The Environment Report | Michigan Radio
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The Environment Report

The Environment Report, hosted by Lester Graham, explores the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.

Bacteria clean-up: Should we let nature clean up oil spills?

20 hours ago
Great Lakes Now Episode 1010

Natural populations of oil-degrading bacteria could help to clean up freshwater rivers and lakes after spills from pipelines and trains, researchers have found after experiments that simulated spills in a Canadian lake.

Some Chicagoans wary of lead pipe replacement

Jul 22, 2021
J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

It’s just before 6 p.m. on a breezy Wednesday evening in Little Village, a neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. Department of Water Management staffers lift two tables out of the trunk of a minivan on the 3100 block of Ridgeway Ave. They drape them with blue tablecloths bearing DWM’s logo. 

A small crowd gathers as the staffers, alternating between English and Spanish, explain that Chicago has embarked on a novel public health program. The city is offering to replace toxic lead water pipes leading to their homes — at no cost to the residents. 

In Chicago, flooding overwhelmingly strikes communities of color

Jun 29, 2021
J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

In the early 1970s, Chicago embarked on one of the region’s most ambitious and expensive infrastructure projects to date: the Tunnel and Reservoir Project or “Deep Tunnel,” a massive storage system that will be able to hold more than 20 billion gallons of water when it’s finished in 2029. 

Michigan’s climate-ready future: wetland parks, less cement, roomy shores

Jun 9, 2021
J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

What does Michigan’s future look like if we adequately prepare the state’s water resources for climate change? Goodbye to septics and shorehugging homes. Hello to more diversified crops on Michigan farms.

The year is 2050, and you’re visiting family in Detroit.

Arriving, you grab coffee on the ground floor of a nine-floor building filled with offices and apartments, designed to house a growing Great Lakes city without pushing out longtime residents.

Around the corner, people gather for walks and picnics in a wetland park, one of dozens constructed around the city. With their wet meadows, flowers and gently winding trails, the parks absorb rainwater from frequent storms, reduce water treatment costs and alleviate the basement backups of water and sewage that once plagued Detroit.

NOAA, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) are forecasting the cyanobacterial bloom in western Lake Erie is likely to be smaller than average this year. But, it’s early in the season and things could change.

Green Infrastructure: Cities around the Great Lakes plan for a changing future

May 19, 2021
Courtesy: City of Detroit

Water ran from a fire hydrant, down the street and into a recently redesigned street median in Detroit last week.

It was both unassuming and a demonstration of the city’s single largest investment in green stormwater infrastructure: infrastructure that uses natural processes like the ability of soil and plants to filter and store water. The 10 reworked street medians on Oakman Boulevard will help manage 37.3 million gallons of stormwater a year, easing the burden on the city’s wastewater system and reduce basement flooding.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Some coal fired power plants are being closed. Still, most of Michigan’s utilities heavily rely on coal.

“In 2019, coal still fueled the largest share of Michigan’s electric generation, about 32 percent. DTE Energy in particular is still heavily reliant on coal generation, with close to 60 percent (56%) of its energy coming from coal fired power plants,” Charlotte Jameson with the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) said.

She is one of the authors of an updated report on pollutants that come from burning coal.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

On Thursday, environmental groups and Native Americans plan to present Enbridge Energy with symbolic eviction notices. They want Enbridge to abide by Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s order to shut down Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.

Great Lakes water diversions could be more numerous

May 11, 2021
J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

When Monica Evans gets together with her friends they talk economics, politics, the weather. They also discuss a subject that arises periodically in the news - the prospect that Great Lakes water could be diverted to other parts of the country. 

Evans, who is known in the Traverse City region as an effective environmental activist, has long worried that water could become in the 21st century what oil was in the 20th. As the global climate warms and water scarcity mounts, Great Lakes water is more valuable than ever before. 

On eve of Line 5 shutdown deadline, Enbridge vows to defy Michigan order

May 11, 2021
Courtesy: Whitney Gravelle

Enbridge Energy technically has one more day to shut down the Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, but even the pipeline’s most vocal opponents acknowledge slim odds that the oil actually stops flowing right away.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

There’s been a lot of news about the amount of plastic debris in the oceans. But plastic pollution is also affecting the Great Lakes. A study out of the Rochester Institute of Technology estimates 22 million pounds of plastic debris enters the Great Lakes from the U.S. and Canada each year.

Kelly House / Bridge Michigan

Microplastic pollution has been building up in the Great Lakes for at least four decades, but our understanding of its impact on fish and other aquatic creatures is only just catching up.

Now new research from the University of Toronto shows the harm to wildlife is due to a wide range of factors that is not generally considered in toxicology testing – the plastics’ size, shape and chemical makeup.

Flooding tells 'two different stories' in Michigan

Apr 28, 2021
Courtesy: Mike Bach

Access to ample water supplies could make Michigan a climate refuge. That scenario is attracting considerable attention in the Great Lakes State.

But climate change also is disrupting the earth’s meteorological cycles. Which means more fierce Great Lakes region storms and more floods.

The consequences are not evenly distributed. Or, in the words of Jeremy Porter, the head of research and development at First Street Foundation, a Brooklyn-based research group, flooding tells “two different stories.” 

Michigan's rural water systems confront generations of inadequate investment

Apr 19, 2021
J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

  • Building, maintaining, and operating a water and sewer system is generally the most expensive item on a small town’s budget.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Water and Waste Disposal Program is a lifeline for rural communities, providing Michigan towns with $963.8 million in loans and $307.1 million in grants between January 2008 and November 2020.
  • The affordability of rural water service is a “monstrous elephant in the room” when it comes to long-term rural financial viability.

A big fight in Lansing over fishing rules on the Great Lakes

Apr 15, 2021
Kelly House / Bridge Michigan

Dana Serafin still hauls in 20,000-pound boatloads of whitefish to supply regional restaurants and markets, but in recent years, the Saginaw Bay fisherman has found it more difficult to fill his orders.

Native whitefish, the main livelihood for Serafin and other Great Lakes commercial fishers, have been in decline for years amid changes to the food web, replaced in Serafin’s nets by healthier populations of walleye and lake trout that he’s not allowed to keep.

Mark Edlund / St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Science Museum of MN

Right now, scientists are on a ship taking samples and measurements of the Great Lakes. They’re trying to determine how the lakes will fare this year and watching for trends.

One trend, the warming climate, could mean changes for the base of the food web in the lakes. But, the researchers are not yet sure what those changes might be.

Report: Lake Michigan is 'running a fever.' More storms, less fish possible.

Apr 2, 2021
Courtesy: NOAA, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Diminished surface ice is just the beginning: Climate change is warming Lake Michigan and other big lakes all the way down to their chilly depths, according to new federal research.

In a first-of-its kind study, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory have used the only known long-term dataset of deep-lake temperatures to determine that Lake Michigan’s temperature is slowly increasing over the past 30 years.

Is the Line 5 tunnel a bridge to Michigan's energy future or a bad deal?

Apr 1, 2021
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

As Canadian officials lobbied a Michigan Senate committee in March to keep the Line 5 pipeline open, Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) grew frustrated with a conversation that, up to that point, had focused mainly on the immediate economic and safety implications of a possible shutdown.

In flooded Michigan neighborhoods, who should pay for sea walls?

Mar 30, 2021
Kelly House / Bridge Michigan

The floodwaters have receded from Jefferson Chalmers for now, but evidence of the neighborhood’s recent crisis is hard to miss:

Dried algae on the sidewalks. Appliances bolted to basement walls to keep them dry. Water lines on the sides of buildings. And massive orange “tiger dams” snaking through backyards, waiting for the water to rise again.

The neighborhood — a labyrinth of canals leading to the Detroit River on the city’s far east side — is often called Detroit’s version of Venice. But for the past two summers, as Great Lakes water levels reached record highs, it has looked more like a floodplain.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Climate change in the Great Lakes region means more intense storms. Already some towns are finding they’re flooding where they never have before. One city in Michigan is finding the solution is nature.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Midland and other cities were hit hard by a flood caused by heavy rains and the failure of a weak dam.

More than 2,500 homes were damaged. There was an estimated $245 million dollars in property damage.

If that flood happened a few years ago, the damage could have been worse. But, there’s been a change. One thousand acres of restored wetlands helped reduce the severity of that flood.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Birds are beginning to migrate north. The Great Lakes flyway means a large number of those birds will be flying over Michigan. It also means at night birds will be crashing into buildings with lights on. Artificial light confuses them.

“And a city that produces a lot of artificial light at night from building and industry in a place with a lot of bird migration is going to have a high risk for bird mortality,” said Ben Winger, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan.

© Photo by Whitney Gravelle

Michigan's Indigenous communities hold long-standing legal right to protect lands and waters.

On any given day, Jacques LeBlanc Jr. spends as many as 14 hours on the water catching whitefish. Out on his boat by the time the sun breaks the horizon over the Great Lakes, he moves between Michigan, Huron, and Superior for the best spots. In this part of northern Michigan, at the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, fishing is a staple of LeBlanc’s Bay Mills Indian Community, one of the Sault Ste. Marie bands of Chippewa.

Deep below the cold, dark surface of Lake Superior, sensors strung like pearls along a vertical steel cable sway with the currents. Recording the lake’s dropping temperatures as winter sets in, their gentle rhythm belies their worrying readings: the lake is getting warmer.

Too few farmers are curbing pollution in Lake Erie. Should they be forced?

Mar 9, 2021
Dale Young / Bridge Michigan

As climate change complicates Lake Erie's algae problem, scientists say farmer must do far more to reduce phosphorus runoff. But will enough farmers change their ways without a government mandate?

Rights vs. Regulations: Property rights big barrier to septic system codes

Mar 2, 2021
Soil Science via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In Michigan, with public health departments fully occupied with COVID-19, septic systems have been pushed back as a priority.

But even before COVID-19, it wasn’t much of a priority in the Legislature, because the last time an attempt was made to get Michigan statewide regulations for septic systems was in 2018.

Mussel-Phosphorus puzzle: Invasive mussels are reshaping the chemistry of the Great Lakes

Feb 26, 2021
D. Jude / University of Michigan via NOAA/GLERL Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Since the late 1980s, four of the five Great Lakes have played host to an increasing number of invasive mussels. First came zebra mussels, followed shortly thereafter by quagga mussels, both members of the Dreissenid family whose native range includes the waters around Ukraine.

Today, the filter-feeders comprise more than 90% of the total animal biomass of the Great Lakes (barring Lake Superior, whose depth and water chemistry make it a less suitable habitat for the two species of mussel).

30 years later: Mussel invasion legacy reaches far beyond Great Lakes

Feb 26, 2021
Bob Nichols / USDA

The way J. Ellen Marsden remembers it, when she first suggested calling a new Great Lakes invasive species the quagga mussel, her colleague laughed, so the name stuck.

At the same time, it was no laughing matter. The arrival of a second non-native mussel, related to the already established zebra mussel, was a major complication in what was becoming one of the most significant invasive species events in American history.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio


Invasive mussels now control key Great Lakes nutrients, threatening fish

Feb 16, 2021

The stunning beauty of Lake Michigan’s crystal clear water draws comparisons to the French Riviera. 

But to Dustin Van Orman, it’s a hideous sight.

Van Orman, whose family owns Mackinaw City’s Big Stone Bay Fishery, knows that the clearer the water gets, the scarcer whitefish and chubs become. 

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