Friday, January 25, 2019

West Marsh Water Conveyance: Project Update #14 (Pump in Place!)

Prior to our recent efforts on the West Marsh, "free flow" out of the marsh has typically been limited to periodic and
very calculated events that are usually confined to a 24-72 hour time window -- when west winds lower Sandusky Bay
below the elevation of the adjacent marsh; all water (in or out) has been confined to this single 24" pipe

The new pump, being lowered into position
Earlier this week, I read excerpts from The Marshes of Southwestern Lake Erie by Louis Cambell, a 20th century naturalist and highly acclaimed outdoor writer from Toledo. While I've read the text cover to cover several times over the years, I still find myself picking the book up every six months or so.

During this last read, I randomly flipped to a page where I had written the following in the margin of one of the dog-eared pages, probably sometime around the year 2000: Wetlands managed behind earthen levees (diked marshes) can be perceived as starved of the life sustained by Lake Erie but are at the same time provided vital protection from the wrath of high winds and changing water levels.

This note is very apropos to our current management energy and our philosophy more broadly. In a perfect world (and in the natural world before European settlement), marshes of the Western Basin of Lake Erie wouldn't need earthen dikes to "contain" them. Marshes would ebb and flow with changing water levels in the lake -- over a season and over multiple years. Sand bars and silt deposits would move with currents to help hold back water, encouraging wetland habitat development inland. And if a storm blew out the temporary protection, new marshes would form wherever water levels found a new equilibrium.

The challenges arise when the human footprint is delineated and expands. We determine this railroad is going to go here, and that highway needs to run there; our family is going to farm these fields; this town is going to establish itself here (and grow over time). Boundaries are set, property lines are drawn. And Lake Erie no longer determines where the marshes should be (or where they shouldn't).

Pump placement into the new structure; note addition of new guardrails over channel/dike crossing (temporarily covered
in plywood) and a new utility pole 

As these lines were drawn throughout northern Ohio, the space left for marshes dwindled. As early as the early 20th century, dikes were being erected -- sometimes by mule, cart, and hand shovel, and best-case by coal-driven dragline -- to preserve some level of consistency to wetland environments. Just as settlement was working to drain much of northern Ohio, a subset of our ancestry established itself as early conservationists. Some were motivated by a heritage of trapping or hunting (particularly duck hunting). Others -- those who derived a livelihood from fishing -- saw the link between marshes and a bountiful catch. But no mater the reason, lines were being drawn and earth was being altered to encourage a desired response from nature.

The pump, after more than a year of planning
and construction, finally set
Our management efforts are really just a continuation of that momentum. An expanse of wetlands and associated coastal habitats once expanded over a region of northern Ohio larger than the Everglades. More than 90% of that habitat is now gone -- having succumb to a huge array of (often noble) land use changes. But we now have a much better understanding and appreciation for the tremendous role these environments play in natural processes. They are a lifeline to clean water and a critical center to biodiversity, just to name a couple of those I hold nearest and dearest to my heart. Wetlands aren't just cattails and croaking frogs; they truly are something to stand for.

The first test run of the new pump; when water levels do not allow for passive (gravity-induced) "free flow" (see top image and video below), we sometimes have to resort to pumping water to maintain the water levels within the marsh that support the rest of the targeted ecosystem (remember: water levels dictate vegetation and vegetation dictates about everything else)

While we perceive dikes as the only means to the desired ends, considering all the land use changes that have occurred as the human population has increased, there is no question that direct connections to the lake and bay are highly desirable -- especially if there is capability to let the ecologically "good" in and keep the "bad" out . . . to the fullest extent possible. That's really what this entire Water Conveyance Project I've been droning on about is all about. It's hands-on, it may not look "natural," but it allows us to work with nature to some pretty profound ends. I feel blessed to be a part of it all.

The bayside half of the new channel, now surrounded by a safety fence

Pretty thrilling to finally see crystal clear marsh water freely flowing into Sandusky Bay from our newly constructed channel; there should be lots and lots of fish interested in seeing it, too!