As he does most summer mornings, Simon Sander takes a dip at Montrose Point with the Chicago skyline in the background. Montrose, on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, is a popular beach in the Chicago Parks system for residents and wildlife alike. A bird sanctuary and restored sand dunes nearby provide habitat for migrating songbirds like killdeer and sandpipers. Thousands of purple martins trek through in the fall, and in the winter, residents have spotted snowy owls. In 2010, the EPA and other agencies began distributing more than $2 billion through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to clean up Lake Michigan and its four neighbors. Photo © Ariana Lindquist

Outtakes: Under the Surface of the Great Lakes

A massive wetland used to stretch near Lake Erie. A photographer visits the team restoring what's left.

Winter 2017

For three days in 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio, banned its 400,000 residents from drinking tap water. It was a stunning move that called national attention to a long-running problem: the city’s water source, Lake Erie, had become so overrun with toxic algae, it overwhelmed water treatment facilities. The algae recur most years at varying levels of severity, fed by fertilizer runoff upstream.

Just an hour east of the city, Matthew Kovach, a coasts and islands project manager at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), is part of a tiny team restoring wetlands on the edge of the lake in the hopes of helping the native fish. Last August he kayaked through Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area with photographer Ariana Lindquist. With nothing but cattails in any direction and bald eagles flying overhead, it was a far cry from muddy waters clouded by sediment washed downstream or the fluorescent green Lake Erie has become notorious for.

“The water is very clean in a lot of these wetland areas. A lot of the sediment falls out,” Kovach says. “For people to have this idea of a Lake Erie that’s muddy or green, to come out here… It’s like it used to be.”

Kovach and his teammate Alexis Sakas, a coastal conservation project coordinator for TNC, brought Lindquist to several wetlands along Lake Erie as she documented restoration and recreation throughout the area for a Nature Conservancy magazine story on the challenges facing the Great Lakes.

The wetlands team is just one of many in a sprawling network of ecologists, biologists, farmers and more working with TNC in the Great Lakes states that touch and affect each of the Great Lakes. Some, like Kovach, are focused on restoration while others are working with coastal cities like Chicago or with farmers across the landscape to reduce fertilizer use. (Read more about that variety of work in the Winter 2017 magazine story.)

The Nature Conservancy has project sites (blue dots) throughout the region. For example, near Lake Superior, TNC is helping landowners with logging and planting strategies to make forests healthier (1). The organization developed a tool called Fishwerks to identify priority dams and culverts (2) and is restoring dunes by Lake Michigan (3). The Saginaw Bay Watershed Conservation Partnership, co-led by TNC and the Michigan Agri-Business Association, is working to keep soil and fertilizer from running into Lake Huron (4). A cross-border partnership has worked to suggest altered water levels in Lake Ontario to better mimic natural water flows (5). Recommendations were adopted by the U.S. and Canadian governments in 2016. Map © Mapping Specialists, LTD

All five of the lakes have dealt with the effects of development along their shores, the introduction of invasive species or the loss of wetlands that once filtered water flowing into them. Lake Erie, the shallowest and warmest of the lakes, has arguably been dealt the heaviest blow over the years. A massive wetland known as the Great Black Swamp once stretched the size of Rhode Island near its shores. As settlers moved into the area, they built dikes and drained the water off the land, turning much of the swamp into some of the most fertile farmland in America. About 95 percent of the wetlands are gone, says Amy Brennan, TNC’s Lake Erie program director.

In the 1960s, algae blooms were common on Lake Erie, and the nearby Cuyahoga River caught fire repeatedly—most famously in 1969 when a Time magazine article described how the river “oozed” rather than flowed, where someone decays rather than drowns. In the 1970s, the Clean Water Act helped clean up urban outlets that had let sewage seep into the lakes and rivers. In recent years, a rise in phosphorous levels from farm runoff has correlated with new frequent algae blooms.

“Today, our biggest challenge in the western Lake Erie basin is looking at the amount of nutrients in the water that are excessive and continue to be pulsed in through our tributaries,” Brennan says. “How are any of those nutrients that aren’t being taken up by the crops being managed at the edge of the farm field? We’ve done a number of projects like two-stage ditches and phosphorous filters along the edge that are the next line of defense.”

In other words, some fertilizer, which can fuel the growth of algae, will inevitably run off some farms. So, what are the ways to filter it out before it reaches Lake Erie?

Those are the sorts of questions Kovach and Sakas are hoping to address with new wetlands restoration projects.

“Most of the wetlands we have are isolated hydrologically,” Kovach says, explaining the team’s projects. “They tend to be diked out and isolated…. What we’ve been trying to do is reconnect them to water bodies to benefit wildlife habitat and get more fish in these systems and treat more water with them.”

The 26-foot sailboat Windhorse cruises through Monroe Harbor off downtown Chicago on an August evening in 2017. Owned by local club Sail Chicago and captained here by longtime sailor Tom Simms, the boat is one of hundreds in the harbor in the warm part of the year. Each year, the Great Lakes contribute an estimated $62 billion in wages to the U.S. economy. And, about 27 million people-tourists and residents-fish, hunt and bird watch in the region each year. Photo © Ariana Lindquist
Ten-year old Cassius Burnett swims at Rainbow Beach in South Chicago one summer day in 2017. The area has had a public beach since before World War I and was the site of a “freedom wade-in” in 1961 to protest segregationist policies in the park. Photo © Ariana Lindquist
The sun sets over Lake Erie at Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge-the site of a recent effort to provide more water flow between the lake and the wetlands. Located 13 miles from Toledo, Ohio, the refuge is made up of 2,445 acres of marshland. “Near that ring of rocks, you can see ripples on the water,” says Kovach. “That’s where our new connection is.” Previously the wetland reached the lake through a pipe with a valve. Now a new system including a fish ladder is helping more water and animals flow through the barrier. Photo © Ariana Lindquist
Alexis Sakas looks for birds at Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge in August 2017. With each of the wetlands projects, the team conducts pre-project and post-project monitoring to determine how fish and avian wildlife are affected. Photo © Ariana Lindquist
A great blue heron (flying) and a great egret at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in August 2017. Together with Cedar Point and West Sister Island wildlife refuges, Ottawa protects some of the last remnants of the Great Black Swamp, which once stretched 40 miles wide and 120 miles long before settlers drained much of it in 1800s. Photo © Ariana Lindquist
The native swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), found in the Cedar Point refuge attracts many butterflies, especially monarch butterflies. Photo © Ariana Lindquist
Amy Brennan, TNC’s Lake Erie conservation director shows Matthew Kovach, TNC’s Lake Erie coasts and islands manager, a fish taken from the Cedar Point refuge. The team sets nets out to study the variety of fish in the area. They typically weigh and measure the fish to help assess how fish populations have been affected by wetland restorations. Photo © Ariana Lindquist
Kovach (left) and Brennan kayak through the 558-acre Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area near Toledo in August 2017. This marsh was once part of the Great Black Swamp, which was drained to create farmland. Today the restored marsh is home to many wildlife and birds. This day the team spots sandhill cranes. “You can paddle a mile into it and you can look around and you can’t see anything but cattails in any direction,” Kovach says. “It’s quiet. It’s actually kind of what it used to be like. And it’s really cool to have some of that left.” Photo © Ariana Lindquist

— NCM

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7 comments

  1. Loved the article and all the pictures. Thank you Matt and all those who care about Our beautiful lake

  2. Informative, inspiring and truly beautiful presentation — thank you to Jenny Rogers – article, and Ariana Lindquist, photos.

  3. Do you have some program where I can send my 17 year old grandson to volunteer up there for a few weeks this summer. He’s trying to figure out what he wants to do in life and I’d sure like him to do something with climate. He’s applied for an 8 day program with the ACLU which takes place I believe starting 7/18. We are in the Columbus area and I know he would enjoy learning and helping you.

  4. Nice. Encouraging. Uplifting for the spirit. Thinking about putting the Nature Conservancy in my will.

  5. Any who feel a need to contribute to an undertaking of this vast reclamation, the Nature Conservatory is one of a terrific groups restoring Lake Erie and the other four. Just to look at these few pictures and read their articles is engaging. Please show us more.

  6. Thanks for the great pictures and commentary regarding the wildlife areas in and around Lake Erie. More of the same please!