Thunder Bay Harbour was listed as an Area of Concern (AOC) requiring a Remedial Action Plan, or cleanup plan, in 1987. This is due to years of industrial activity, waste disposal, pollution and channelization, degraded water quality and disrupted natural aquatic and nearshore habitats. When originally listed as an AOC, ten of the fourteen beneficial use indicators, defined by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, were labelled as impaired in Thunder Bay Harbour. Extensive remediation efforts have been implemented since this time and five of the ten beneficial uses are being evaluated for re-designation to “not-impaired” status while one has already been re-designated. Four beneficial uses remain to be restored, including Fish and Wildlife habitat.
RAP Infosuperior: Thunder Bay Harbour Area of Concern
We recently spoke with Lakehead University masters student Michelle Willows who completed field mapping research this summer in Thunder Bay Harbour with the purpose of quantifying and characterizing existing fish habitat in the Thunder Bay Harbour and Area of Concern. In addition to quantifying habitat, Willows collected data to examine environmental characteristics including aquatic macrophyte abundance, water quality, substrate structure, bathymetry and the surrounding geography of the Thunder Bay Harbour near shore environment.
Michelle says the results were often unexpected with more habitat in places that she expected to remain barren or surprisingly little underwater habitat where onshore habitat was abundant and vibrantly populated. According to Michelle, her “final product will include high-resolution maps depicting environmental characteristics and comparing them over a large scale”. She states that “the data will assist in delineating the level of habitat fragmentation, the ratio of hardened shoreline from prolonged industrial activity, indicate areas with adequate vegetation and evaluate current habitat.”
A multi-method approach was employed by Michelle Willows using broad-scale surveys to define the physical structure of the Thunder Bay waterfront and sonar scans to illuminate the lake bottom and underwater vegetation. Scuba surveys were completed in areas that were too shallow for sonar vessels in order to complete the data. Michelle was able to observe the state of habitat in the Thunder Bay Harbour through many lenses as she paddled through certain areas, dove in others and collected sonar to show where the lake bottom was murky, vegetated, or barren.
There is currently no official habitat status for the Thunder Bay Harbour but Michelle Willows’s research will contribute to our understanding of how effective remediation efforts have been in improving habitat. When completed, Michelle’s work can be referred to when new remediation concepts are developed for future habitat improvement on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Michelle is supervised by Dr. Rob Stewart of Lakehead University’s Department of Geography and the Environment.
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After being passed through senate via a vote of 99 to 1, America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 has been signed into law by President Donald Trump. The bill authorizes the construction of 12 new water infrastructure projects using $6.1 billion USD. This includes $922 million USD for the construction of a new navigation lock in the Soo Lock System located on the St. Marys River: the sole connecting waterway between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes.
The Soo Lock System is part of the greater St. Marys River complex: a set of infrastructure that bypasses the St. Marys Rapids. The St. Marys River Rapids drops 21 ft / 6.4 m from top to bottom. The U.S. Soo Lock System consists of four locks, only one of which—the Poe lock—has enough space between the upper and lower gates to allow the passage of the largest and most efficient cargo ships.
A single lock is operated on the Canadian side of the St. Marys River which is 233 ft / 71 m in length, 51 ft / 15.5 m in width and 44 ft / 13.4 m deep. The lock is used for recreational vessels and Parks Canada operates the Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site there.
U.S. Soo Lock System Overview:
A new lock was previously authorized in 1989 under the Water Resources Development Act; however, progress has stagnated since preparations were completed in 2009 (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: A Quick History of the Soo Locks). The America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 includes a Soo Lock Post-Authorization Change Report that reignites the cause to build a second lock equal in size to the Poe Lock. It allocates 7 years and $922 million USD for the construction of a new lock by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the city of Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, seven thousand vessels and 86 million tons of cargo pass through the Soo Lock System annually, and the majority of that goes through the Poe lock. You can visit the locks as a tourist to witness how these massive ships get over that 21 ft drop.
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Infosuperior rarely covers events which are not focused on Lake Superior and the Great Lakes. An exception follows, based on the extensive coverage Infosuperior has provided about the Lake Superior microplastics situation, especially the problem of nurdles, the small plastic beads which are used to manufacture all manner of plastic products and which are classified as microplastics under both Canadian and U.S. legislation. Nurdles can be commonly observed on many eastern Lake Superior beaches, in both Canada and USA.
The European Union (EU) voted in October for an extensive ban on single-use plastics. The ban passed with the following votes:
- In favour: 571
- Opposed: 53
- Abstentions: 34
It is important to note that while the ban has passed through the EU Parliament, it must still be passed by parliaments in individual nations, before being implemented by individual nations.
The list of banned articles includes a wide range of plastic items from disposable styrofoam plates through to plastic cutlery, drinking straws and plastic bags with a wall thickness of less than 15 microns. Styrofoam fast food containers would be prevented from being placed on the market in 2021. Additionally, single-use plastic beverage containers would need to have a recycled content of 35% and achieve a recycling rate of 90% by 2025. Also as part of the bill, EU member states must ensure companies cover the cost of cigarette butt collection and processing to reduce the number entering the environment by 80 per by 2030.
Plastic debris both on land and in waterways is a societal issue and occurs around the world. On a related note, preventing pollution before it enters the environment is a fundamental aspect of pollution prevention. This is in contrast to cleaning up after pollution enters the environment. By this commonly accepted pollution prevention principle, successive cleanups for plastic, year after year, are definitely not sustainable and not the answer. If implemented in European countries, the ban described above may go a way to addressing plastic debris at the source, rather than after the fact, and may also be adopted in other parts of the world.
Abstract: Plastic Debris in the Laurentian Great Lakes: A Review
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In a Nutshell, Lake levels at mid-October 2018:
- were 11 in. / 30 cm. above the long-term October average
- had risen about 6 in. / 15 cm. since August
- were about the same as a year ago; and
- were 4 in. / 10 cm. short of the October record high set in 1985.
Precipitation and Lake Levels Inextricably Linked
Precipitation and Great Lakes water levels are inextricably linked, despite man’s feeble efforts to control, or “manage,” this vast, high-volume, inland system. Indeed, organizations like the International Lake Superior Board of Control, which manages Lake Superior outflows at Salt Ste. Marie, have a disclaimer stating:
The Board stresses that hydrologic conditions are the primary driver of water level fluctuations. Water levels of the Great Lakes cannot be fully controlled through regulation of outflows, nor can regulation completely eliminate the risk of extreme water levels from occurring during periods of severe weather and water supply conditions.
Water Levels Rose 2 in. / 5 cm. from August to September
The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is also involved in Great Lakes water management, directly supporting the U.S. Secretariat of the International Joint Commission. According to recent updates from the Corps, precipitation within the Great Lakes basin was 11% below average in September. By contrast, the Corps separates out Lake Superior’s watershed, noting it received 3,52 in. / 8.94 cm of September rain, making it the only lake to receive average levels of precipitation.
Water levels on all but one of the Great Lakes declined from August to September and that one lake was Superior, where water levels rose by 2 in. / 5.08 cm. Still, in contrast to September, 2017, water levels eased over the past year, declining by 4 in. / 10 cm. to September, 2018.
Water Levels Rose 4 in. / 10 cm from September to October
Moving one month forward this autumn, the Corps notes that, as of October 19th, Lake Superior had risen 4 in. / 10 cm. over a one month period from mid-September. The Corps attributes this rise to the significant rainfall occurring over the Superior watershed during the same period. This puts mid-October lake levels at about the same level as October, 2017, but up 11 in. / 30 cm. on the long-term average October water level. The highest October on record was in 1985, but Superior is still 4 in. / 10 cm. short of that level. In contrast, Lake Superior is 28 in. / 71.12 cm above its lowest October average, which was recorded in 1925.
The Corps also provides forward-looking forecasts and says that, in the coming month, Superior outflows through the St. Mary’s River will be above average and water levels on Superior will decline by 2 in. (5 cm).
Call a Guage
While one might think that the water level is the same across the entire lake, except in the case where a seiche comes into play, a call to a couple of the numbers listed below will show that this is not the case. Each number provides brief, real-time data on lake levels for that station, including fluctuation over the past 24 hours and comparison to “chart datum,” essentially a 1985 baseline.
- at Thunder Bay – (807) 344-3141
- at Rossport – (807) 824-2250
- at Michipicoten – (705) 856-0077
- at Gros Cap – (705) 779-2052
- above the lock at Sault Ste Marie – (705) 949-2066
- below the lock at Sault Ste Marie – (705) 254-7989
- Nov. 23, 2017 Infosuperior article: “Interactive Tour – Lake Superior Outflows“
- infosuperior.com/data – real-time Lake Superior data including the Great Lakes Water Level Viewer, Great Lakes Water Levels Dashboard, Real Time Water Levels for Rivers Flowing to Superior
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Update on Lake Superior Hydrology for September
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The Public Advisory Committee (PAC) to the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan (RAP) will hold its next meeting at 7 p.m. on November 7th in Room 3004 of the ATAC Building at Lakehead University. Evening parking at Lakehead University is free of charge and available right beside the ATAC building.
“Beach advisories” (swimming advisories) will be the main focus of the meeting, especially in light of new less restrictive Ontario recreational water quality guidelines. The Thunder Bay District Health Unit will be in attendance to present water quality data for Thunder Bay beaches.. The detailed meeting agenda will be posted as soon as it is finalized:
- Previous Meeting Minutes (Sept. 12, 2018)
- Map of Lakehead University showing ATAC Building (AT).
- Current RAP Delisting Criteria for Beach Advisories
- January, 2018 – Approaches for Recreational Water Guideline – Ontario
Remedial Action Plans work to address environmental, chemical, physical, and biological degradation resulting in pollution and adverse impacts to natural habitats in Areas of Concern on the Great Lakes. They are supported by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and Lakehead University.
The meeting is open to the public and all are welcome to attend. There is no charge. Observers do not participate in committee decisions but may be allowed to address the meeting at the discretion of the chair.
Information to Join the Meeting Online:
Join the meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.
Access Code: 192-426-397
First GoToMeeting? Do a quick system check:
Online attendees can listen to the meeting and see presentations. Questions can be posed using the “chat” feature and will be addressed at the discretion of the chair. In the event of technical problems, the in-person meeting takes precedence.
Separate Efforts – Binational Progress
Separate efforts in Canada and the United States have had the combined effect of protecting a rare resource: Lake Superior coastal wetlands.
In September the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) announced that they had purchased 3,170 hectares (7,835 acres) on Lake Superior’s Black Bay Peninsula in Canada. The NCC is interested in preserving the diverse ecology of western Lake Superior and the protected area includes more than 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres) of coastal wetlands and almost 1,900 hectares (4,700 acres) of coastal forest on both the Black Bay and the Nipigon Bay sides of the Black Bay Peninsula. The W. Garfield Weston Foundation played a critical role by supporting the purchase through private donation.
This is the largest NCC project to date in western Lake Superior, and the Canadian organization notes in a news release that:
With a mosaic of typical north shore habitats, including rare coastal wetlands, upland forests, rivers, creeks and coastline, the Black Bay project is part of a much larger Provincially Significant Wetland located across the top of the Black Bay Peninsula. This provincially designated wetland is the largest on the north shore of Lake Superior.
Also in September, the Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy (SWP) announced the permanent protection for two unique coastal properties on Lake Superior totalling over 3,100 ft (~945 m) of sand beach that comprises sensitive dune and swale habitat, coastal wetlands and stands of old growth forest. Less than 13% of Lake Superior coastline is composed of sand beach with even less open to the public. The SWP notes that the new protected Lake Superior beaches will soon be open to local residents and tourists alike.
The Eagle’s Nest Community Forest is located 7 mi. (~11.3 km) west of the city of Marquette and includes a variety of forest types and coastal wetlands including 1,130 feet (~344.4 metres) of Lake Superior sand shoreline. Previously owned by the same family since the 1870’s, the property was acquired by Superior Watershed Partnership who is currently developing a management plan. As a regional land conservancy the SWP will keep this property from proposed subdivision and development in perpetuity. The community forest will provide multiple educational and recreational opportunities for area residents and visitors year-round including: hiking and cross-country ski trails, nature-watching opportunities, and public access to unique and varied coastal ecosystems. The SWP Great Lakes Conservation Corps (GLCC), which employs young adults (18-25 years), will assist with trail design and trail construction for public access.
Recently the SWP was awarded a second GLRI Community Forest grant of $400,000 USD to acquire a high priority Lake Superior coastal property in Alger County including the mouth of the Laughing Whitefish River. The Laughing Whitefish Community Forest is located approximately 20 miles (~32.2 kilometres) west of Munising and is dominated by forested uplands including old growth white pine, coastal wetlands, over 1,200 feet (~365.8 metres) of the Laughing Whitefish River and over 2,000 feet (609.6 metres) of Lake Superior sand beach. The Laughing Whitefish Community Forest will also preserve important coastal ecosystems and provide educational and recreational opportunities for area residents and tourists.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada
The NCC is Canada’s leading not-for-profit, private land conservation organization, working to protect important natural areas and the species they sustain. Since 1962, NCC and its partners have helped to protect more than 1.1 million hectares (~2.8 million acres), coast to coast, with more than 74,400 hectares (~184,000 acres) in Ontario. To learn more, visit natureconservancy.ca.
The Government of Canada’s Natural Areas Conservation Program is a unique public-private partnership to accelerate the pace of land conservation across southern Canada. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) manages the program. Federal funds are matched by contributions raised by NCC and its partners. Habitat conserved under through the program enhances natural corridors and other protected areas.
The Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy
The Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy is a local Great Lakes organization serving the communities and tribes of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with emphasis on protecting and restoring the landscapes and rivers that drain to the surrounding waters of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The organization is headquartered in Marquette, Michigan. As a local organization the SWP includes over 30 seasonal Great Lakes Conservation Corps employees who complete a wide variety of environmental protection and restoration projects including; habitat restoration, trail construction, tree planting, wetland restoration, dune restoration, invasive species removal, water quality monitoring and community pollution prevention projects. As a local land conservancy the Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy prioritizes the permanent protection of high quality riparian and coastal habitats of the Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron watersheds located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Learn more at: www.superiorwatershed.org
Michigan Technological University footage above. The university is searching for solutions to address 22 million metric tons of mine waste encroaching on Buffalo Reef.
This environmental improvement project is a perfect example of our district mission to protect the environment and be good stewards to vulnerable habitats that are vital to the Great Lakes ecosystem. Dredging will buy time for the multi-agency team to develop a long-term, adaptive management plan to deal with the estimated 15 million cubic yards of stamp sands that continue to threaten the reef.
Parks Canada Host
Parks Canada hosted a very successful beach cleanup on September 15th at Rossport, Ontario, as part of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. The event is held, on the same day, on lakes and oceans around the world. Approximately 30 people participated, many from the Rossport and Gravel River area with additional reinforcements from Schreiber, Nipigon and even Thunder Bay. All manner of debris was collected including plastic containers, glass bottles and broken glass, articles made of metal, and debris from the nearby highway, including coffee cups.
The event was unique in that, in addition to cleaning up a couple kilometers of Rossport’s mainland shoreline, several participants paddled out to a beach on nearby Healey Island where they carried out a cleanup of “nurdles.” Special thanks to Dave Tamblyn and Superior Outfitters for supplying kayaks and gear for the cleanup and especially for volunteering himself on Healey Island. Special thanks also to Paul Turpin of Discovery Charters for bringing special equipment to Healey Island to facilitate nurdles cleanup and for picking up both collected nurdles and equipment at the conclusion of the event. While the nurdles cleanup was mostly a laborious manual cleanup, special equipment, largely developed by Chuck Hutterli, is extremely helpful, speeding the process. In addition to large quantities of nurdles on Healey Island, nurdles were also observed and collected on the mainland shore, especially in the vicinity of Wardrobe Park where a beach, or spit, stretches out to Nicol Island.
(Discovery Charters is featured in a previous Infosuperior article focused on a fascinating Rossport area dive to the yacht Gunilda, here.)
What Are Nurdles and Where Did They Come From?
If you’ve been keeping up with Lake Superior news on Infosuperior, you know by now what nurdles are: small white plastic pellets used as the raw material for all manner of articles manufactured from plastic. Nurdles are shipped in hopper cars throughout North America and a single car can contain millions of these microplastics (as classified under Canadian federal legislation). Nurdles spilled into Nipigon Bay from a derailed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) train car on January 21, 2008. CPR cleaned up the initial spill in February of 2008 and in several subsequent cleanups, spending well over a million dollars in the process. A significant portion of the nurdles were already taken up by the lake immediately following the wreck however, and have continued to be redistributed to Lake Superior beaches in Canada and the United States. CPR was represented at the Parks Canada Cleanup by Jeffrey Peister of their Environmental Affairs Division. CPR also donated specialized cleanup equipment, lunch and metal water bottles for all participants.
Cleanup participants noted their concerns about the nurdles situation with Mr. Peister, who responded that CPR has already implemented several cleanup efforts at considerable cost and would like to continue efforts to act responsibly and ensure effective cleanup going forward.
Working Toward Resolution of the Nurdles Situation
Representatives of Lakehead University, Parks Canada and CPR formed a “Lake Superior Nurdles Working Group” in spring, 2018. The group has met several times and is endeavouring to:
- Develop a common methodology for quantification of nurdles across various beach locations (what is “a lot,”, what are “moderate quantities,” what are “a few”. [currently, two different observers of the same beach might have a wide discrepancy in their description of the same quantity of nurdles.]
- Carry out a summer, 2019, small boat/kayak/in-person reconnaissance determining presence/absence/concentrations/”hotspots” for nurdles on island and mainland shorelines in the Mountain Bay and Rossport area.
- Identify cleanup measures and equipment to most effectively address the nurdles situation.
- Identify additional organizations and area residents to join the nurdles working group. [want to get involved on the committee? – email infosuperior – firstname.lastname@example.org.]
- Implement cleanup.
In effect, the above objectives endeavour to answer the question, “Are we making progress?”. This is a question that is impossible to answer without a “baseline” as to how many nurdles are out there, in what quantities and in what locations. Nurdles float, and are constantly moving from one Lake Superior beach to another, suspended within Lake Superior’s waters. Future surveys, at set intervals, will likely be necessary to formulate a baseline and determine if progress is being made.
A Lakehead University Geography and Environmental Science student supervised by Dr. Rob Stewart will be writing a thesis involving several of the above objectives and will assist the committee in making effective and scientifically defensible progress. Infosuperior will be reporting on this student’s research in a future article.
The Big Picture
Plastic, including nurdles and other man-made debris on Lake Superior beaches is only a reflection of ourselves as a society. We use a phenomenal amount of plastic. Cleaning up at the tail end of the process (on beaches) is not a sustainable practice. We (you and me) need to cut plastic use dramatically and increase effective waste and recycling efforts. Take your own steps. Make it personal. Move it across society.
Severe Weather on North Shore of Lake Superior
Most northern communities along the Shores of Lake Superior have observed a very rainy Fall season this year. Lake Superior water levels were up 4 cm from average by the end of September, a month where Lake Superior normally begins its seasonal decline. Wet weather carried over from September into the first two weeks of October. A quick google news search reveals that severe weather that resulted in high wind speeds, tall waves and extensive rainfall was reported October 3rd in Sault St Marie ON and Northland MI, October 10th in Thunder Bay ON and Duluth and Grand Marais MI, and October 11th in Wawa ON. The wet weather has also impeded efforts to transport Grey wolves to Isle Royale for a wolf relocation program meant to repopulate the Isle Royale.
One Way That Climate Change Manifests on Lake Superior
A recent article published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences has thoroughly studied how severe weather has impacted and may be expected to continue impacting Lake Superior. The researchers attribute the increased regularity of extreme storms to Climate Change and expect the trend to continue.
Increased severe weather is one example of how Climate Change is impacting and interacting with Lake Superior. The temperature of Lake Superior has also been steadily rising. A 2013 Study on Climate Change and Lake Superior fish habitats found that increased temperature would benefit some species while harming others, which could create greater competition between the positively affected populations. The higher temperatures, they suggested, could also make Lake Superior more viable for some invasive species.
The tragic loss of three people August, 2018, near the Apostle Islands, was a sobering reminder that Lake Superior is capable of a great deal of damage, and even in the summer months, the lake’s waters are dangerously cold when far from shore.
September 2nd, 2018 Minneapolis Star Tribune Article: A Light on a Dark Lake Superior Led to Sole Kayak Survivor
Kayaker safety has been an issue for this part of Lake Superior for a long time, especially when kayakers end up outside of the protected area of the islands and into open water; here kayakers are susceptible to freak waves, upwelling cold spots, changing wave directions and fast moving storms. Kayakers need to know their skill level and have an idea of what conditions they will face.
Related WAOW.com article: Red Cliff to Build Cell Tower in Wake of Drownings
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have shown that it is possible to make these factors more accessible to kayakers by using algorithms and real-time data to create an easily reference-able skill-level marking system (Safety Index) for one route in particular. Since 2014, a kiosk has provided real-time footage of the route to the Mainland (Mawikwe) Sea Caves of the Apostle Islands archipelago along with a Safety Index number based on state-of-the-art weather and wave modelling using radar-reflectivity data, wave directions and wave height.
- The information displayed on-site at the kiosk is also accessible here. Check out other Information about the Sea Caves Watch program at the Sea Caves website.
Though it is called a “lake”, Superior contains a huge amount of water which can be more akin to a Sea, unpredictable and extremely dangerous. The remote location of many kayaking destinations makes it hard to access the latest information for safety conditions, making onsite information like the Apostle Islands Safety Index Kiosk very important.