Broad support cited for expanding Michigan wetlands
- Politicians from both parties and other groups want Michigan to spend $30M in federal money on wetlands
- The drive comes as farm runoff continues to foul Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie
- Wetlands filter nutrients to help cut back on runoff problems
It draws attention when politicians of different parties, hunters, conservationists and environmentalists align around the same issue.
Republican and Democratic state legislators, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Ducks Unlimited and Audubon-Great Lakes all gathered at the Pointe Mouillee State Game Area in Monroe and Wayne counties last Thursday to talk about the importance of expanding wetlands.
They want to use $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act money for wetlands in areas that drain into Lake Erie and the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron, waterways where nutrient-laden agricultural runoff has fueled major pollution. Wetlands can help because they filter out nutrients from manure spread on farm fields as well as other fertilizers that can lead to toxic cyanobacterial blooms, commonly called algal blooms.
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The Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) commissioned a study by Michigan State University to calculate the economic damage to fishing and tourism caused by cyanobacterial blooms.
“When there is a presence of harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie, up to 29 percent of those angling trips are canceled,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of the group, which represents hunting and fishing groups around the state.
That translates to up to $5.9 million in lost economic revenue for the Michigan Lake Erie region in a year.
Paul Doute, a charter boat captain, said he has to travel several miles farther out into Lake Erie for customers to catch walleye and perch, crossing into Ohio waters to avoid the toxic blooms.
That cost money, starting with the additional $11 each customer must pay for a one-day fishing license in Ohio.
“The bigger thing is gas, right?” said Doute of Angler’s Quest. “When you look at my engine that I have on my boat, I get about three miles to a gallon. Rec fuel being almost $6 a gallon, right? It adds up. Adds up."
The MSU study estimated that between 9,000 and 21,000 fishing trips were canceled in 2019.
Wetlands are seen as a way to mitigate some of the nutrient pollution.
“Here in southeast Michigan and up along Saginaw Bay, another area that’s been plagued by harmful algal blooms, you know, we’re looking at upwards of 90 percent wetland loss,” said Kyle Rorah, the regional director of public policy at Ducks Unlimited.
In the Saginaw Bay watershed, Ducks Unlimited worked to expand wetlands with the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, replacing what was once corn and soybean fields.
Climate change is causing more frequent heavy rainstorms. When two dams failed and flooded Midland and other mid-Michigan towns in 2020, about 15 percent of the flood waters were diverted into the Shiawassee wetlands, preventing additional damage.
“So you have the ability to withstand weather events,” state Rep. John Cherry, D-Flint, said of one of the benefits of creating more wetland.
“You have (to make sure) we have clean water for wildlife and for human consumption. And, you know, the other thing people don’t realize is there’s a carbon sequestration benefit to wetlands as well.”
Cherry said appropriating $30 million in federal funds for additional wetlands is critical for the Saginaw Bay watershed.
Representative Joe Bellino, R-Monroe, agreed the money should be spent to establish more wetlands to help reduce algal blooms.
"The water intake for my city is four and a half miles south of here,” Bellino said. “We know what happened in Toledo (in 2014) when they cut the water off to thousands and thousands of people because of the algal bloom."
He said it’s going to cost a lot more than $30 million to fix the problem, but the money available now is a place to start.
"We have to have a three-prong attack. We've got to restore the wetlands. We've got to make sure that we do something for the municipalities that have (nutrient) run-off and open the spigots when it rains hard. And we've got to have a statewide septic code."
Thirty-million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it will take a lot more than that to solve the problems the Great Lakes and some inland lakes are facing from pollution.
“The $30 million itself will help fund, I think, 15 wetland restoration and creation projects. So it's a really great start, but we are going to need more and more sustained funding,” said Erin Ford, Conservation Manager for Audubon-Great Lakes.
Trotter, of MUCC, said sometimes you must focus on what’s politically possible.
"Certainly there's probably a lot more we can do,” she said. “But the opportunity is now and we have sort of this critical bipartisan support and hunters and non-consumptive users and anglers all aligning on an issue which isn't always the case."
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