Old specimen provides new insight into invasive algae

Capital News Service

LANSING — Some aggressively stealthy invaders may be more aggressively stealthy than we thought.

Consider the starry stonewort, a green alga from Eurasia that now thrives in many inland lakes in Michigan and that can outcompete native plants.

Its first documented discovery in North America was in New York in 1978 — or so scientists believed.

Then through a combination of old-school and new-school technologies they discovered that earlier samples had been collected from the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, possibly in 1974 but maybe even earlier, a new study says.

Starry stonewort — Nitellopsis obtusa to scientists – “prefers slow-moving, developed waterways,” according to the study by researchers at the New York Botanical Garden. It’s found in “numerous inland lakes from Minnesota to Vermont, and from Lake Ontario and inland lakes in southern Ontario.”

It was first detected in the state in Lake St. Clair in 1986, and can “now be found in lakes in the Lower Peninsula, particularly the southern region,” including St. Joseph County’s Lake Templene, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

“Thick mats of starry stonewort cover lake bottoms that effectively block fish access to suitable spawning habitats,” DEQ says.

The study said, “There are numerous examples of Eurasian invasive species introduced into North American via St. Lawrence Seaway shipping routes.”

And the new discovery supports the theory that starry stonewort also arrived by way of the St. Lawrence, according to Kenneth Karol, the lead author of the study and an associate curator at the New York Botanical Garden.

How did that discovery come about?

In approximately 1974, an algae scientist at the Université du Québec collected and preserved a specimen that he found during his research into water quality, Karol said. That scientist sent the unidentified specimen to another researcher who “put it on his shelf” and didn’t do anything with it.

When that researcher died, the New York Botanical Garden inherited his collection, which then “sat on our shelf” until the institution began to digitize its collection of 7.8 million plant specimens, including 300,000 algae specimens, Karol said.

And that’s when he and doctoral student Robin Sleith of the City University of New York put it under a microscope and identified it as starry stonewort. Sleith coauthored the study published in the “Journal of Phycology.”

“It’s really cool that we can use these relatively old natural history collections to understand invasive and native species,” Karol said.

The process is leading to other scientific discoveries as well. For example, he said, “I’m getting very usable DNA from samples in the 1800s, so we can look at the genetics from, say, specimens from the Old World over time and space.”

Noting that starry stonewort is considered “rare and endangered” in the Old World but aggressively invasive in North America, he said scientists are trying to understand why that is. The answer may lie in genetics, in the presence or absence of predators, or somewhere else.

The process is leading to other scientific discoveries. “I’m getting very usable DNA from samples in the 1800s, so we can look at the genetics from, say, specimens from the Old World over time and space,” he said.

In addition, the research may help scientists learn about hotspots for invasions, he said: “Where these boats are picking it up and moving it around. Hopefully we can curb that movement and control the invasion.

Michigan DEQ’s Water Resources Division says starry stonewort could have arrived in the state in a ship’s ballast water and then was spread by waterfowl or boats.

The Department of Natural Resources says, “Control efforts — mechanical or chemical removal — for starry stonewort are currently underway in some areas and have historically been led at the local or regional level. The management responsibility, including financing the effort, usually rests with the owner of the infested property.”

State wants lead out of all pipes in 20 years

Capital News Service

LANSING — The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has proposed replacing all lead water pipes in the state within the next 20 years.

“The new rules would require [municipalities] to start removing lead service lines at an average rate of 5 percent per year, which would get us to 100 percent over 20 years,” said Eric Oswald, director of DEQ’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division.

The rules would also reduce the acceptable level of lead in drinking water from 15 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion, Oswald said. But the main objective of the changes is to get lead out of drinking water.

That has always been a goal, Oswald said, but it picked up steam when Flint’s water crisis brought lead in drinking water to the national stage.

“There’s always been a known risk there, but Flint really exposed it and brought national attention to the problem of lead lines and lead contamination or lead poisoning from drinking water pipes,” Janice Beecher, director of the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University.

One of the challenges facing replacement of lead service lines is funding. The state will not fund the line replacements, Oswald said. That responsibility will fall to the local governments.

“The state does have loan programs and grant programs that would be able to help out,” Oswald said. “But the majority of the burden would be on the local water supplies to remove those lines. We’re looking for the communities to be innovative in how they do that.”

Another problem facing the replacement is that often parts of the lines belong to the homeowner.

“The policy challenge is how do we get these lines replaced?” Beecher said. “And that’s complicated by the fact that in the majority of cases, those service lines that have the lead content are owned by the customer, not the utility, so it’s actually private property.”

This raises questions on the legality of having water systems pay to replace the lines on private property, said Tom Frazier, the legislative liaison for the Michigan Townships Association.

Oswald said there are some ways to get around this.

“The communities could pass an ordinance where they take the water line until it gets to the house so it all belongs to the community, similar to how gas lines are done,” he said.

Local units of government should focus on how they can best address public health issues, Frazier said.

“We’re in support of public health, but we don’t feel the rules as written the way they are now is the best way to do that,” Frazier said. “We think we should focus on replacing pipes in areas where there are elevated levels of lead and use funds to go after those sources, at least in the short term.”

Lansing has already replaced all of its lead water pipes. Starting in 2004, the city removed 12,150 active lead service pipes, finishing the project in Dec. 2016, said Amy Adamy, communications coordinator for the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

“When we started doing the removals, there was obviously a learning curve,” she said. “As we got better at it, we realized there was a better way to do it. It cut the price significantly, and it cut the time in half.”

Utilities from all over the country have since reached out to the Lansing Board of Water and Light, asking how it did it and what advice they can offer.

“We’ve been very helpful in providing resources and ideas,” Adamy said. “We had the learning curve, and we want to help them skip that part of it so they can immediately get to the and time saving methods so that it’s the most efficient work possible.”

The cost of the project was $44.5 million, Adamy said. The cost was built into the budget, spread out over 12 years.  

Good communication with customers throughout the process was a huge contributor to the success of the project, Adamy said.

Replacing all of the lead water pipes in the state would be a massive undertaking.

“You’re talking maybe 500,000 lead service lines in the state, in the billions of dollars to replace,” Oswald said. “It’s going to be an expensive proposition, but we want to get the lead out of the system.”

The draft proposal of the rules will be sent to the governor’s office where they will be put into legal format, Oswald said. The department hopes to open up public comment in mid-January and hold a public hearing at the end of that month. From there, the rules will be sent to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. It will then be up to the committee whether these rules take effect.

With Flint and other issues that have recently been brought to light, now is a good time to tackle this, he said.

“The public’s attention is on this, and I think we’ve got the backing to make this a priority,” Oswald said. “We may not go about it exactly how we think we’re going to, but I think the end result will be a rule that requires lead to be removed from the distribution center in one way or another.”

Proposed bill would prevent creation of rules more strict than federal regulations

Capital News Service

LANSING – Some Republican  lawmakers want to prevent state departments from creating rules that are tougher than federal regulations.

They’re backing a bill that would allow only the Legislature to do that unless there are exceptional circumstances. The bill, introduced by Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, would encompass rules that would regulate sectors as diverse as business, the environment and manufacturing.

“This is a good bill with a good purpose,” said Jason Geer, the director of energy and environmental policy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “It will help ensure Michigan is not overregulated.”

It’s the third time in six years that the legislation has been pushed. And opponents fear this time there may be enough political will to pass ith.

The Michigan Environmental Council questioned why lawmakers would want to take away the governor’s power and put it in the hands of the federal government.

“Why should we demote the governor and his ability to protect Michigan?” said James Clift, the policy director for the council.

Clift said the bill would give the decision-making power to the Trump administration. He said this would directly impact quality of life in Michigan, especially  considering the federal government’s lowering of its own regulations.

Supporters of the bill say that’s good because it will require state departments to show  there really is a need for a rule that is more strict than federal regulations.

Geer said the bill would prevent state departments from doing whatever they want.

”It’s not an outright ban,” he said. “Anytime they feel the need to exceed federal standards, it just requires them to explain it and demonstrate a need for it.”

But critics fear the bill will force the state to be reactive instead of proactive.

“The level of convincing that will be needed to exceed the federal standards is a very high bar,” said Charlotte Jameson, director of government affairs at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “That means there will only be rules in times of crisis.”

Geer said many of the rules in Michigan that exceed federal standards relate to environmental laws, and the bill shines a light on that.

He said it would force state departments to prove why they are necessary. That would help businesses because they wouldn’t have to meet standards significantly higher than the federal level, he said.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters says the standards set by the federal government are a minimum requirement all states must be at or above.

“We feel the federal standards are a floor, not a ceiling,” Jameson said. “The rules don’t account for unique states.”

The Michigan Environmental Council agrees, Clift said.

Officials at both environmental groups say their biggest concerns relate to the Great Lakes.

“Michigan is the Great Lakes State,” Clift said. “This would undermine the ‘Pure Michigan’ campaign because we wouldn’t be able to create stricter rules to protect the lakes.”

Stricter rules are needed to protect the lakes, Jameson said.

“The Great Lakes need forward-thinking protection,” she said. “We need flexibility to go beyond federal standards.”

This is not the first time a similar bill has been proposed. Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed one in 2011. And in 2016 one cleared the House but never made it out of the Senate.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said he thinks the bill will pass in the Senate this year. He sits on the Oversight Committee that approved he bill, and he supports it.

“It does present some challenges, but the bill has great intentions,” Stamas said. “This is a positive discussion to have.”

One challenge could be protection of wetlands, Stamas said. Michigan is one of only two states that administers the federal wetland program. There is a lot of support for keeping wetlands under state control, he said.

Clift said he is concerned the governor may sign the bill this time because Snyder has not made a statement in opposition to it.

The governor isn’t saying. He’ll evaluate the final version if and when it reaches his desk, said Tanya Baker, the deputry press secretary in the executive office of the governor.

Clean Water Action members and Plainfield Township residents gathered at the Capitol on Oct. 10 to oppose the bill and highlight contaminated drinking water in that Kent County community.

That contamination was caused by Wolverine Worldwide, a footwear manufacturer.

Sean McBrearty, the campaign organizer of Clean Water Action, said the bill threatens public health because the Department of Environmental Quality would be unable to more strictly regulate contamination in drinking water.

Sen. Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford and who represents Plainfield Township, issued a statement saying the bill was not created in response to water contamination there.

“This bill was not introduced or approved by the Senate Committee on Oversight in response to the current situation, nor can it be retroactively applied to the ongoing issue in Plainfield Township,”  MacGregor said.

The bill passed 57-50 in the House in May. It was reported from the Senate Oversight Committee on Oct. 5. It’s unclear when the Senate will take a vote on the bill.

MacGregor has asked the Senate to pause the bill, according to McBrearty. MacGregor could not be reached for comment.

State set to renew groundwater rule for toxic chemical

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s emergency rules on how much of a particular hazardous chemical can be left in groundwater are set to expire Oct. 27, and that could create an environmental problem in the state.

To address the concern, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is proposing  a new rule with a limit of 7.2 parts per billion for 1,4-dioxane, which is responsible for a high-profile groundwater contamination west of Ann Arbor at the site of Gelman Sciences. The company used the chemical to manufacture medical filters.

If a new rule is not approved before the expiration, the limit will revert to 85 parts per billion, the level it was before the emergency rules went into effect in 2016, said Mitch Adelman, section manager for the remediation and redevelopment division of the DEQ.

The department is working with those responsible for the contamination to assure that human health and the environment are protected using the new, lower limit for contamination, Adelman said.

But Gelman Sciences isn’t the only site where the chemical has led to groundwater  contamination. The West KL Avenue Landfill in Oshtemo Township and the Metamora Landfill in Metamora Township have been contaminated by 1,4-dioxane as well, Adelman said, resulting in groundwater contamination.

The proposed new rules would continue the emergency rules that are set to expire and are before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, chair of that committee, said they will likely be approved.

“They’ll go into place about a week before the other ones expire,” he said.

The Michigan Environmental Council agrees with the proposed limits.

“It’s needed a lower number for years,” said James Clift, the policy director for the council.

The 1,4-dioxane rule is being considered separately so that standards do not revert to 2002 values that were in place before the 2016 emergency rules were implemented.

The 1,4-dioxane solvent is a clear liquid chemical that easily dissolves in water, and is considered likely carcinogenic to people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Long-term exposure can also cause kidney and liver damage, according to the DEQ.  

It’s used mainly when making other chemicals and can be found in paint strippers, glues and pesticides.

Although it can also be found in some makeup, lotions, detergents, bath products and shampoos, the amount found in these products is not likely to be harmful, even if used every day, according to the DEQ.

The DEQ’s proposed change on 1,4-dioxane may be the first of a series of revisions to clean up criteria for up to hundreds of other chemicals.  

The DEQ has been updating the toxicological, physical and chemical data for over 300 hazardous substances to help set new cleanup criteria, Adelman said.

He said there are more than 9,000 contaminated sites across Michigan.

That more extensive overhaul has met with various levels of opposition.

Although the Michigan Environmental Council supports an update, Clift said he believes the proposed rules fail to provide for new science as it emerges.

“We want the cleanup processes to use the best available science,” Clift said. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide a way to adjust the rules with the development of new science.”

That is a safety concern, he said.

“They’re supposed to regulate any substance that could cause injury,” Clift said. “The inability to update the rules without going through the time-consuming rulemaking process every time leaves them powerless to regulate new chemicals.”

The Michigan Petroleum Association said it worries the rules are too strict and will become a bigger hindrance than a help.

The association’s members have cleaned up more than 2,000 underground sites, said Mark Griffin, the industry group’s president. “All of that is in jeopardy of coming to a standstill.”

He said contaminated sites are currently cleaned to a level that won’t harm anyone; he believes the new criteria require a level for cleanup of contaminated sites that is unreachable.

“Our concern with the new rules is getting sites cleaned up and closed,” Griffin said. “We’d hate to lose all that progress.”

The Michigan Environmental Council said it’s been too long since the rules were revised.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce said its members acknowledge the rules for cleaning up contaminated sites need to be updated.

“It’s improved from where it started, and it’s a step in the right direction,” said Jason Geer, the chamber’s director of energy and environmental policy. “Our members all recognize that it needed to be fixed.”

Michigan farmers encouraged to help fight water pollution

Capital News Service

LANSING — Federal officials are launching a two-year study to determine the best ways to convince farmers, including those in Michigan, to fight water pollution in the Great Lakes region.

The pollution has created conditions ripe for excessive algal blooms that perennially appear in Lake Erie and other lakes and bays and threaten water quality. The culprit: nutrient-laden runoff, much of which comes from farmland.

The runoff has forced national, regional and local agencies, organizations and universities to collaborate on a solution. Their goal: convince more farmers across the Great Lakes region to implement sustainable farming practices.

That’s not always easy, said Great Lakes Commission Program Director Victoria Pebbles.

“It’s very, very difficult because farmers are proud, they’re private and they feel like the finger’s being pointed at them,” she said. “And most of these people are honest people and hardworking people who are just trying to do their best.”

Interest from farmers is substantial, said Brian Buehler, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service public affairs specialist for Michigan. But they often need help bearing the financial burden.

“Producers have been doing this for a long time, and they’re tried and true practices, so getting anyone to change is, it’s a challenge,” Buehler said. “They need to see it makes economic sense for them, because you know, it is a business.”

Among the programs that will be assessed to determine best methods at reducing agricultural runoff is the Saginaw River watershed.

“I think the farmers realize that they can have a big impact,” said Ben Thelen, a district conservationist with the Saginaw Conservation District. “And you know, a lot of them want to do the right thing.”

Farmers in the Saginaw River watershed used to compete for conservation grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Thelen said. A waiting list formed.

Farmers still compete for funds, but the Saginaw River watershed’s priority designation narrowed the competitive pool and allowed more farmers to make changes, he said.

The Great Lakes Commission begins a two-year study in November, looking to channel federal sustainable practices subsidy dollars more efficiently into the hands of county officials and the pockets of farmers. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has put more than $100 million into those pockets over the past six years, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

In addition to the Saginaw River watershed, the commission will assess programs in three other watersheds: Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River; New York’s Genesee River; and the Maumee River, which winds through Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The practices of many farmers in all four watersheds have been the subject of prior studies, and the commission also has access to data submitted annually by each initiative-funded project.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in September to continue funding the restoration initiative, despite President Donald Trump’s proposal to zero out a its $300 million allocation from the federal budget. Deliberation over the possible budget cut continues in the U.S. Senate.

The commission’s Pebbles said battling algal blooms and its resulting poor water quality has been a main focus for the initiative since it launched in 2012, funding more than 90 programs to reduce farm runoff. Problems created by the blooms are serious: In 2014, algae blooms tainted tap water in Toledo, Ohio, causing shutoffs for 500,000 residents.

The bulk of the work comes from local governments like the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department, in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s part of the Lower Fox River watershed and is just outside of Green Bay. Like much of the Great Lakes, the bay is plagued by algal blooms — killing fish, forcing beach closings and damaging the local economy.

Runoff reduction won’t happen without large-scale buy-in from the farmers, said Greg Baneck, a county conservationist with 14 years under his belt in Outagamie.

“Basically, we are the local delivery method for getting the conservation on the ground,” Baneck said. “That’s the only way we’re getting down to the water quality standards, is if we have the funding for the boots on the ground.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has helped immensely on that front, he said. It allows the county to employ 12 full-time conservation staffers, up from seven. That makes it easier to meet directly with farmers.

Initiative funding has also made it cheaper for farmers to implement watershed-friendly practices, Baneck said. The county shares the cost of things like seeds for cover crops that keep the soil packed after harvest when fields would otherwise be brown and bare. It has also bought expensive conservation-friendly equipment that is loaned to farmers.

Outagamie County loans out its crimper roller, a machine that crushes and kills cover crops, clearing the way for planting and creating a protective bed over the seed. The decomposing stalks then fertilize the seed.  

Farmers can also cost-share installment of drainage tiles, which help regulate the amounts of runoff.

Baneck said there’s been a mindset change.

“Most farmers want to do the right thing,” he said. “If we can show them the financial benefit of it, that’s huge.

“Bottom line, everyone wants to still make a profit and help the environment, and that’s what we’re showing them.”

As more farmers see their neighbors adopt new practices, the momentum builds, Baneck said.

Collaboration and federal funding has also aided county officials in the Genesee River watershed in New York.

Water quality-related problems have persisted there for years, said Molly Cassatt, district manager of the Genesee County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Her district has partnered with 11 others to form the Genesee River Watershed Coalition of Conservation Districts. The coalition crosses state lines, with one county located in Pennsylvania.

“We’re going to work together so that these projects aren’t small and scattered, but really address the worst areas of the watershed,” Cassatt said.

And with programs “saturated with money” from federal sources, she said, adoption of conservation practices has hastened as farmers no longer have to wait long periods until they’re able to sign up for cost-sharing programs.

That increased buy-in from farmers is what the Great Lakes Commission is seeking.

Pebbles said, “What we want to know is, what’s changing behavior in the long term? If the money went away tomorrow, would they continue to implement these conservation practices?”

The study’s core team is composed of officials from the commission, Michigan State University and Ohio State University. The commission will also assemble an advisory team composed of county officials from those watersheds.

Steven Maier is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo.

Private well water quality unregulated after installation

Capital News Service

LANSING — Even though Michigan has the most private wells in the nation, no state regulations control how often that water should be tested.

A quarter of Michigan’s residents rely on well water, according to Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Committee’s most recent report. But the state has set no standard for monitoring the quality of water from private wells, Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) source water unit supervisor Matt Gamble said.

“Private wells get tested when they’re installed and they may never be sampled again,” Gamble said. “There is no requirement — at least no statewide requirement — for a homeowner to have their well sampled on any schedule.”

Gamble said the DEQ frequently learns of contaminated well water. When it hears of new cases, the department responds through a program that funds projects to replace contaminated wells and connect residents to municipal water.

And some local communities require well inspections when a house changes hands, similar to a lead paint inspection, Gamble said. Continue reading

Deadline for state money to test beaches approaching


Capital News Service

LANSING —The state is offering $200,000 to help local agencies monitor water quality in inland lakes this summer.

Localities and nonprofit groups have until Feb. 28 to apply for Department of Environmental Quality grants to measure levels of E.coli — a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea, severe anemia or kidney failure — off inland beaches, according to Shannon Briggs, a program director in DEQ’s Water Resources Division.

Michigan is currently keeping watch on about 380 inland lakes, about half of the state’s total. Water quality data helps officials determine if a lake is safe for swimming. It is reported to the website Michigan Beach Guard, part of the DEQ site, and compiled in a statewide report.

State law gives the authority for monitoring and testing public beaches to local health departments and their partners, Briggs said. Continue reading

Water quality a problem for rural areas, too


Capital News Service

LANSING — The state of water quality in Flint has been of high interest around Michigan and throughout the nation, but rural areas around the state are also struggling to provide safe drinking water.

According to Michigan’s chapter of the Sierra Club, rural areas have been underinvesting in their water treatment needs at a higher rate than cities are.

Mike Berkowitz, the legislative and political director for the Sierra Club, said ensuring that people in Michigan have safe drinking water and treatment facilities that operate the right way should be a top priority.

“I think the fundamental solution, first of all, is fixing our state budget and making it more sustainable,” Berkowitz said. “We need to be making sure that we’re able to replace lead pipelines and other deleterious infrastructure in local communities throughout the state. We need to be able to replace that with more sustainable infrastructures.”

Continue reading

Wash, rinse, pollute, repeat


Photo: US Department of Energy

Photo: US Department of Energy


Capital News Service

LANSING — A new study shows that while we clean our clothes we dirty waterways like the Great Lakes.

Every load of laundry produces microfibers, or tiny pieces of clothing that shed during washing. Wastewater treatment plants can’t break them down, so they end up in lakes, rivers and other bodies of water.

Once they’re in the water, aquatic animals can mistake the fibers for food. And that’s not a good thing. Continue reading

Small coastal communities spiff up their resumes


Capital News Service

LANSING — Small coastal communities are laying the groundwork to bring cash to their waterfronts.

Community members, researchers, designers, engineers and others are helping six small harbor communities plan for the future. And the effort, coordinated by Michigan Sea Grant, could have a statewide impact by modeling development strategies for other coastal communities, creating safe harbors for recreational boaters and spurring tourism.

Four communities last year participated in a program that helps to develop five-year  plans for their waterfronts: Ontonagon, Pentwater, Au Gres and New Baltimore. Two more – St. Ignace and Rogers City – will go through the process in October.

More than 80 communities with small public harbors will benefit from the program because the planning materials it develops will be available free through Sea Grant. Continue reading