provide places for visitors to view wildlife like the American black duck, blue-winged teal, king rail, and Blanding’s turtle. Climate change is expected to affect associated habitats through heavier rainfall, warmer air temperatures, summer drought conditions, and more-intense seiche events associated with storms. These impacts were incorporated into the baseline conditions established for the project to guide design and implementation.

For forest and wetland habitat restoration, managers have identified types of trees, shrubs and other plants best suited for current and future climate conditions, and are planning ongoing monitoring to detect changing climate conditions as well as the potential for expansion of invasive species. In addition, the project is incorporating increased variability in water levels between associated wetland and lake habitats in the design of fish passage infrastructure. Interestingly, climate and weather variability delayed project implementation in part of the region for two reasons: 1) availability of tree seedlings was delayed due to abnormally dry conditions, and 2) actual seedling plants and seeding activities initially could not take place due to heavily flooded conditions in the winter and spring months. This highlights the importance of considering climate change throughout the restoration project cycle, from design through implementation.

Muskegon Lake Restoration Project

Project partners: West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (lead), Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University, NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Great Lakes Commission, NWF

Mill Debris

A new design and engineering project to restore habitat is taking shape in the Muskegon Lake (MI) Area of Concern (AOC), a 4,150 acre drowned river mouth lake connected to Lake Michigan. Though restoration efforts have been underway for several years, the area still faces several challenges, including loss of fish and wildlife habitat, degraded fish and wildlife populations, and, in the Bear Lake area, eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) and undesirable algae. Design and engineering efforts in the new project will be carried out for two sites. The first effort will remove debris at the Muskegon Lake Mill Debris Site, a shallow 40-acre littoral area along the southern portion of the lake containing significant debris, mainly sawmill slabwood and sawdust from historic operations (see first photo). Debris removal will contribute to broader restoration goals in the area, including restoring a mosaic of emergent and open water wetlands.

The second effort involves hydrologic connection and wetland restoration at a site upstream of Bear Lake, a moderate to highly eutrophic lake that feeds into Muskegon Lake. The 43-acre project site, formerly a celery farm, is now a degraded, diked wetland and portions of the area have been converted to shallow ponds (see second photo).  The project will involve designing hydrologic reconnection of the wetland complex to Bear Creek and Bear Lake (through removal of over ½ mile of dike), with the goals of improving habitat and fish and wildlife connectivity. Sediment analysis of the wetlands for nutrients will help identify the potential for enhanced phosphorus loadings to the creek and lake following restoration. Preliminary discussions indicate that this second restoration effort will be vulnerable to climate change. More intense storm events and/or higher water levels could enhance phosphorus transport out of the restored wetland site.  Factors like these will be considered in near-term monitoring and restoration design plans to increase the likelihood of meeting both fish and wildlife habitat and water quality restoration objectives.

Little Rapids Habitat Restoration St. Marys River, Sault Ste Marie, MI

Project partners: NOAA, NWF, EcoAdapt, Eastern U.P. Regional Planning & Development Commission, Lake Superior State University (LSSU), LSSU Aquatic Research Lab, Great Lakes Commission, Michigan Department of National Resources, St. Marys Bi-National Public Advisory Council, Chippewa/Ottawa Resource Authority (CORA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, URS Corporation

St Mary's River

This project will complete all pre-construction tasks necessary for restoring the Little Rapids within the St. Marys River Area of Concern. Restoring the Little Rapids will enhance an important fishery in the Great Lakes by providing increased foraging, spawning, and nursery habitat for fish species such as trout, salmon, walleye, and whitefish. The river suffers from years of dredging, filling, and pollution, and the Little Rapids site is the only remaining historical rapids that can be reasonably restored.

The project has five main parts:

  • Hydraulic Flow Modeling to assess what effects the project will have on navigation and ice formation in the St. Marys River.
  • Engineering Design to modify the Sugar Island Causeway to restore flow to the Little Rapids and allow for fish passage.
  • An Environmental Assessment to examine the effects the project will have on the surrounding environment.
  • Environmental Monitoring to look at physical and biological aspects of the project before, during, and after implementation. Monitoring will make sure that environmentally sensitive species and habitats are not harmed by any step of the project and allow us to learn from the project.
  • Outreach and Education efforts to involve the many stakeholder interests of the Little Rapids project by making sure groups like sportsmen, residents, recreational boaters, and other entities are informed engaged as the project progresses.

The Little Rapids project will look at the potential effects of climate change on the St. Marys River and, partnering with NWF, will make sure that the engineering design for the causeway modification takes into this into account. Once these phases of the project are completed, implementation could begin by spring 2013.

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