State of the Huron River Chain of Lakes Improvement Project – April, 2022
As the Huron River Chain of Lakes Improvement Project (HRCOL) evolves, the PBWOA board determined it would be good to provide a linear history and a neutral assessment of the program. This summary is a result of meetings and discussions with:
- You, the waterfront property owner
- Washtenaw County Board of Public Works, who manage this project
- Progressive AE, Lake Scientist
- Clarke Aquatic Services, Herbicide applicator
- Oakland Harvesters, Plant harvester
- Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) – Aquatic Nuisance Control, who review and issue permits
- Other lake scientists and environmental professionals
First, let’s go back several years to 2015-16 and review what led to the creation of this lake management program. Our lake system is really a river system that originates well north of us in Oakland County with a watershed that is hundreds of square miles. Therefore, the water we fish, swim and boat in have been exposed to human contributions (mostly negative) miles and miles before it reaches us. In addition, we (Chain of Lakes residents) add to this water column as it moves south and east through Ann Arbor and onward to Lake Erie.
This river system is huge and extremely complex. Our delicate biodiverse water system has been exposed to invasive plants, Zebra Mussels and human contributions such as storm water run-off from lawn, farm fertilizer, wildlife and pet waste for DECADES. The damage to our lakes took years for it to get in this condition and the path to fix them will take years to correct.
In the past, nuisance and invasive aquatic plant treatment activities took place with groups of neighbors either hiring a herbicide applicator or by treating areas themselves – either as a group or individually. Numerous applicators would work on lakes – each applying through EGLE for limited treatment permits. Many neighborhood groups purchased and illegally applied herbicides without authorization, guidance or scientific review of what they were treating and the quantities of herbicide applied. There was zero consideration of the results of chemicals moving downstream and affecting other properties, fisheries, and natural habitats. In some respects, you can understand why people would do this. They want to protect their lake property investment and be able to use the lake for recreational purposes. This is a logical reason but those past methods to achieve that are not logical. Lake scientists report the results are much better when the whole HRCOL system is treated as one. To have a huge group of lakes all connected by one river system managed as a holistic body is huge and massive as well. That was the thinking 6-8 years ago, and still is today.
The largest concern by far from our membership was the alarming increase in weeds, mostly invasive weeds. Prior to 2014-15 the HRCOL had never been scientifically studied as one system. The PBWOA knew that would be a necessary first step and sought a credible scientist to study and assess the lakes. A scientific company was selected from three interviews and came from the west side of the state. They were selected because they had no prior commitment or interest in our waterways. Spearheaded by the PBWOA and supported and partially funded by the townships and residents, a detailed study was performed. The results of the study found many disturbing facts and that report can be found on our website – PBWOA.org. Some of the information was known to us but what was not known was the growth and spread of three new invasive weeds/algae in our lakes. The most notable was Starry Stonewort which is a fast growing, dense algae with zero benefits to a lake system. There is nothing known yet to eradicate it – only to control it’s spread and it was spreading rapidly.
Meetings were held with the four township supervisors from Hamburg, Webster, Dexter and Putnam who suggested Washtenaw County had the tools and experience to a manage lake treatment program. In conjunction with these 5 governmental bodies it was agreed that the best method to implement and pay for treatment was to form a special assessment district (SAD) that included all lake front owners, backlot owners and businesses on the HRCOL. With this background and the results from the scientific study from Restorative Lake Sciences completed, the next step was to present the findings to impacted residents. A meeting was held at the Shalom Lutheran Church where scientific data was presented. The questions and feedback were numerous and it was determined to move forward with the program. After following the steps in Public Act 185 the SAD was ultimately approved with Washtenaw County Board of Public Works running the program. Washtenaw County requested bids from lake scientists, applicators, weed harvesting companies and then awarded contracts to perform the required services.
Washtenaw County Board of Public Works assumed the management role to oversee this huge project and probably didn’t fully understand or appreciate the diversity and enormity of it. As a result, establishing communication lines with residents was slow to start but improved over time as they built their data base and homeowners understood what was needed. Washtenaw County uses this platform to communicate upcoming treatments, lake scientist studies and other needed communications. The project manager is not only managing our project but several others as part of the job scope. Within the administrative guidelines the project manager must provide coordination with contractors, keep residents abreast of what’s going on and handle all complaints and concerns. This is a huge challenge for this project.
Lake Scientist is now Progressive AE. They assumed management in the third year of implementation and have met with some challenges since starting later. They are a larger company than the one previously in charge and have more resources available.
Clarke Aquatic Services applies chemical treatments to the lakes after the lake scientist determines what treatments are needed. In addition, they must obtain permits from the EGLE. If permits are denied or modified from EGLE then they must work with the lake scientist and Washtenaw County to come up with a modified plan. This usually has mixed results from the desired submitted plan. In addition, since the City of Ann Arbor gets its drinking water from the Huron River, proper notice has to be submitted at least 7 days before treatment. This single item has in the past caused delays in timely treatment, which in turn affects the weed treatment results. Another guideline they are required to follow is not chemically treating after Thursday or before a holiday. They also have no control over the weather system which greatly influences weed growth. This company has over 30 years’ experience as a lake chemical applicator. Their insight from knowing our lake system is helpful to both Progressive AE and Washtenaw County. They post signage prior to application and are along the shoreline applying chemicals, so over the years they meet many lake owners. In a few cases they have been threatened, yelled at and chased for just doing their job. This behavior by a minority of lake front owners cannot be tolerated and could have dire consequences to the entire program whereby everyone will lose.
State of Michigan EGLE (Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) controls the permitting process. They review requests for all permits throughout the state. This department deals with all State restrictions and must also abide by all Federal restrictions, as is the case with the Snuffbox Mussel. Overall EGLE has been responsive to our needs. Restrictions regarding NO chemical treatment in the river means that certain invasive species will continue to survive. Also, the restriction in the use of proper copper products on Strawberry and Zukey Lakes has hindered a more positive outcome there. Copper products are the only effective treatment for control of Starry Stonewort. There are similar restrictions regarding chemicals and endangered species affecting treatment in our complex lake/river system.
Lake Owners are the customers paying for the cost of this program. As such your voice needs to be heard. It needs to be heard for constructive adjustments for needs in your area as well as concerns you have about chemicals or harvesting method used. It is also important for the lake owner to learn and understand the complexity of this program so that expectations are in-line with our results. Our waters never will be the pothole glacial lakes found in Northern Michigan. We live in a river system that so happens to have lakes through which the river flows.
YEAR ONE – 2017: There is certainly a “learning curve” with any major project and this one started slowly because the program did not receive final approval until April of that year. Requests for permits still had to be submitted and processed through EGLE. EGLE understanding the enormity of this project as well as their positive workings with the applicator helped expedite the permits. Nonetheless, some of the best times for treatment were missed early on. By mid to late summer all parties were getting in sync.
YEAR TWO – 2018: Washtenaw County hired a new project manager and studies and permit requests were submitted in a timely basis to EGLE. It was determined that in order to treat Starry Stonewort, the most prolific of the invasive weeds, copper products in fairly decent quantities were required. EGLE would not allow copper products to be used as part of the treatment mix due to the discovery of Federal mandates protecting an Federally endangered species, the Snuffbox Mussel. It took some time to figure out where they thought this mussel lived and where we could treat. Numerous meetings with EGLE to get them to reconsider went nowhere, until year three.
YEAR THREE -2019: Two major events took place just prior to the start of weed control in 2019. Washtenaw County terminated the contract with the lake scientist on our project and hired a company from Grand Rapids after interviewing three possible choices. This necessitated a ramp-up time for the new group to review past reports, conduct their own tests, and build a working relationship with the applicator. Additionally, Washtenaw County hired another new project manager and better communication channels and strategies opened immediately. This manager was able to handle complaints, worked with the scientist and applicator cohesively to ensure the best outcome. EGLE understanding the immense problems Starry Stonewort was causing to all inland lakes agreed to allow an “amendment process” to the permitting process – for very specific areas of each of the lakes. If the applicator deemed the situation with Starry Stonewort dire, he could request an amendment allowing limited use of copper products for treatment. This was helpful in some instances but still restricted the effectiveness of what was needed overall. Extra efforts were initiated with a weed harvester but rising costs limited the amount of work the county fit into their budget. In November of the third year Washtenaw County initiated a meeting with all participants, scientist, applicator and the PBWOA to review the project-to-date. The meeting centered on lake owners’ comments, past challenges, and strategies for year four of the program. It was a productive meeting and the PBWOA felt the participants were starting to work as one cohesive unit.
YEAR FOUR – 2020: With the new group in place and communication methods with residents far better than in the past, expectations were high for a good start. Then our world was interrupted with Covid 19. Seemingly unrelated issues and restrictions affected many aspects of the start. The State stopped motorized boating so lake scientists were unable to get onto the waters until late and additional restrictions limited the number of people allowed on boats to 2. This meant residents and the Washtenaw county manager who had previously accompanied the lake scientist were not allowed on board to help point out trouble spots. With changes in our climate warming cycle, the winter/spring of 2020 was an exceedingly warmer period than expected and the weed growth grew and matured much sooner than historical timelines. There were also some challenges with Covid19 restrictions that delayed access to our waters. As a result, the planned first treatment that was scheduled a little later became problematic. The late start and greater weeds required more follow-up treatment to get back on a proper treatment schedule. A new harvester was chosen from a bid process. They also ran into problems getting needed repair parts related to supply chain problems. As of this writing – September, with exceptions on northern shores of Whitewood and Strawberry/Zukey lakes, the HRCOL lakes/river appear to be responding to the treatments.
YEAR FIVE – 2021: The final year of the program started on a timely basis with the submission of treatment permit applications and review of the lakes by the lake scientist. The State continued to tighten restrictions on copper products and limited or denied several of the previously allowed permits. The newly hired weed harvester company purchased two additional harvesters to help stay ahead of the growth of weeds and to harvest where requested herbicide treatment areas have been denied by the State. The harvesting company continued to have challenges with the lack of access to offloading sites on Strawberry and Zukey lakes. Overall, the management team from Washtenaw County made great strides in creating a cohesive team that is proactive to treating the weeds as well as reactive with timely follow-up for spot treatments after the initial treatment.
Some disturbing findings were the occurrences of harmful blue-green algae blooms. These have been spotted mainly on the north shore of Base Lake but were also identified in other locations. Washtenaw County drove water samples to Lansing for testing. These blooms are caused by excessive nutrients in the lake and continuing warming of the lakes. While we can’t as individuals do much about the warming water temperature, we can all do a better job in preventing lawn fertilizers and pet waste from getting into our lakes. In some areas, the success of the treatment program has led to the growth of other weeds like Wild Celery. This is not considered an invasive weed and is desired by ducks and other waterfowl but can make it a challenge to boaters leaving their docks.
Upon completion of the 5 year commitment, Washtenaw County decided to downsize the scope of their future commitment to include only Little Portage, Portage, Baseline, Whitewood and Tamarack Lakes. Their limited resources as well as additional commitments to other lakes within Washtenaw County has caused them to scale back on the program. Pat Hohl, Supervisor for Hamburg Township is exploring methods to implement a treatment program for Gallagher, Loon, Strawberry and Zukey lakes. Although the 5-year SAD is finished time-wise, there was enough money remaining to treat the entire chain in the summer of 2022 – year number 6.
PBWOA BOARD CONCLUSION
It’s clear that this project has been a huge endeavor. All parties, including the State of Michigan EGLE view our program as one of the biggest and most complex in the entire state. The HRCOL program is not about managing a single lake – our program is managing 9 lakes connected by a river system that originates many miles north of us. Since the inception of this weed control project the PBWOA has had conversations with different lake scientists, some related to our endeavors as well as others who have no vested interest. They ALL believe in the concept of a biodiverse healthy lake system and all state that with the challenges they see in lakes all over the country, a MANAGED program is imperative for the survival of our chain of lakes. The comment “you would not want to see your lakes if it was not managed and treated” was heard more than once.
Observing the development of this Chain of Lakes Improvement Project and participating as voice for our residents and members since the projects inception, the PBWOA believes a lake improvement program needs to continue. As stated earlier, it took decades for the lakes to get this way and we believe it will take more than 5 years to reverse the cycle. The lake community needs to remember how far we have come and how much we stand to lose if the program is discontinued. We have a solid foundation for protecting our property values and the health and enjoyment of these lakes as we consider going forward with this endeavor.