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Huron gets mixed reviews in lake report
Thursday, August 21, 2003

Bay City Times, Jeff Kart

Lake Huron is recovering from decades of environmental contamination, but still faces threats from shoreline development and invasive species.

The lake receives a "mixed" rating in a State of the Great Lakes 2003 report released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada.

"The overall trend for contaminant loadings is down, and that's a good sign that things are going in the right direction," said James C. Schardt, a biologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago.

"But there are still fish advisories for the Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron, and that's a continuing concern."

Overall, the five lakes received a mixed rating. Schardt, a contributing author to the report, said the legacy of industrialization that caused contamination in sediments and fish in Lake Huron has ended, and federal and state regulations have reduced pollution levels.

The levels of contaminants in coho and chinook salmon and lake trout are decreasing, studies show.

But toxins still persist in Huron fish, along with fish consumption advisories. The Saginaw Bay is a "hot spot" due to contaminated sediments, high concentrations of toxins in herring gull eggs and elevated phosphorous levels.

There also are problems with runoff from farm fields and urban areas, Schardt said.

Nonnative species - such as zebra mussels, rainbow smelt and alewives - are hurting native species in the lakes as well, consuming food that native species need to survive.

There are ballast water regulations to stop ocean-going vessels from introducing new invasive species into the lakes, Schardt said, but eradicating the more than 160 invaders already here is an ongoing fight.

He said the health of fish communities in Lake Huron has improved since a low point in the 1960s, when salmon and trout populations were hurt by an infestation of sea lampreys.

The improvement is due in part to a massive chemical and trapping effort to reduce the lamprey population in the St. Marys River at the north end of the lake, Schardt said.

Urbanization is a new threat to Lake Huron, the report states, with increasing numbers of people moving to coastal areas and building homes and summer cottages.

Sally L. Wallace said she's noticed that trend. Wallace, executive director of the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy in Bay City, said Lake Huron frontage is becoming more popular because it costs less - about $150 a foot compared to $400 a foot on Lake Michigan.

Wallace said people need to strike a balance between development and preservation.

"You've got three major migratory bird flyways that come right over the Saginaw Bay," Wallace said. "If that area is developed and turned into residential housing or commercial development, there's not going to be habitat for those birds."

She said a lot of important habitat has already been lost to development in coastal areas.

"We've got areas along Lake Huron that are developed and not developed very well," Wallace said. "You've got septic systems that are leaking. We've definitely got some serious environmental problems associated with development that maybe happened 20 to 50 years ago."

Schardt said he doesn't see any end to urbanization along the shoreline. His agency forecasts that the population in the Lake Huron basin is going to increase during the next decade.

Farther out from the shore, the conditions are better, he said.

"When you look at the water that's out there in the middle of the lake, it's a great place for fish to live and the fish living out there are healthy," he said.

But attention needs to be paid to the shoreline areas because fish spend a fragile part of their lives in tributaries like the Saginaw Bay, Schardt said. The State of the Great Lakes report summarizes assessments from various agencies of Lake Huron and the four other Great Lakes.

"It performs a great function," Schardt said of the report, "because all of the people working on the lakes have a unique view, but we don't want to be working in isolation.

"So this report, when it comes out every two years, allows us to see overall what the concerns and priorities are for the basin, so then we can go back to the work that we're doing and be better informed by the overall picture."


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