Some of Michigan’s most important natural resources are often overlooked – the Great Lakes coastal wetlands.These unique habitats are integrally tied to the health and diversity of the Great Lakes ecosystem. The extensive coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes are unique in ecological character, size, and variety. In Michigan, they range from shoreline wetlands and marshes along our northern coastline, to the extensive wetlands of Saginaw Bay, to the freshwater delta marshes of the St. Clair River. Coastal wetlands (1) improve water quality in the Great Lakes by filtering nutrients and sediments, (2) protect against erosion during periods of high water, (3) provide habitat for many species of fish, birds, and wildlife, and (4) offer recreational opportunities such as bird watching and hiking.
The bad news is that a bill has been introduced into the Michigan Legislature that would allow riparian property owners to use bulldozers and tractors to destroy Michigan’s Great Lakes coastal wetlands – all without any public review or permitting requirements.
If passed, House Bill 6418 would allow mechanized mowing, plowing, and disking, leveling of sand, and destruction of native vegetation, (sometimes called “grooming”) along the 3,288 miles of Great Lakes public trust bottomlands [Michigan’s coastal wetlands]. Because of normal fluctuations in the water levels of the Great Lakes, newly-exposed bottomlands (emergent wetlands), owned by the State of Michigan, have naturally sprouted diverse vegetation. This vegetation serves many important ecological functions, which include creating and maintaining fish feeding and spawning areas, and providing habitat for waterfowl, bird, and other diverse wildlife. In fact, natural fish production would be impossible in many cases without lake and shoreline marshes. Once these bottomlands are mechanically altered by activities exempted in HB 6418, rare coastal marshes may not recover for decades.
A well-funded riparian property owners’ group, ironically calling themselves “Save Our Shorelines”, is lobbying hard for this legislation – and it is mobilizing to push the bill through the Michigan Legislature in the upcoming lame duck session. Twenty-eight of the twenty-nine states with coastal wetlands presently have permit compliance programs to protect beaches and dunes, including Michigan. H.B. 6418 would remove Michigan from this list.
At the present time, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) are citing property owners who illegally fill in the wet areas on their beach with sand, or who “groom”new vegetation below 4” deep — the depth at which the vegetative roots are damaged and/or killed. The ACOE has jurisdiction over emergent Great Lakes bottomlands and regulates what can be dredged from navigable waters [under the Rivers and Harbors Act] and what can be discharged into the water (below the ordinary high water mark) [under the Clean Water Act]. The citations are only given for activities in the area between the water’s edge and the ordinary high water mark. “The coastal wetlands that have emerged as the water levels have dropped are among the most biologically important, biologically active habitats in North America”, said Bill Leiteritz, physical scientist with the ACOE. “Those coastal wetlands are important not only locally but globally.”
Chris Shafer, a law professor and former scientist for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources said, “It is important to allow plants to grow on shore during times of low water levels, in order to allow the ecosystem of the lake to recover from times of higher water levels. This is almost a priceless time in terms of healing the shoreline. These areas are of tremendous ecological value”.
The Michigan Sea Grant has an informational page on its website that discusses the issue of low water levels exposing shorelines and the detriments to disturbances of those emergent wetlands:www.miseagrant.org/pubs/up/fall02/page5.html.
We will be watching what happens in the Legislature carefully.