Wetlands project aims to improve habitat

AOC receives opposition from nearby residents

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published January 11, 2017


HARRISON TOWNSHIP — A wetlands project proposed by the U.S. Department of Natural Resources has some Harrison Township canal residents concerned about the future of Lake St. Clair and the Clinton River.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be commencing a habitat restoration project at the mouth of the Clinton River, on the south side of the Michigan DNR’s Harley Ensign Memorial Boating Access Site, at the end of South River Road in Harrison Township.

Susan Virgilio, with the EPA, Region V Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, led an October public informational meeting about the project in Harrison Township. She said the project was requested by the DNR and is funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

According to James Francis, the DNR’s Lake Erie Basin coordinator located at the Waterford Fisheries Station, the Clinton River Mouth Project that is expected to begin in the spring will improve the fish and wildlife habitat at that location in Lake St. Clair.

“The Clinton River and portions of Lake St. Clair are designated Areas of Concern under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement,” he said. “What is planned is important to the habitat of Lake St. Clair.”

A report released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District on behalf of the DNR states that the Harley Ensign site is built on top of a former Army Corps of Engineers dredged material disposal site. The site includes a public boat launch and a DNR fisheries station at the west end, with the remainder covered with areas of trees comprised of mostly cottonwood, and shrubs as well as open areas that have been overrun by invasive Phragmites, which they say is of minimal value to wildlife. In addition, Lake St. Clair lacks emergent wetlands, which are an important habitat type for many species, including birds and fish, and also provide shoreline protection.

“What the project will do is re-create emergent wetlands,” Francis said.

The project will provide quality coastal habitat at the site and emergent wetland habitat in the adjacent waters of Lake St. Clair. Specific plans include the removal of invasive species, the creation of approximately 3.8 acres of wet-mesic savanna habitat, the creation of approximately 0.5 acre of sedge meadow habitat, and the creation of approximately 1 acre of limestone-cobble shoreline habitat.

The proposed project was determined to be necessary for removal of the fish and wildlife beneficial use impairments (BUIs) and is one of several projects in the Clinton River Areas of Concern that the EPA, the MDEQ and the Clinton River Public Advisory Council are working together on, with the goal to remove the majority of BUIs in the Clinton River Area of Concern over the next year.

But the plans aren’t welcome by a few who live nearby.

Don Boden, who lives in the Huron Pointe subdivision off of South River Road, calls the project “a bad idea.”

“The water flow in the bay is already poor in the southwest corner of Campau Bay,” said Boden, who is a trustee of the Huron Pointe Homeowners Association. “There are two canals underneath South River Road that should be cleaned out and deepened. The new wetlands will probably make water flow worse. The dirt for the wetlands is coming from the dredging of the Lake St. Clair shipping channel and may contain chemicals from the St. Clair River.”

Francis said all sediment will be tested.

More about the project in the report states that two-thirds of the cottonwood trees will be removed to allow for the establishment of more desirable tree species, such as oaks, to achieve a more open, park-like canopy cover. The trees to be removed range from 7 inches to 54 inches in diameter. The entire 3.8 acres of new-wet mesic savanna habitat will receive up to a 1-foot topsoil amendment (about 6,000 cubic yards) and will then be planted with a variety of native grasses, shrubs and tree species.

The sedge meadow habitat will be created by filling approximately 5,000 cubic yards in two artificial ponds that were constructed by the DNR for zebra mussel research and are no longer used. Hummocks will be used to establish the vegetation characteristic of the sedge meadows, and the limestone-cobble shoreline habitat will be created around the perimeter of the site that is currently loose stone.

The crevices between the stones will be filled with a sandy/limestone soil mix, and then native vegetation will be planted. Recreational access to the water will be maintained with established pathways in select locations within the project site.

Further specific project components include the establishment of approximately 14 acres of emergent wetland in Lake St. Clair along the south side of the Harley Ensign site.

Francis said the wetlands are important given that this type of habitat is rare along the developed shoreline of Lake St. Clair at existing water levels. Currently, the water depth is not ideal for an emergent wetland habitat, which typically establishes in 0.5 to 1.5 feet of water.

To obtain ideal water depths and maximize the amount of emergent wetland habitat created, approximately 60,000 cubic yards of dredged material from the Lake St. Clair navigation channel will be barged in and placed into the site. The report states that the dredged material will go through a full suite of chemical and toxicity testing to ensure that only suitable dredged material is used for wetland creation.

Joe Memminger, who also lives in the Huron Pointe subdivision, said there are numerous dead zones throughout Campau Bay, which is located south of the wetland projects, as easily observed by stagnant water, compounded by untreated sewage flows and decomposing bottom materials. He wonders if the project will further block circulation into the bay, thus creating dangers to residents by attracting mosquitoes. He said that would be a bad idea in light of recent threats of the Zika and West Nile viruses.

“As an engineer, I assert that a portion of the 60,000 cubic yards of soils and materials from the wetland project will slowly erode and disperse into Campau Bay,” Memminger said. “Will this accelerate and exacerbate the current low oxygen problem in the bay?”

The DNR report states that the emergent wetlands will extend approximately 325 feet from the south side of the Harley Ensign site. Beyond that will be a transition slope for approximately 75 feet to connect the emergent wetlands to the existing lake bottom.To protect the wetland area from wave energy, a number of large woody debris structures will be placed along the outer edge of the project boundary, approximately 400 feet from shore at the outer edge of the slope. These structures will be constructed to be completely submerged except in very low lake levels, will not be visible from shore, and will be marked with buoys to minimize any navigation hazards.

A majority of the work will take place between August and November 2017, Francis said. Partial closures of the Harley Ensign site are expected to occur during construction to allow access for construction equipment and materials. He said access to the boat launch and the majority of the parking lot will be maintained throughout the duration of the project.

The Army Corps of Engineers completed a similar project on the spillway last year, in which it re-created a former scene of the area complete with log structures for habitat.