Andrew McFarlane / Flickr

Lakes Huron and Michigan are reaching record low water levels, and businesses along the Third Coast are feeling the effects.

Yesterday, Russell Dzuba, the harbormaster in Leland, Michigan (think Michigan's pinkie right on Lake Michigan), spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about what he's seeing out his window.

The low water levels have revealed a sand bar inside the Leland Harbor.

"...that ordinarily is not a good thing in a harbor," said Dzuba.

From the interview:

"We had an incredibly warm season - warm winter season last year, and we lost a lot of water to evaporation, and that takes place during the whole winter, as well as the summer.... Traditionally, we don't freeze as we did in the old days. It used to freeze all the way across the channel, 11 miles out to North Manitou Island. That hasn't happened here in a number of years."

You can listen to the interview here:

Last month, I posted on the low lake levels. If they continue to drop, which is expected, the low lake level record from March 1964 will be beat.

Farm in rural Michigan
user acrylicartist / MorgueFile.com

Governor Rick Snyder addressed several hundred farmers at a town hall style meeting Thursday night in Grand Rapids.

At Michigan Farm Bureau’s annual meeting, farmers debate issues that affect one of Michigan’s largest industries. Streamlining state government regulations is one of the 100-plus issues in this year’s policy book.

"The Michigan Department of Agriculture, since we’ve taken office, has eliminated approximately 1/3 of the regulations and rules. They’re gone," Snyder said.

"The Department of Environmental Quality, a group I know you love even more," Snyder grinned, as the crowd laughed, "they’ve eliminated over 100 obsolete rules already."

Snyder says the MDEQ is revising some seventy-five-programs, and he underscored that the effort to streamline rules doesn't conflict with efforts to protect the environment.

Office of Governor Rick Snyder / Wikimedia Commons

Governor Rick Snyder covered topics ranging from urban farming to "fracking" in his special address on energy and the environment today.

He said the state should do more to deal with blight and encourage urban farming in cities with lots of vacant land.

The governor said too much abandoned property in Flint, Detroit, and other cities is going to waste when it could be put to a new use.

“And all I’ve seen in my two years as governor is a lot of discussion about right-to-farm, and urban farming,” said Snyder.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder voices his opinion on the ballot proposals.

HICKORY CORNERS, Mich. (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder plans to deliver a special message to the state Legislature on energy and the environment this week.

The office of the Republican governor says he'll speak at 10:30 a.m. EST Wednesday at Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, about 40 miles southeast of Grand Rapids.

Snyder in the past has used special messages to discuss his plans and goals in areas including health and wellness, public safety and education.

The governor's office says remote viewing locations will be offered at NextEnergy in Detroit, the Michigan Alternative Renewal Energy Center in Muskegon, and the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City.

Snyder's office says his remarks also may be streamed online.

Stateside: Hike, bike and kayak the Great Lakes

Nov 8, 2012
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Midwest residents may have three new ways to enjoy the Great Lakes.

At a conference in Saugatuck this week, Western Michigan University geography professor Dave Lemberg will discuss plans for a 1,600 mile route along Lake Michigan.

Lemberg spoke with Cyndy about the details of the route.

By Jim Conrad [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is a disruption in our caves. Hibernating bats across the United States are suffering from white-nose syndrome. Named after the white fungus that grows on bats’ muzzles, the disease has killed millions of bats across North America.

Allen Kurta, a biology professor at Eastern Michigan University, spoke with Stateside’s Cyndy Canty about the future of Michigan’s bat population.

“We are dealing with a disease that is potentially going to wipe out numerous species of bats,” said Kurta.

Michigan's Office of the Great Lakes leads policy development and program implementation for the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes.

Today, Gov. Rick Snyder said he accepted the resignation of Patty Birkholz as director, and announced that Jon Allen will now lead the office.

From Gov. Snyder's press release:

Forestland in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula.
user {inercia} / Flickr

A Traverse City company is abandoning a nearly decade-long effort to extract natural gas in  an environmentally sensitive area. 

The U.S. Forest Service says that Savoy Energy has informed federal agencies it's withdrawing an application to drill below a site called the Mason Tract in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula. 

wikimedia commons

MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says Dow Chemical Co. is ahead of schedule as it samples residential properties in Midland for dioxin.

The DEQ this week approved Dow's request to begin work on 300 properties that had been scheduled for inspection next year.

It's part of a five-year plan to clean up neighborhoods contaminated for decades by airborne dioxin from a Dow plant in Midland, where the company is based.

Of about 150 properties sampled thus far, 22 have had dioxin levels higher than 250 parts per trillion, which triggers a company-funded cleanup if the owners want it.

Results from this fall's sampling will be available next spring. Any needed cleanups will get started then.

Dow is negotiating with federal officials over cleanup of the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers.

A chart showing historic water levels on the Great Lakes.

Just about a half a meter less, and the record will be beat.

That's how much the water level in Lake Michigan would have to drop to reach the record low level set in March of 1964.

In that month, the Lake Michigan water level was measured at 175.58 meters above sea level.

This past July, it was measured at 176.04 meters above sea level.

You can explore historic Great Lakes water level data on this NOAA website.

It's estimated that as many as 3,000 wild pigs are on the loose in Michigan. Nationwide, they cause more than $1.8 billion in damage to farms each year. So recently, the state's Department of Natural Resources put Russian boar on the state's invasive species list.

Charcoal produces more CO2 emissions than gas, but that carbon can be absorbed by new trees when making new briquets.
Magnus Manske / wikimedia commons

(Editor's note: This story was originally published in July 2009)

Neal Fisher thinks he’s an environmentally friendly kind of guy. He and his wife recycle, they use compact fluorescent light bulbs in the house, they walk most places and hardly ever use their car.

But when it comes to outdoor grilling... it’s charcoal all the way.

“It may be a little decadent when you’re taking the environment into consideration, but I do it.”

Photo by Mary Hollinger, NESDIS/NODC biologist, NOAA

Mute swans are flourishing in Michigan. The state’s Department of Natural Resources estimates their population almost tripled from 5,700 to more than 15,000 between 2000 and 2010.  We've previously reported the DNR says mute swans eat a huge amount of vegetation in lakes. They can push out native birds, such as the trumpeter swan, and officials say mute swans can snap and charge at people.

To keep the population under control, the DNR is killing the birds and destroying their nests.

The Humane Society of the United States and the Michigan Save Our Swans Committee argue the DNR’s methods are inhumane.

Brett Groehler, Director of Photography / UMD

Researchers are sending robots where no scientist has gone before: under the ice in Lake Superior during winter.

This week, researchers from the University of Minnesota-Duluth put their first robot in Lake Superior to test it. Think of them as robotic divers... they travel up and down on cables and collect data. The cables will be anchored to the bottom of the lake.

Erik Brown is one of the lead researchers and the acting director of the Large Lakes Observatory at UMD.  He says the harsh winters on Lake Superior make it too dangerous for people to go out on ships and collect data.

Flickr user/I'm Such a Child

People who own private property on Michigan sand dunes will now have more flexibility when it comes to getting building permits.

Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill this week that broadens building permits on what are called critical dunes. Those are dunes that have the most environmental protection.

Rachel Hoekstra is the legislative Director for the Senator who introduced the bill. She says the previous law had too many regulations for building permits.

“Basically it turned out to be whoever had the most money could potentially one day build a home in these areas.”

But opponents of the new law say it puts those critical sand dunes at risk.

Kevin Lund of MDEQ shows a sample of oil and water he collected when he dug a hole in the bank of the Huron River. The analysis they did on the samples they collected showed that the contamination was coming from the old MichCon manufactured gas plant.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The city of Ann Arbor recently spent more than one million dollars rebuilding an old mill race along the Huron River. The Argo Cascades is a series of little waterfalls and pools where kayakers and people floating in inner tubes come to cool off.

But downstream from the Cascades on the other side of the river, there’s a problem.

There's been pollution lurking underground for some time from an old industrial plant, and two years ago regulators found that some of the pollution was making its way into the Huron River.

The days before natural gas

Leah Zuber / Grand Valley State University's Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center

Scientists are analyzing new data that’ll determine whether offshore wind farms are viable in Lake Michigan and the data is more detailed than any available from the Great Lakes so far.

A floating eight-ton research buoy is collecting the data. There are only three such vessels in the world and this is the first one launched in the United States.

The buoy has been anchored about 37 miles off shore for about two months now. Recently crews retrieved the first set of data cards – with information about wind conditions and any bats and birds that fly by. Scientists are now analyzing that data.

Arn Boezaart heads the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center that’s operating the buoy. "I think we are getting data at this point that will be very useful and will validate the fact that the wind conditions at mid-lake are very promising for potential future use as a commercially viable wind source," Boezaart says.

But right now there is no clear path to proposing an offshore wind farm in the Great Lakes inside the Michigan border.

Bug Girl / Flickr

Of all the land in Michigan, the state owns a little less than 7 and a half percent.  That’s about four and a half million acres. And, some people think that’s too much. Some people think it’s not enough. Regardless, every few years, there’s a new call to take a look at how much land is owned by the state, and how it’s being used.

Governor Snyder signed a law recently that limits how much land the state can acquire while the state Department of Natural Resources conducts a study of what the state has and how it’s used.

“The state itself owns millions of acres of land, let alone cooperating with the private sector and there’s no cohesive strategy on how we manage our resources for both terrestrial things like – land-based things, but also aquatic. So one of the things I’d like to see in the special message is setting the framework of how we’re going to evolve over the next few years to have comprehensive strategy for how we’re going to manage land and aquatic resources in the state of Michigan," the Governor said recently.

A news investigation found two natural gas companies might have colluded when bidding on drilling rights in Michigan. Reuters obtained e-mails exchanged between officials from Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Encana Corp. The paper says the e-mails show "that top executives of the two rivals plotted in 2010 to avoid bidding against each other in a state auction and in at least nine prospective deals with private land owners." State lawmakers are pushing for resolution with an investigation.


If you're planning a trip to Michigan's state parks this summer, expect some company.

The parks are on track to break attendance records this year, with more than 25 million visits expected.  

It’s mostly thanks to hot weather, lowers gas prices, and cheaper park passes, says Harold Herta of the Department of Natural Resources.  "We've seen a lot of people coming out to the parks this year that said, I haven't been to a state park in years, and I thought I'd try it out. Especially in the metro-Detroit area."

The dredge, the Arthur J, sinking on Lake Huron. The boat is owned by MCM Marine.
U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard issued a press release this morning saying all the fuel valves and vents connected to the fuel tank on the sunken barge, the Arthur J, have been plugged.

Crews continue to work on salvaging the 110-foot dredge barge and 38-foot tug that sank yesterday morning one mile off the coast of Lakeport, Michigan.

From their release:

The Arthur J has ten vents to its fuel tank and responders where able to plug four of them early Thursday afternoon, but six remained open until responders were able to plug them late Thursday night.

The impact to the shoreline has been minimal; however there is visible sheening along the shores of Lakeport, but there has been no report of a thick product wash ashore. However, there is still a strong diesel odor in the air, so residents and visitors of the lower Lake Huron area are encouraged to avoid areas where there is an odor in the air. Those who live in the area should remain inside with doors and windows closed as much as possible. 

The Coast Guard says the Michigan State Health Department has closed beaches from the Blue Water Bridge north to Lakeport State Park.

The diesel fuel that did spill remains on the lake. No wildlife impacts have been reported yet. The Coast Guard says "weather and lake conditions are not optimal for product clean up, but the clean-up efforts continue vigilantly."

The sunken dredge barge and tug were owned and operated by MCM Marine.

Early reports indicated the barge and tug began taking on water around 4 a.m. yesterday. The Coast Guard reports the cause of the accident at this time is still unknown.

The oil spill site is reported to be two miles off the coast of Lakeport.
Google Maps

Friday, July 20, 9:06 a.m.

The U.S. Coast Guard released a statement this morning declaring that the diesel fuel tanks onboard the sunken dredge, the Arthur J, have been secured and that no more diesel fuel is spilling into Lake Huron:

All the fuel valves and vents on the Arthur J have been plugged. 

The Arthur J has ten vents to its fuel tank and responders where able to plug four of them early Thursday afternoon, but six remained open until responders were able to plug them late Thursday night.

The impact to the shoreline has been minimal; however there is visible sheening along the shores of Lakeport, but there has been no report of a thick product wash ashore. However, there is still a strong diesel odor in the air, so residents and visitors of the lower Lake Huron area are encouraged to avoid areas where there is an odor in the air.

Thursday, July 19, 12:26 p.m.

Mlive.com reports that if storms do not let up, all 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel will get into Lake Huron.

The Michigan Department of Enviromental Quality is monitoring the situation from the periphery, and spokesman Brad Wurfel said ongoing storms may limit the effectiveness of the containment boom.

"We're hoping to recover all we can," he said. "But it's anticipated that if the storms do not let up, it's best to plan on the idea that all 1,500 gallons will get into the lake."

The weather, the weight of the fuel, wind direction and underwater currents make it difficult to predict where the fuel may head. Some local beaches may see a sheen, Wurfel said, but the "environmental impact is not expected to be catastrophic."

"The upside is, it's a big lake. A lot of this will dissipate."

St. Clair County officials have closed all public beaches on Lake Huron as a precautionary measure, according to health education and planning director Jennifer Michalul.

A local hazmat team and fire crew are aiding the Coast Guard, which has established 100-yard safety zone around the periphery of the oil sheen.

Wicked Delicate Films, LLC.

When was the last time you were someplace so dark that you could look up at the night sky and actually see the stars? Not just a handful, but hundreds or thousands?

“The Milky Way when it rises here looks like a thunderstorm coming toward you.  And you think, oh my god, it’s going to cloud over and it’s not, it’s the Milky Way rising, it’s the edge of our galaxy coming up.”

That’s a scene from a new documentary. It’s called The City Dark and it airs on PBS stations starting tonight (check your local listings).

The film takes a look at our love affair with artificial light – and why humans and wildlife need the night sky.  Ian Cheney directed and produced The City Dark and we spoke with him for today's Environment Report.  Cheney grew up in rural Maine but has been working in New York City. I asked him why he wanted to make this film.

Ian Cheney: Well, when I moved to New York City, one of the first things I realized was that I was missing the night sky, and that launched me on a journey to explore this broader topic of light pollution and how artificial light affects our world.

University of California-Santa Barbara

Scientists know a lot about how natural places process carbon dioxide.  But there hasn’t been a lot of research into what happens throughout the year in the green spaces in cities and suburbs.

Emily Peters is an author of a paper out this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research.  She’s been looking at how plants and trees in one suburban neighborhood take in carbon dioxide during the year... and how they offset the carbon dioxide people in the neighborhood emit – by say, driving their cars.

“In the summer we found the uptake of carbon dioxide from the vegetation is enough to offset fossil fuel emissions – just in the summer.”

She says evergreen and leafy trees took in more CO2 during the middle of the summer. Lawns did the best job of taking in CO2 during the spring and fall.  But Peters says those plants did NOT balance out the total amount of carbon dioxide released in the suburban neighborhood by burning fossil fuels over the year. 

If you're wondering: do certain species of trees do a better job than others?

"That is the question everybody wants answered - we can’t go out with this study and tell city foresters they should plant more of this kind of tree vs. this kind of tree."

Candy Peterson's song sheet
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

We've been posting radio pieces, videos, and blog posts all week as part of our series Lessons from Isle Royale's Wolves and Moose.

Researchers like Durwood Allen, and Michigan Tech's John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson have been keeping a close eye on the animals on the island for more than five decades.

Peterson has been doing it the longest. He's been watching and documenting things on Isle Royale for 42 years.

The Isle Royale Queen IV
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

For some, the magic of Isle Royale doesn't necessarily reside in the boat trip to the island.

Two days before Rebecca Williams and I left on our reporting trip, a friend and I were having lunch together.

"You're not riding on the 'Barf Barge' are you?!"

"The boat from Copper Harbor?"

"Yeah, I took that trip. We were on Isle Royale for a week. The first half of the week, all we could talk about was the boat trip over. And the second half of the week, all we could talk about was the boat trip back!"

On her trip, as the ship pulled out of Copper Harbor, the captain came on the loudspeaker.

"O.k., folks," the captain started. "We have the forecast for our crossing. And I just want to say... we're all in this together. We can get through this."

The snack bar was not open on that crossing.

But the snack bar was open for our trip.

The seas got a little rough (I saw a few eight footers roll by). And a trip to the restroom wasn't a straight walk to the door. You had to ping-pong yourself from table, to wall, to other passenger (excuse me), to the door.

Emergency cups and plastic grocery bags were deployed by some, but their "green-around-the-gills" condition didn't spread throughout the cabin.

The owners of the Isle Royale Line from Copper Harbor tell me the round-bottomed "Barf Barge" was retired in 2004. Their new boat, the Isle Royale Queen IV, rolls a lot less in heavy seas, and the new boat cut an hour off the trip.

What once took around four hours, now takes around three.

To get a sense of the crossing, I mounted a time lapse camera near the bridge. So here's the 54 mile crossing in less than two minutes.

Cell phones don't work on the island. Senses that can be overwhelmed by a connected, electric lifestyle are freed to look up, and take in the wind, waves, rock, and soil.

What makes the Isle Royale so special? We asked the Isle Royale Line's retired Captain Donald Kilpela that question:

Kilpela first made the trip to Isle Royale in 1945. And he and his family have been running the ferry service in Copper Harbor since 1971. His sons Ben and Don Jr. now run the boat. The family has been crossing Lake Superior to Isle Royale every summer since they started the business.

Two other people who know the island well have spent a good part of their lives here.

Rolf Peterson has been studying the interactions of wolves and moose on Isle Royale for more than 40 years. He and his wife Candy spend around eight months of each year on the island, and they raised their two kids on Isle Royale while living in the tiny Bangsund Cabin.

Isle Royale became a National Park in 1940, and was designated as a wilderness area in 1976. Humans are not in control here. It's an ideal laboratory for Peterson and the other researchers studying wolves and moose here.

Much of what scientists around the globe know about wolves and their behavior comes from Michigan's Isle Royale. The research project here is the longest running continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.

All this week, we'll bring you stories about this research and about the people who make it happen - online and on-air.

You can find all the stories we produce on our series page Lessons from Isle Royale's Wolves and Moose.

Isle Royale is the least visited National Park, but as Captain Kilpela pointed out, it's the most re-visited one.

Many of you have had your own personal experiences with the island. We invite you to share your experiences about Isle Royale in the comment section below. In six words or less - tell us - what's so special about Isle Royale?

user drow_male / wikimedia commons

The Nature Conservancy has released an analysis saying that invasive species such as zebra mussels and sea lamprey cost businesses and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars each year, besides damaging the environment in the Great Lakes region.

Power companies spend $130 million annually removing mussels from electric plants.

The report out yesterday said tourism and other industries lose $50 million a year in reduced demand because of invasive species.

The study conducted by Anderson Economic Group of East Lansing says the situation will get worse if Asian carp reach the Great Lakes.

user vaxomatic / flickr

Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce officials said today they opposed a ballot initiative aimed at creating a new renewable electric energy standard for the state, according to MLive. The state is currently working toward a standard that calls for generating 10 percent of the state's electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

The ballot initiative seeks to bump up that mandate to 25 percent by 2025. From MLive:

Chamber officials said any changes to Michigan’s renewable energy standard should wait until the current standard has been fully evaluated in three years.

“Michigan is already on an intelligent and affordable clean energy path because of the 2008 energy law, which passed the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support, said Chamber president and CEO Sandy K. Baruah in a statement.

The Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs campaign is still seeking to collect enough signatures to get the proposal on the November ballot.

Last week, during a segment for the Environment Report, James Clift, Policy Director for the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), said Michigan currently gets around 3.5 percent of its energy from renewable resources.

The MEC supports the ballot initiative. Clift said a new standard would continue the progress made after the 2015 standard is met (adding about 1.5 to 2 percent of renewable energy each year).

"The Michigan Environmental Council commissioned a report last year looking at the nine oldest coal plants in Michigan, said Clift. "That report found that Michigan residents have health care costs and damages of about $1.5 billion a year – just from those nine oldest coal plants. So, transitioning away from coal to clean more renewable energy, we hope will put a significant dent in those health costs that we are currently occurring. "

Utility companies oppose increasing the renewable electric energy standard saying such a standard should not be set by amending the state constitution, which the ballot proposal calls for.

Michigan Radio's Zoe Clark spoke with Brad Williams of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce about the issue:

"We’re looking at this as a protection of the constitution," said Williams. "There are legislators who can serve their full fourteen years in Lansing without having a good grasp of energy policy. And, so, to ask voters to make this decision and embed it into the constitution really isn’t fair to voters."

William Schmitt / Flickr

Fruit growers and processors in Michigan might get some help in the form of low interest loans if an expected package of bills moves through the legislature.

The loans are aimed at providing relief to those who lost most of their fruit crops after an unusual spring warm spell was followed by extended freezing temperatures.

MLive reports Michigan Department of Agriculture Director Keith Creagh said today the bills would create "five-year low interest loans":

The loans, which will be administered by banks and agricultural lenders, will meet an estimated total economic need of some $300 million in the state’s fruit growing and processing industry, Creagh said while attending the Michigan Food Processing and Agribusiness Summit.

Securing the loan guarantees at a low interest rate of 1 percent or 2 percent could cost the state about $15 million, Creagh said. The 5-year loans would be structured so borrowers would only pay interest in the first two years, he said.

Creagh says he'll also seek federal financial support for Michigan fruit growers and processors.

Logan Chadde/Michigan Radio

Enbridge Energy operates the pipeline that ruptured in Marshall almost two years ago.  The Environmental Protection Agency says more than one million gallons of thick tar sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River.  The oil spill is still being cleaned up.

Since the spill, Enbridge has been making repairs on that pipeline. It’s known as Line 6B.

Now, the company plans to replace the entire pipeline from Griffith, Indiana to Marysville, Michigan.