Rebecca Williams

Reporter/Producer - The Environment Report

Rebecca has a natural science degree from the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources & Environment, where she had close encounters with escaped boars and poison sumac. Before getting into radio, Rebecca snapped photos of Mongolian diatoms and published a few papers in obscure scientific journals.

Now she spends her days reporting on everything from hungry watersnakes to heritage turkeys to people who live in 300 square foot houses.

She’s won several national awards for her work including a first place National Headliner Award at the network level for her stories on the uber-destructive emerald ash borer.

A radar image of bird migration.

2016 has been on a record-breaking warm streak, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

So what does this unseasonably warm fall mean for birds that need to start packing up and heading south?

Andrew Farnsworth is a research associate with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and he runs BirdCast – it’s a tool the lab created to forecast what’s happening with bird migration each week. 

$340 billion dollars: a new study estimates that’s how much it costs Americans every year for daily low-level exposure to chemicals that mess with our hormonal systems. The figure includes health care costs and lost earnings. 

Dr. Leonardo Trasande is an associate professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and population health at NYU School of Medicine.

A cyanobacteria bloom on Lake Erie in 2013.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

A lot of people are focused on trying to fix Lake Erie’s toxic bloom problem. The green cyanobacteria blooms are fueled by phosphorus that gets into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants.

A new report says we need to focus a lot more on cleaning up the streams in Michigan and other states that feed the lake.

Stuart Ludsin is an author of the report and an associate professor at Ohio State University. He says too much sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen can also hurt the fish in streams.

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake.

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is now listed as a threatened species.

Scott Hicks is a field supervisor in Michigan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the massasauga’s new status is due to the loss of its wetland habitats.

Terry Kreeger / Wyoming Game and Fish Department/CWD Alliance

Archery season for deer started over the weekend, and that means state officials are gearing up to test more deer for chronic wasting disease

The disease is contagious, and it’s always fatal for the animals. It creates tiny holes in their brains, and deer get very skinny and start acting strange.

Since it was first found in wild deer in Michigan last year, seven deer have tested positive, with an 8th case suspected.

Sea lamprey
USFWS Midwest / Flickr

We spend a lot of money to control sea lampreys. The U.S. and Canada spend $21 million dollars a year to keep them in check.


The invasive fish drills holes into big fish like trout and salmon, and drinks their blood and body fluids. A single lamprey can kill 40 pounds of fish.


Managers are always looking for new ways to control the blood suckers and keep tabs on where they are in the Great Lakes system.


Now, scientists are testing the idea of using environmental DNA – or eDNA. It’s a tool that’s been used a lot to see if Asian carp are in a river or lake; it detects genetic material from the fish.


Double-crested cormorant

There’s now more evidence that manmade chemicals can spread far and wide.


Researchers have found a chemical called PFPIA in cormorants, northern pike and bottlenose dolphins. The chemical has been used in pesticides, and it belongs to a group of chemicals called perfluorinated acids. They’re used to make cookware non-stick and make carpets stain resistant.


Amila DeSilva is a research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Honey bees in a GVSU hive.
Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

You can thank a honey bee for pollinating about one of every three bites of food we eat. But as you’ve likely heard, bees are in trouble.

They’re getting hit hard by pesticides and diseases and pests, and they’re losing habitat.

Two Grand Valley State University professors are using technology to track the health of hives in a new way.

The ESPniagara, aka "lab in a can."

Scientists launched a kind of underwater robotic tool in Lake Erie this week to test the water for toxins.

Timothy Davis is a researcher with NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

“We affectionately call it a lab in a can,” he says.

He says this tool takes water samples to test the levels of a toxin in the green blooms of cyanobacteria that've been showing up in the lake each year.

Grass carp.

The Canadian government has confirmed that, for the first time, a fertile grass carp has been caught in the Canadian waters of western Lake Erie.

Grass carp are considered less of a threat than bighead and silver carp (but grass carp can eat a lot of aquatic plants) and for a long time, people thought the grass carp in the lakes were sterile. But lately, fertile grass carp have been turning up.

A commercial fisherman caught the fish off Point Pelee.

Do teachers' beliefs on climate change affect their students? Yes and no.
Flickr user Frank Juarez /

The vast majority of climate scientists agree climate change is happening and it’s mainly caused by people.

A new study looks at how middle school students' beliefs about climate change are shaped by their teachers’ own beliefs.

city of Detroit skyline
James Marvin Phelps / Flicker

Our cities are especially vulnerable to climate change. More than 80% of people in the U.S. live in cities, so things like flooding and heat waves can affect a lot of people at once.

But city planners don’t always have a good handle on the risks their cities face.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

State officials in Ohio want to list parts of the Lake Erie shoreline and drinking water intakes in the lake as impaired. They want to do this because of the toxic blooms of cyanobacteria that have been growing on the lake every year. The blooms are fueled by excess nutrients, mostly phosphorus, that get into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants.

An impaired listing under the Clean Water Act sets pollution limits and outlines what has to happen to clean up that pollution.

Fleece fibers are released into the environment after washing, but scientists don't know what the effects might be.
user kellyhogaboom / Flickr -

A team of scientists from the U.S. and Canada are setting sail on Saturday. They’re heading out on a research trip to sample plastic pollution in all five of the Great Lakes.

It's part of a project called EXXpedition Great Lakes: seven research boats led by female scientists who are studying microplastic pollution. Microplastic pollution is made up of plastic particles that are five millimeters in diameter, or smaller.

The Kirtland's warbler, an endangered bird in Michigan.

Endangered species are waiting in long lines for the federal government to make a decision.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the journal Biological Conservation on wait times for listing a species under the Endangered Species Act.

Jane Kramer photographing the American lotus.
Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Plants usually don’t get as much love as cute animals. Sometimes it’s hard to get people fired up about an endangered plant.

But Jane Kramer’s trying to do that anyway.

She’s a fine art photographer. She takes photos of the shadows of rare or threatened plants, and then prints them on paper she makes out of invasive plants like garlic mustard and purple loosestrife.

Researchers found that cardinals might be helping to shield people from West Nile virus in some regions of the country.

Robins are considered "super-spreaders" of West Nile virus. They’re especially good at passing the virus to mosquitoes, and mosquitoes, of course, can then pass it to us.

It turns out a different bird species – cardinals – might be shielding people from getting the virus in some parts of the country.

Filling a sample bottle.
Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech released its latest round of water tests from Flint homes today.

Here are the take-home messages:

Some good news: The team, led by former Flint resident LeeAnne Walters and the Flint citizen science group, sampled lead levels in water in 162 homes in July 2016. The 90th percentile level for lead was 13.9 ppb. This is below the EPA action level of 15ppb.

But there’s an important caveat here. Kelsey Pieper, a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech, said their sampling pool is a random sample of homes and does not specifically target the highest risk homes for lead. So, while their results show the homes they tested are below the action level, it’s not an official result that would qualify under the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule.

Whiskey Point, at the west end of the harbor at Beaver Island.
Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Fifteen coastal projects in Michigan have landed more than $927,000 of federal money.

Rachel Cromwell is with the Office of the Great Lakes Coastal Management Program. The state agency decides which projects will be funded.

“The overall objective is to help restore and protect and enhance coastal resources. So we’re looking at different areas like public access, restoration, habitat, things like that, to help bring back those coastal resources or preserve them," she says.

American views on the existence of evidence of global warming: 2008-2016.

The first six months of this year were the warmest on record. This week, we heard about a deadly anthrax outbreak in Russia that's thought to be the result of permafrost thawing.

A new survey finds that fewer Americans doubt that climate change is happening, but it continues to be a highly polarizing issue.

Piping plover.

There’s some good news for birds on the endangered species list.

A new report by the American Bird Conservancy says 78% of the birds listed as threatened or endangered are now stable, increasing, or have recovered enough to be taken off the list (think: Bald Eagle). The group analyzed data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Now, you can type in your zip code and see the future.

At least, you can see how hot it’s probably going to be.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has updated the tool it calls Climate Explorer. It’s an interactive website loaded with data for each county in the U.S.

David Herring is with NOAA’s Climate Program office. He says you can type in your city or zip code, and see projections: for example, how many days might be hotter than 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Toxic blooms of cyanobacteria have been forming on Lake Erie for several years now.

A kind of cyanobacteria called Microcystis produces a toxin that can hurt pets and make the water unsafe to drink. Back in 2014, Toledo had to shut down its drinking water supply because of the toxin.

The states around the lake – and Ontario - are working to cut back on phosphorus. It’s a nutrient that runs off from farms and wastewater treatment plants and makes those toxic blooms grow like crazy.

The Great Lakes Commission just launched a new pilot program with Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Ontario. It’ll be a trading program for phosphorus, and they’re calling it the Erie P Market.

Chart showing greenhouse gas emissions over time.
Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle / University of Michigan

Industries in the U.S. have made some progress cutting greenhouse gas emissions over the past couple of decades. But emissions are up from the transportation sector. This matters because transportation is the nation’s second-largest source of the emissions that are causing climate change.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

The U.S. and Canada have added polybrominated diphenyl ethers to their list of "Chemicals of Mutual Concern."

PBDEs are a class of flame retardants in furniture, electronics, car seats and the padding under our carpets. But the toxic chemicals don’t stay put. They leach out and build up in people and in wildlife.

Dave Dempsey is a policy advisor with the International Joint Commission. The IJC advises both countries on Great Lakes issues.

user mytvdinner / Flickr

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 48 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated food each year. That's one in six people.

One of the big challenges for companies is tracing those food products and getting them off the shelves quickly.

Kaitlin Wowak is an assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business. She’s the lead author of a new study in the Journal of Business Logistics. She says a number of factors determine how difficult it is to recall a food product quickly.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Big, ugly blooms of cyanobacteria form on Lake Erie when excess nutrients — mostly phosphorus — run off from farms and sewage treatment plants. A kind of cyanobacteria called Microcystis produces a toxin that can hurt pets and make the water unsafe to drink.

That happened in Toledo in 2014, when the city had to shut down its drinking water supply.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tries to predict what’s going to happen with the blooms on Lake Erie each year.

Watkins Lake.
Legacy Land Conservancy

We officially have 103 state parks in Michigan now.

The new park is called Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve. It’s 1,122 acres in Jackson and Washtenaw counties.  

The state just closed on its part of the land last week (717 acres). The Michigan Department of Natural Resources used $2.9 million from the Natural Resources Trust Fund to buy the property. Washtenaw County bought the rest of the land, and the park will be managed by both the DNR and the county.

Watkins Lake.
Legacy Land Conservancy

The state of Michigan and Washtenaw County have each purchased land for a new state park.

Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve spans 1,122 acres of Jackson and Washtenaw counties.

Gov. Snyder speaks at a Flint news conference.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

It’s been almost six months since the Flint Water Task Force blamed the culture of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for the Flint water crisis.

The Task Force said a culture of quote “technical compliance” exists inside the drinking water office.

Its report found that officials were buried in technical rules – thinking less about why the rules existed. In this case, making sure Flint’s water was safe to drink.