The Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI) is frequently asked to give expert testimony at state and federal hearings. Dr. Don Uzarski, assistant professor of water resources at AWRI, recently provided such testimony to the Michigan legislature on the impacts beach grooming has on coastal wetlands.
Lake Michigan-Huron water levels were nearly 40 cm above the long-term average in 1997. By 2000, the Lake levels dropped over one meter and have remained between 50 and 70 cm below the long-term average. While marina operators, boaters, riparian homeowners, and the shipping industry often find these natural lake-level fluctuations troubling, they are crucial to the Great Lakes ecosystem. It is during these low water years that coastal wetland area increases drastically as buried roots and rhizomes send up new shoots and establish vegetation where, during high-water years, these same areas appear to be sandy beaches. The process is critical in maintaining the coastal wetlands that 90% of Great Lakes fishes rely on for at least a portion of their life history.
Over the past few years, several resort owners have joined together and lobbied legislators to allow for removal of what they called "unsightly weeds" from in front of their property. They eventually joined forces with many riparian property owners and formed a rather large property rights activist group. Their efforts were rewarded in 2003 as the Michigan Legislature enacted legislation allowing mowing of Michigan Great Lakes bottomlands by owners of lakefront property on any of the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair. Mowing of exposed bottomlands between the ordinary high water mark and the existing water's edge were exempted from the requirement to obtain a permit before such activities could occur unless mowing exceeded 100 feet of frontage. Mechanical removal (tilling and disking) of vegetation was also allowed, but was restricted to "pilot" areas.
Saginaw and Grand Traverse Bays were designated as "pilot areas" where mechanical removal of vegetation could occur. This legislation directed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to determine the impacts of beach grooming on the coastal wetlands of Saginaw and Grand Traverse Bays. Dr. Uzarski along with students Keto Gyekis, Matthew Cooper and other members of his lab, and MSU collaborators Thomas M. Burton and Dennis A. Albert, conducted the research needed to determine such impacts. They found grooming caused distinct impacts to ambient chemical/physical conditions, as well as larval, juvenile, and adult fishes, plants, and micro and macroinvertebrates.
Uzarski was called upon, on several occasions, by both the Michigan legislature and MDEQ to provide expert testimony. Legislators established the law in such a way that it would be revisited at the conclusion of the study by attaching sunset provisions. Hearings were held on 28 March, 9, 11, 16 May, and 13 June 2006 before legislators allowed some provisions to sunset. The legislature, MDEQ, environmental groups, and property rights activists are currently working together to find common ground on the issue before the final decisions are made in November of 2006.