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Lake Erie Expedition COVERAGE

Cormorants are colony breeders, building several nests in a single tree

Cormorants are not charismatic birds.  Though they’re precision fishers who dive for their prey like sleek, black jet fighters, they nest in trees and foul the ground beneath them with excrement and urine.  Cormorants are also apt to regurgitate when startled.  And over time, the sheer volume of cormorant guano on a Lake Erie Island rookery will alter the make-up of the soil, making it so acid that trees and other vegetation die.

Cormorant populations – once nearing extinction because of DDT – are now so prolific in the Great Lakes that they can kill ecosystems that many natural resource and park managers have vowed to protect.

That’s why officials on both sides of the US-Canadian border have been culling the animals in recent years.

Since 2006, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and ODNR biologists have employed sharpshooters to kill hundreds of nesting pairs of cormorants on West Sister Island and two other islands in western Lake Erie.  And this year, Parks Canada has launched its second year of cormorant culls on uninhabited Middle Island, just south of Pelee, a popular summer tourist destination.  Middle Island was acquired by Ontario about ten years ago to extend what in Canada is a rare Carolinian ecosystem of deciduous plants, including the Kentucky coffee bean tree.  Park officials are mandated to protect that ecosystem, but not the birds that have taken over the island.

Stepping foot on an island where cormorants have taken over is an eerie experience.  As you approach, hundreds of the birds – male and female – who guard the nests fly up and wheel around the sky.

Cormorants wheel in agitation as our Lake Erie research boat nears their rookery on East Sister Island.

The smell of the guano hits you 20 yards offshore.

In early May, the remaining forest canopy is not fully leafed out.  Goose-necked black cormorants peer down from their nests in the crooks of trees sixty feet above you and utter sounds like a person vomiting. The forest floor is spongy with their droppings and downed tree limbs – cormorants are ungainly fliers who knock off branches when they land.  Guano covers tree trunks and the few ground plants that survive.

This is not a place for humans.  Yet small purple flowers appear in the gloom and a few other bird species – Great Blue herons and terns and gulls – manage to co-exist.
Some wildlife biologists and cormorant advocates will tell you that what natural resource and park managers call an over-abundance of cormorants is normal.  They point out that in the Great Lakes, cormorant rookeries have taken over less than one percent of the 30,000 islands that dot the lakes.  They’ll also tell you that humans have never let cormorant populations reach a natural balance before deciding to reduce their numbers.   The controversy over culling cormorants is an international one that is unlikely to be resolved.

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The Horseshoe Falls at Niagra are famous for their beauty, but they're also an important source of electricity

If you’ve ever been to Niagra Falls – or even if you’ve only seen the falls in pictures – you’re probably familiar with the ‘vast and prodigious cascadence of water’ as described by Charles Dickens in 1842. What you may not know is that the unbroken fall of water over the Horseshoe Falls is artificially maintained to impress the tourists. And that the nighttime light display at the falls disguises the fact that vast amounts of water are diverted at night to generate electricity.

Unlike Ohio, which generates more than 80 percent of its electricity from coal, most of Ontario’s electricity comes from hydro power. Ontario’s electric utility is referred to as Hydro One, even though some of its electricity is generated by coal. But the province is getting away from coal and other fossil fuels. And two new sources are generating a lot of interest.

The latest is a technology that’s brand new to North America. It’s called hydrokinetic energy. A Houston energy company has a proposal to put turbines in the water below the falls in the Niagra River. The turbines use the energy of the river to turn a generator on the surface. The company president plans a comprehensive study of the impact on fish. He says preliminary studies show that fish can move right through the slowly turning blades without harm. But the Niagra-Buffalo Riverkeeper – who oversees environmental remediation efforts – says there’s a lot more to learn about the impact on fish and river bottom sediments. She’s also concerned about how the structures might impact recreational uses of the river.

The Erie Shores Wind Farm near Port Burwell, Ontario have 66 wind turbines generating about 100 Megawatts of power.  Closer to Leamington, there are 44 more turbines, with more proposed.

West of Niagra off Long Point, near the small fishing town of Port Burwell, wind power is the new green energy taking over the landscape. For several kilometers along the shore, 66 wind turbines at the Erie Shores Wind Farm generate about 100 megawatts of clean power. They’re clustered on local agricultural farms in groups of three to five, their three blades making a faint whooshing sound with every revolution. Canadian bird experts say this region between two important migratory bird staging areas – one at Long Point and the other at Point Pelee – is a good spot for the turbines. They say the turbines aren’t having a significant impact on bird populations. But a new human health concern has recently arisen. Some residents are complaining of headaches and nausea which they claim are caused by the low hum from the turbines. There are no peer-reviewed studies that substantiate their concerns.

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This milking parlor at the Vreba-Hoff One dairy near Hudson, Michigan milks 80 cows at a time.

It was a cool, sunny morning when we stopped outside the small town of Hudson in the hills of southeastern Michigan just across the Indiana and Ohio borders.  We came to visit a dairy farm, but not just any farm.  This one, run by a member of the Dutch Vreba-Hoff LLC group, has 28-hundred cows.  That’s right, 2-thousand, 8-hundred cows.  That’s a lot of cows.

In the milking parlor (why they call them that no one could tell us), 80 cows are milked at a time using milking machines.  The cows are milked three times a day.  There’s  just barely time to wash down and sterilize the parlor a couple of times a day.  The cows spend the bulk of their day in long, canvas-sided barns called free-stalls.  Free-stall means the animals can walk around, lie down to chew their cud and generally hang out.   The canvas sides can be rolled up or down, depending on the weather, to keep the cows cool and comfortable.

Cows are kept in free-stalls.  A dairy representative says the animals are no longer given growth hormones, due to the public outcry against them, and only get antibiotics when they're sick.The big issue with this many cows is – well, there’s no way to be delicate here.  These cows produce a LOT of manure.  The EPA’s rule of thumb is that one cow produces about 20 times more waste than a person.  There’s been a lot of good stuff written about the manure problems with large animal operations or CAFO’s (the “c” stands for confined, as the animals stay inside.)  The biggest issue is that, improperly handled, manure operations at these huge farms can leak into waterways or run-off from fields spread with the manure.  That can make groundwater wells unsafe and contribute to algae blooms and dead zones in Lake Erie.

We’ve got a few of these operations in northwest Ohio, and state regulators say the trend is toward more of these large animal farms.  Economies of scale and low profit margins for farming are pushing the trend.  What struck many of us journalists from Ohio is that the woman we talked to from Vreba-Hoff said if she could move all her Michigan and Indiana and Ohio farms anywhere, she’d pick Ohio.  She says that’s because Ohio’s Department of Agriculture – which took over large animal farm jurisdiction from the Ohio EPA in 2000 – has rules on how you set up the farm operations and manage them.  She says all those rules make for greater certainty on the part of farmers.  They know what to do and are less likely to be fined.

Just for the record – the Vreba-Hoff farm we visited DID smell like cows, no question.  But it was not at all overwhelming, even at the manure lagoons.  And we didn’t see a single fly.

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A Great Lakes freighter cruises down the Detroit River on its way from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie.  Some advocates say that something should be done to slow the the flow of water from Lake Huron through St. Clair and into Lake Erie.

A newly-released international study recommends no action on what Canadian advocates claim is a bathtub-drain effect that’s lowering the level of Lakes Huron and Michigan.  That’s what was reported Saturday by sources like the Chicago Tribune.

That same day our group of journalists – which includes Canadians – spent a couple of hours on the Detroit River with authors of the report and a representative of a group that disputes the findings.  After waiting for two lake freighters to pass by, we cruised north to Lake St. Clair, which some call the sixth Great Lake (it isn’t, either hydrologically or officially) on board the Pride of Michigan , a small river vessel used to train U.S. Navy sea scouts.

Mary Muter is a representative of what was formerly known as the Georgian Bay Association, a group of Canadian vacation home residents concerned about water loss in Georgian Bay in Lake Huron.  She says her group is now focusing in wetlands loss in Huron and plans to change its name.

For years, no data was collected to help inform scientists what was going on.  The International Joint Commission – the bi-national group that oversees boundary water issues – churned out its $ 15 million preliminary report in just two years.  They made full speed because the Georgian Bay Association, a group of Lake Huron residents initially concerned about falling water levels that left their island vacation homes high and dry – were asking  government authorities to do something to stop the water loss.

Lake St. Clair feeds into the Detroit River and connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie.  If the International Joint Commission had decided something needed to be done, the amount of water flowing into Lake Erie might have been reduced.  And that could have been a problem.  Whereas the upper lakes get most of their water from precipitation, Lake Erie gets most of its water from the upper lakes.   In Ohio, we could have been sitting on empty.

The big news is that this preliminary report isn’t the end.  What’s coming in the next year or so is a report on the real-time impacts of climate change on the lakes.  Along with that will come a series of recommendations about what to do to about those impacts.

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Journey with WKSU reporter Karen Schaefer as she explores the environmental challenges facing Lake Erie and its people.  Schaefer is circum-navigating the lake with a group of journalists as a fellow of the Great Waters Institute, a program of the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.  Over the next week, the group will explore:

Lake Erie is the source of drinking water for 6 million people, an economic engine for industry, shipping, fishing and recreation (Karen Schaefer)
  • a controversy over regulating lake levels and how that could impact Lake Erie
  • how large animal farming operations are impacting the watershed
  • research on dead zones and algae growth in Lake Erie
  • modernization of the port of Cleveland
  • new hydropower projects at Niagra Falls
  • an Ontario wind farm on the shores of Lake Erie
  • impacts of climate change on the lake
  • US/Canadian division of the annual fish catch
  • habitat loss on the Lake Erie Islands
  • bird migrations and cormorant populations
Lake Erie is cleaner than it was 40 years ago, but now faces many new challenges, including agricultural run-off, invasive species and climate change - NASA Habitat loss in the Lake Erie Islands has resulted in over-population of cormorants.  The once endangered species is damaging the ecosystems of uninhabited islands One proposal to increase green energy - and jobs - in the Lake Erie region is to install wind turbines both on land and in the lake.  The U.S. has just passed regulations for siting offshore wind farms.  Canada has halted new wind turbine installations following a new study about human health impacts - Karen Schaefer
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