Take 5: Great Lakes Water Levels with Adam Bechle

Sea Grant’s Adam Bechle, a coastal engineer, is a go-to resource for resiliency issues along Wisconsin’s Great Lakes coastlines. He tackles a timely topic with his five things to know about Great Lakes water levels. The volume of water in the Great Lakes basin is always fluctuating, and, for now, water levels are high.

Which lakes have broken water-level records?

In the spring, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasted that Lake Superior and Lake Erie might surpass their all-time record high levels during the summer months. Amazingly, Lake Ontario had risen 2 feet from April to May. Records fell for all three lakes. Lakes Michigan and Huron — measured as a single lake because they are connected at the Straits of Mackinac — did not exceed the record water levels of their last high point of 582 feet in 1986, but were high and did break/tie per-month records for June.

Why are lake levels rising?

Water supply is measured as the net basin supply, which consists of precipitation onto the lakes and runoff into the lakes minus evaporation. In general, when net basin supply is positive, more water enters the lake than leaves, yielding a rise in lake levels. A five-year history of the measured net basin supply indicates a consistently positive net basin supply that has driven high lake levels. A wet spring certainly contributed. For example, precipitation in the Lake Michigan basin was above average by 30%. Likewise, nearly the entire Great Lakes watershed received above average precipitation during the 2018-19 winter.

How do high lake levels affect the coast?

High water levels allow erosive waves to reach higher elevations on the shore where they batter shoreline infrastructure and eat away at the base of bluffs and dunes. High water levels can also make coastal flooding in low-lying coastal areas more likely. In ports and harbors, high water can cause operational and safety issues if a large elevation difference exists between vessel and dockage.

Where are water levels headed?

A slight decrease in water levels is expected throughout the fall and winter as precipitation and runoff into the lakes typically decrease and evaporation from the lakes increases. In an average year, water levels vary seasonally by about one foot from a peak in summer to a low in winter, though every year is different. Water levels would be expected to begin a seasonal rise again next spring when runoff and precipitation increase.

Six-month water level forecasts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project Lake Michigan to remain above the long-term average levels in the near future (see the most current forecast here). These six-month forecasts are compiled considering estimates for future precipitation and runoff into the lake, evaporation from the lake and outflows from the lake.

Where can I go for more information?

go.wisc.edu/c63mow from the University of Michigan provides background on what makes the lakes go up and down.

The U.S. Army Corps’ Great Lakes Information go.wisc.edu/b295k6 page has a tremendous amount of detail on water levels.

go.wisc.edu/qs99kb has links to many resources on dealing with issues related to water level fluctuations. It’s a page maintained by the project team working on a NOAA Coastal Resilience grant, which includes Sea Grant.

Sea Grant announces new coastal engineer

With Great Lakes water levels at record highs, it’s a challenging time to be a coastal engineer, much less to start a coastal engineering job. But Adam Bechle is hitting the ground running (or swimming) in his new position as Wisconsin Sea Grant’s coastal engineering outreach specialist, in which he’ll be dealing with erosion and flooding issues on the state’s Great Lakes shores. He replaces Gene Clark, who retired this summer.

“Gene and I spoke last week and I teased that he picked a time to retire just when things were getting rough,” Bechle said. “I’m excited to continue some of the projects he was working on and to add new ones into the mix.”

Bechle, who began his new job on June 1, spent his academic career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, progressing from a bachelor’s degree, to his master’s and ultimately, a Ph.D. His specialties include digital imaging techniques for measuring coastal process, and the occurrence and behavior of meteotsunamis (single wave fronts generated by squalls) on the Great Lakes.

He has worked for Sea Grant and the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program before, as the first J. Philip Keillor Science Policy Fellow in 2016, where he used his technical skills on water issues and received science-policy experiences from resource professionals who served as mentors.

In his new job, Bechle is mentoring the latest Keillor Fellow as well as working on a coastal resilience grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help communities on Lake Michigan plan for coastal hazards. In addition, he’s packaging a ports and harbor marina asset matrix and dredging cost estimator tool that Clark began so that it can be shared.

“I’m also working with a team on a property owner’s guide to protecting your bluff, which looks at different parts of a bluff and identifies issues and opportunities to increase bluff stability,” Bechle said. “Also, many property owners and municipalities contact Sea Grant with issues related to coastal engineering. Although I don’t have time to work in detail with everyone individually, I’m trying to point them in the right direction and give them resources to look at and things to consider. So far, that’s been keeping me busy – there’s been a pretty steady stream of people looking for assistance with flooding and erosion.”

He is looking forward to picking up on his previous work with meteotsunamis and rip currents.

With Bechle’s hire, the coastal engineering position moves from the Lake Superior Field Office in Superior to Madison. The Superior Office recently hired an outreach specialist (more information on that is forthcoming) who Bechle anticipates will plug into coastal concerns in Superior and pass that information on to him when needed.

Bechle feels like he’s come full circle now. He first met Clark in 2007 when Clark spoke in one of his classes. “I didn’t know what coastal engineering was or what Sea Grant was back then,” Bechle said. “But I remember thinking that Gene really had an interesting job. He knew so much. I never thought I would have his job someday.”

Bechle can be contacted at bechle@aqua.wisc.edu or (608) 263-5133.

Great Lakes, Great Fish

On June 5, more than 1,000 people attended the annual fish fry organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington, D.C., an event that promotes public understanding of aquaculture and commercial fisheries. Ticket buyers sampled a wide variety of delicious fish and seafood, including some from Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Sea Grant Director Jim Hurley and Fisheries Specialist Titus Seilheimer, with help from Steve Summerfelt, chief science officer at Superior Fresh, donned “Eat Wisconsin Fish” aprons to serve hungry attendees. They dished up sustainably farmed Atlantic salmon from Superior Fresh in Hixton and wild-caught Lake Michigan whitefish from Susie Q Fish Co. in Two Rivers. It was a terrific chance to highlight Wisconsin producers who bring healthy food to America’s dinner tables!

For more information about the event, visit https://go.wisc.edu/p89z6j.

Aquatic Invaders? There’s a Plan for That

Some experts theorize the Great Lakes have been continuously subjected to widespread invasions by nonnative species since the 1800s—zebra mussels, the spiny waterflea, the viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus, alewives, to name a few.

Clearly, the arrival of these invaders – invaders that can cause massive disruption, spoiling recreational activities, reducing property values, clogging water intake pipes and, overall, running up costs in an effort to control them -- is not a new development. What has changed through the years are the ways in which they can be prevented from arriving in the first place, and if they do arrive, how to manage them.

That’s where Wisconsin Sea Grant’s AIS Specialist Tim Campbell (who also has a partial appointment with the University of Wisconsin-Extension) has stepped in. He spearheaded the first update to Wisconsin’s aquatic invasive species (AIS) management plan in 16 years, finalizing it this past summer. go.wisc.edu/lru3g6

“Since the original version of the plan was approved, we have new species that we are concerned with, new pathways of invasion in Wisconsin and new tools to help us manage the undesirable impacts of AIS,” Campbell said. “The new plan incorporates these approaches and concerns into our management plan so that we will be using the most effective methods possible to manage AIS.”

The state of Wisconsin invests more than $4 million annually in AIS prevention and management, with some critical funds coming from federal sources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Invasives introduce uncertainty into lakes, rivers, streams and the Great Lakes, creating a cascade of effects. If society can prevent new invasions and existing management dollars are invested wisely, the economy is boosted and everyone’s experience with Wisconsin’s rich natural resources is improved.

Teacher Development Program Adds Focus on Inclusivity

When teachers have access to professional development that inspires them, they find new ways to make science come alive for their students. Through networking with peers, field experiences and more, teachers gain insights and new techniques to bring home to their classrooms.

In northeastern Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum continues to offer an innovative teacher professional development program supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) B-WET grant program, which stands for Bay Watershed Education and Training.

B-WET encourages experiential learning for K-12 students, with the goal of increasing understanding and stewardship of local watersheds and ecosystems. NOAA is also the administrative home of the national Sea Grant program, which includes Wisconsin Sea Grant and 32 other state-level programs.

Through the efforts of Fisheries Specialist Titus Seilheimer, Wisconsin Sea Grant continues to share its expertise with the B-WET program run by the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. Seilheimer first became involved about three years ago.

He provides content expertise and helps run field experiences for the teachers. “Since I work in aquatic ecology, and I work with fish, my role has been to provide that ecological and scientific context to the overall program,” said Seilheimer.

This has also helped Seilheimer build relationships with area teachers, who often invite him back to their classrooms. In April, he was involved in a beach cleanup along Lake Michigan in Two Rivers. The teacher in charge was involved in the B-WET program, and her sixth-graders had identified marine debris and beach litter as an issue they wanted to work on.

A beach cleanup can be a great opportunity to teach watershed concepts, said Seilheimer, such as how stormwater outflow can transfer debris like cigarette butts from the streets to the beach.

A new focus on accessibility and inclusion

This year, the Maritime Museum’s B-WET teacher program is continuing, adding a new focus on students with disabilities (physical, emotional or cognitive). In addition to experiences during which the teachers work mostly with each other and content experts, teachers and their students will go on inclusive field trips.

Twenty teachers from the previous B-WET grant in 2016 will transition into the role of mentor teachers, working with newly recruited teachers.

Given the focus on accessibility and inclusion in this year’s program, the new teachers will either be in special education or teaching in classrooms that have a diverse array of student abilities.

Said Abigail Diaz, director of education and public programs at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and the B-WET principal investigator, the inclusion of students with disabilities fills a little-addressed gap in the world of environmental education.

“This is the first B-WET grant that focuses on accessibility, and I’m really glad that NOAA is prioritizing accessibility. Sometimes people with disabilities get overlooked in environmental issues because the environment seems like it’s inaccessible to them. I’m thrilled we’ve been given this funding so we can help empower young people, because they have a voice—no matter their ability level—to be stewards of our environment,” Diaz said.

Diaz hopes that this accessibility effort can be replicated in other places. “It’s not difficult to create accessible and inclusive programs, but it can be daunting to start. I understand that. Yet I hope we can spread the good word—it just pays you back tenfold,” said Diaz.

Teachers who are interested in getting involved should contact Diaz at the museum. New teachers will be recruited until July.

Diaz is looking forward to another productive year for the B-WET program, as well as joining forces with Seilheimer again. “Other than being just the coolest guy, he knows everything,” she laughed. “He’s so great with both kids and adults, and his passion for Great Lakes ecology and fish is just infectious. This project wouldn’t be possible without having somebody like Titus involved.”

Other partners include Woodland Dunes Nature Center, Michigan Sea Grant, the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership, and the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago.

Listen to the People of the Sturgeon

Perhaps you’ve read the book. Now you can listen to the people who made the book, “People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish,” possible. Throughout the process of writing this book about the culture surrounding sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago, the authors interviewed 69 community activists, sturgeon spearing enthusiasts, spear and decoy craftsmen and scientific researchers.

The importance of the cultural, social, economic and scientific knowledge captured in these interviews spurred the effort to preserve the audio files as a collection of oral histories. The recordings are available for free listening through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries’ Collections (http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WI.SturgeonPrj). They encapsulate perspectives on lake sturgeon as they are reflected in the book.

Short on time? You can listen to abbreviated sound clips from the book on Wisconsin Sea Grant’s podcast page: https://www.seagrant.wisc.edu/audio/people-of-the-sturgeon/.

The oral histories also contributed to two other “People of the Sturgeon” projects: an online story map and an art exhibit. The story map allows users to access a condensed version of the book text online, accompanied by images, oral history audio and interactive maps depicting sturgeon population data (http://bit.ly/2Or7niV).

The art exhibit, a collaboration with the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts, tapped into the power of place-based education by bringing “People of the Sturgeon” to the heart of the sturgeon spearing community in Fond du Lac, Wis. The exhibit included fine art prints, decoys, spears, worldwide memorabilia, audio from the oral histories and a record-sized taxidermied sturgeon. More than 8,000 visitors enjoyed the exhibit while it was open in the winter of 2019, and photos of the exhibit are available online for future enjoyment (http://bit.ly/2HUCemQ).

“People of the Sturgeon” was written by Wisconsin Sea Grant staff, Kathleen Kline and Fred Binkowski with help from Ronald Bruch. It was published in 2009 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press and has captured a dozen state, regional and national prizes. The audio is courtesy of the Oshkosh Public Museum.

The Aquatic Sciences Center is the administrative home of the
University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute & University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute.

©2011 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents