DTE Energy shares water quality expertise with MI CLEAR partnership
While the condition is visible to the casual observer, there’s no simple solution to Lake Erie’s algae blooms, a situation that has brought together elements as diverse as environmentalists, academics, farmers, hunters and business leaders.
Last summer, DTE Energy joined this unique partnership of conservationists, forming the Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie Through Action and Research (MI CLEAR), to improve the long-term water quality of the Western Lake Erie Basin – encompassing the counties of Monroe, Wayne, Washtenaw, Lenawee, Jackson and Hillsdale, as well as part of northwestern Ohio – through open discussion among regional leaders, a coordinated perspective to existing efforts, support for research that builds understanding of science around water quality issues, and actions that bring meaningful change.
The algal blooms that have appeared on Lake Erie in recent years have been a challenge for the researchers studying them and the communities living near them. These blooms are marked by a rapid increase in algae populations that sit on the top several inches of water, choking out other vegetation. The lack of dissolved oxygen in the water results in a “dead area,” which can be harmful for fish and other aquatic life. Experts agree there is no quick and easy fix to the blooms. Lake Erie has evolved over decades and continues to change, so no “magic bullet” solution is available.
But a multitude of other factors also contribute to the algal blooms, including industrial pollutants, wastewater and invasive species like zebra mussels, so MI CLEAR is seeking solutions that can help bring about long-term, meaningful change. DTE Energy is helping by sharing the best practices and management techniques it’s gleaned from its ongoing efforts to improve water quality.
“We have a good history in environmental stewardship and from a lessons-learned standpoint, we have been able to share some of what we have done,” said DTE Energy Regional Manager Molly Luempert-Coy. “Everyone is looking at ways we can learn from one another. This is a real positive step.”
There’s no quick fix to algal blooms, which have been reported in nearly every state in the nation. Lake Erie, the world’s 11th largest lake, presents unique challenges.
“Lake Erie is complex,” said Matthew Shackelford, a biologist and principal engineer of environmental management and resources for DTE Energy. “It’s shallow, it warms very quickly during this time of year and there are a lot of complex chemical and ecological factors that are in play. There are a lot of smart folks looking at the issue, but it might be a long road. I think we will get back to at least less-harmful algal blooms, but it’s going to take a decade.”
Proposed solutions include reducing phosphorous levels (Michigan has signed an agreement with Ohio and Ontario to reduce the amount of phosphorous from reaching Lake Erie by 40% by 2025), improving wastewater treatment, controlling street and stormwater runoff and restoring wetlands, which not only support wildlife but filter runoff water before it enters the lake.
Success with bioswales
To help control stormwater runoff (rainfall that does not soak into the ground) at its source, DTE Energy has had success with bioswales — gently sloped landscape elements filled with native vegetation.
“The bioswales help retain that water, slow it down and filter it,” Shackelford said. “Most of our facilities, even our little service offices and our downtown complex, incorporate these best water practices.”
DTE Energy, one of Michigan’s largest landowners, also encourages the local farmers to whom it leases land to install bumper strips around their crops to help filter runoff and correct soil erosion. These measures benefit not just water quality, but also wildlife. Shackelford said that DTE Energy’s work in adding native plants has increased the presence of butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to its lands.
“It’s kind of amazing when you start to install these projects how the pollinators come immediately,” he said.
DTE Energy was the first private industry sector to support the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, Luempert-Coy said. That project covers 48 miles of shoreline along the Detroit River and Lake Erie and focuses on conserving, protecting and restoring habitats for 29 species of waterfowl, 300 species of migratory birds and 65 species of fish.
The DTE Energy Foundation supports numerous environmental initiatives, including a recent $25,000 grant toward the construction of a school ship dock and fishing pier at the Refuge Gateway in Trenton, the future site of the refuge’s visitor center.
The energy company’s creative conservation efforts have earned kudos from the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC), which noted that the greenbelt created along the River Rouge Power Plant softened the shoreline, created tern nesting sites and restored a prairie. DTE Energy’s Monroe Power Plant, a WHC-certified wildlife habitat since 1999, has more than 800 acres, including prairies and wetlands that attract peregrine falcons and bald eagles, among other wildlife.
While new technologies like improved wastewater treatment are important, natural plants are likely another part of the long-term solution to algal blooms. “This,” said DTE’s Peter Ternes, manager of communications for external affairs, “is going back to nature to let the wetlands and water-processing plants do their job.”
Throughout Michigan, DTE has certified 36 sites with the WHC, beginning in 1996 when the Belle River Power Plant created a migratory bird stopover habitat through partnerships with Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, according to Kristen LeForce, DTE program coordinator for the Wildlife Habitat Program.
Company volunteers play their part, too, by cleaning up illegal dumping sites to restore watershed areas. In June, a team of employees hauled more than 150 old tires (and one rotting mattress) away from a creek in Montcalm County, north of Grand Rapids. “Never doubt that #DTECares,” said the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly, which had identified the eyesore, on its Facebook page.
By pooling resources together, the efforts of DTE and others aim to solve a complex situation through collaboration, research and education.
To learn more about the MI CLEAR partnership’s efforts to reduce algal blooms in Lake Erie, visit facebook.com/MIClearPartnership today.