5/22/15

Friday foto: Soak up history while you take the Chicago Water Walk

Did you know that the downtown lakefront in Chicago is manmade? In the 1800s the city met the lake about where Michigan Ave is. And it was petty swampy. Debris, ash and dirt from the Great Chicago Fire were put in the lake to create more land. With more fill added over the years,  the public space we have today came to be. To learn more cool things about the Chicago lakefront, download the Chicago Water Walk app. It's a beautiful day to go for a walk!

5/21/15

Species Spotlight: Golden Mussel

INVASIVE SPECIES EDITION—Where we take a moment to explore the species that potentially threaten the Great Lakes region.

Zebra and quagga mussels have already made homes in the Great Lakes region, but there's another invasive clam on the horizon we should keep our sights on. While still limited to countries in South America, researchers predict that the golden mussel could colonize areas in North America where zebra and quagga mussels could not, devastating what native clam populations remain.
 
Originally from China, the golden mussel was introduced to Argentina around 1990 by way of ballast water. The microscopic size of its larvae combined with its ability to attach to aquatic plants, ships, and fishing equipment has made its spread difficult to contain. By 2006, the golden mussel had made its way to Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay, where they now cost communities an estimated $200,000 a day in industrial and ecological losses.

Like zebra and quagga mussels, golden mussels clog pipes and alter food webs wherever they spread — only the golden mussel takes things a step further. Considered an “ecosystem engineer,” large populations of golden mussels often completely change the biological makeup of a lake's sediment.

Because they are filter feeders, golden mussels greatly deplete the amount of suspended material in a water column, which in turn depletes the water's oxygen levels. The end result is an ecosystem that favors detritivores and invertebrates like leeches, caddisflies, and other species that can live in the nooks and crannies golden mussels create, and are able to feed on golden mussel fecal matter. And native clam species stand little chance of survival as golden mussels have been known to surround and grow on top of them, starving them to death by sealing them shut.

As with most invasive species, the success of the golden mussel is rooted in its versatility. A freshwater clam, it can survive in higher temperatures, lower pH levels, and higher salinity than either zebra or quagga mussels. Although no effective method of control has been established, research is being conducted on the potential for sterilization via genetic modification.

We'll have more species spotlights on aquatic invaders throughout May in honor of Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Week.


5/18/15

Nature is right down the street for East Chicago students

It was a chilly May 12th, cloudy and windy as well. But 29 sixth graders from West Side Middle School in East Chicago, Indiana came to nearby Roxana Marsh to experience what the outdoors has to offer, learn new things, help with the cleanup and restoration of the natural area, and enjoy the afternoon.

Roxana Marsh is part of the larger Grand Calumet River Area of Concern, which has been undergoing dredging through the Great Lakes Legacy Act over the past six years. The marsh section of the project was completed three years ago with the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of sediment.

This accomplishment was celebrated with a press event attended by government officials and local school children. Those middle schoolers left their legacy in perennial plants that are now thriving along the marsh. This year’s class is the third group of gardeners in what may well become an annual tradition.


In addition to planting natives, the students learned the basics of birding, explored the small community of life in sediment, and manned trash bags for garbage detail. There were water beetles, egrets, killdeer, toads, dragonfly nymphs, and more to experience.

Throughout their afternoon tour, the 6th graders were guided by experts from Audubon Chicago Region, U.S. EPA, The Nature Conservancy, Shirley Heinz Land Trust, Indiana’s departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission, Dunes Learning Center, and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.

The first surprise for the students was just how close the natural area is to their school and their world. “They had no idea that this was here or about the dredging and restoration, said teacher Linda Padilla. “They were sure we would be going someplace farther away.”

Last June, she took part in a one-day workshop at Purdue University Calumet, which introduced the Helping Hands curriculum to 25 local educators. Helping Hands activities are ideally suited to schools in Areas of Concern that are going through the cleanup process—they provide opportunities to directly engage students in the larger project. The workshop also included a visit to several sites on the Grand Cal to see the dredging work in progress as well to walk around a finished site—Roxana Marsh. 

Caitie McCoy, IISG environmental social scientist, has been helping keep residents informed during the dredging. She saw the Grand Cal project as an opportunity to connect students with their environment.

“The cleanup and restoration of the Grand Calumet River is brightening the northwest Indiana landscape,” she explained. “This work transforms space into places that students can visit, perform stewardship work, and develop pride in their local environment. Environmental educators teach students that nature is in their backyard, but for these students, high quality nature is in their backyard, right here in East Chicago, Indiana.”

At one point, the Grand Cal was referred to as the most polluted river in the country. Through the remediation process, more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of sediment have been removed from this waterway, which runs through a highly-populated region. If funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative continues and non-federal cost share partners are secured, the river work could finish as early as 2019.

5/14/15

In the news: Infrastructure conference asks what's next for our waterways

It's Infrastructure Week, and Illinois officials are taking a closer look at systems that deliver water to our homes and businesses and reduce flooding from stormwater runoff. 

Roughly 900 miles of the Chicago region’s water system is more than a century old, and leaks are an all too common problem. In fact, around 22 billion gallons of treated water is lost each year through leaky pipes and broken lines. Fixing these leaks is expensive, and many communities have historically struggled to cover the costs. 

Hear more about the region's water infrastructure needs in this Morning Shift interview with David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Great Chicago




Species spotlight: Grass carp

INVASIVE SPECIES EDITION—Where we take a moment to explore the species that threaten the Great Lakes region.

They may not be what comes to mind when you think of invasive carp, but grass carp can have drastic and lasting impacts on aquatic ecosystems and water quality. Originally from eastern Asia, they have been introduced the world over as a biocontrol for aquatic weeds and can now be found in over 70 countries. 

This wide range is made possible by their versatility—not unlike the hydrilla they are sometimes employed to eliminate. Grass carp can live in water temperatures from below freezing to over 100ºF, can survive in brackish waters, and are able to tolerate low-oxygen environments. 

While they live mostly in slow moving and still waters, eggs are spawned in fast rivers, and must remain suspended for two to four days before they hatch. From there, grass carp grow quickly—as much as 10 inches in the first three months. An adult can grow to be upwards of 4 feet in length and more than 50 pounds on a diet of mostly aquatic weeds. But they have also been known to consume detritus, insects, and other invertebrates as well.  

Grass carp were first brought to the U.S. in 1963 when they were imported from Malaysia and Thailand to aquaculture facilities in Alabama and Arkansas. Their first release into the wild is believed to have happened three years later when some escaped from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish Farming Experimental Station in Stuttgart, Arkansas. Planned introductions began in 1969 in an effort to control nuisance plants. By the end of the 1970s, grass carp had been introduced in 40 states. Today it can be found in 45 states, with well-established populations throughout the Mississippi River Basin.

Grass carp are a highly regulated species, and for good reason. Because they are so adept at consuming plants, there is a risk that these veritable aquatic lawnmowers might leave a waterbody completely devoid of plant life and wipe out the food supply for other fish, insects, and waterfowl. A lack of plant life can also spur on algal blooms, which in turn lower oxygen levels. And without roots to keep sediment secure, the water is likely to become muddied, and spawning beds for other fish can be destroyed. 

Because of these and other risks, grass carp used for weed control are sterilized by shocking the eggs with drastic changes in either temperature or pressure. But this process is not 100 percent effective, and fish sometimes escape into the wild. In some states, including Illinois, the use of grass carp is restricted to private ponds or pools. Those thinking about using the fish for personal use are encouraged to explore other weed-control options.  

We'll have more species spotlights on aquatic invaders throughout May in honor of Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Week

5/11/15

Indiana middle schoolers study key water quality issues

Steve Park was one of 15 Great Lakes educators to set sail on Lake Erie last year for the annual Shipboard Science Workshop. Today, we hear a little of what he and his 7th grade students have been up to since. 

As a veteran teacher of enthusiastic middle school students, I adhere to Albert Einstein’s quote, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  

This school year started just like the first 20 years of my teaching career, with our study of environment science. However, it didn’t take long for my students to realize that the learning experiences this year were going to be extra special. Armed with a weeks worth of intense professional development while living on the R/V Lake Guardian motoring around Lake Erie, I had the resources, experiences, knowledge, and support to provide my students with the incredible conditions necessary for them to learn.

When teaching about the environment and stewardship, I have two goals. First, I want students to know specifically how they impact their local and global environments. Second, I want students to know how they can have a positive influence on their local and global environments. With that in mind, my students began their study on water ecology by conducting a video conference with individuals aboard the Lake Guardian collecting water samples in Lake St. Clair. Students learned about life on the Lake Guardian, research that is being done on the lake, and the responsibilities of the scientists. 

Our focus then turned to our own outdoor classroom, where we have 36 acres of land, a large river, and a couple of smaller creeks. I intentionally set up conditions where my students had numerous opportunities to learn about the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the environment. In addition to traditional sampling techniques, my students conducted independent research projects. For instance, one group wanted to know if the diversity of macro invertebrates changed the farther you got from shore. To test their hypothesis, they created Hester-Dendy samplers and deployed them at various locations and distances from shore. Another group wanted to see if they could use all-natural materials to create a filter capable of reducing the turbidity of our river water to the World Health Organization standard of 5 ppm. 
Currently, because of my interactions with Dr. Sam Mason on board the Lake Guardian last summer, my students have received a grant to study the plastic microbeads in our river water. Students will design, construct, and deploy collection seines to help determine the prevalence of these plastics in our water ecosystem. 

As a society, we have a long, uphill climb when it comes to improving the quality of our wonderful Great Lakes. However, I am confident that the experiences I had during the Lake Erie Shipboard Science Workshop, the connections I made with incredibly supportive people, and the high quality curricular materials and equipment I received will provide my students with the conditions in which they can learn. This, in turn, will make that climb a little bit easier.

***Photo A: Students hear from a fishery biologist about the importance of fish stocking and how the technique is being used to study invasive species like Asian carp. 

***Photo B: Students get their hands dirty learning about macro invertebrates. 

5/8/15

Friday Foto: Shopping for water garden plants? It's complicated

Planning a trip to the garden store this weekend? Finding native or non-invasive water garden plants can be tricky, especially when the plant's common name is all you have to go on. This Louisiana iris, for example, could be one of five species sold under that name. Fortunately, none are invasive in Illinois and Indiana. 

The easiest way to avoid accidentally buying an invasive plant is to know it's scientific name. Our list of non-invasive alternatives can also help you find out which species can be safely used in your region. 

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