May 01, 2018A drop of water in the Great Lakes system passes an incredibly diverse coastline on its journey eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. Starting at the northern red rock shores of the Keweenaw Peninsula, this water droplet – perhaps fallen from the sky to earth during a spring rainstorm – could be moved by currents south and east toward the stunning painted cliffs of Lake Superior's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Or it might begin its journey near Chicago, passing the towering Sleeping Bear sand dunes that crown Lake Michigan, moving north and then east through the Straits of Mackinac.
The lake flow would then likely bring the droplet around the more than 10,000 islands that stud the map of Lake Huron, before spilling into the fertile wetlands along Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. Along its long journey, this drop of water could travel under a fishing dock in a tiny "up-north" village or be tossed and tumbled by a kayak paddle along the busy waterfront of the Detroit River.
Whatever the course, the journey of water through the massive Great Lakes system is a tremendous trip.
Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas are surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie. These freshwater lakes are so vast they're nicknamed "the Sweetwater Seas," and they form the world's longest freshwater coastline. Combined, these four lakes cover nearly 90,000 square miles in water area.
From early logging and fishing industries to today's hottest tourist destinations and emerging technology sector, Michigan's Great Lakes coastline represents an economic engine for the state, carrying forward an incredible legacy reflecting a special Michigan way of life.
However, at some points in the not-too-distant past, waterfront industrial and development activities often had negative consequences, with coasts and waterways damaged by habitat loss and pollution. Beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s, growing calls to value water not just as a resource to be used and consumed – but as something we need to care for – prompted the establishment of modern environmental protection laws and an increasing stewardship ethic. Today, more people recognize Michigan's coast for the asset it is and see value in working to protect it, so generations to come will be able to enjoy it too.
That's where coastal management comes in. Driving this coastal stewardship work is the Michigan Coastal Management Program, which was established in 1978 through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Our nation's coastal zone is vital to the well-being of our country. It is home to roughly half of the nation's population and supports ecologically important habitats and natural resources," the NOAA website states. "The National Coastal Zone Management Program works with coastal states and territories to address some of today's most pressing coastal issues, including climate change, ocean planning, and planning for energy facilities and development.
"The program is a voluntary partnership between the federal government and U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states and territories authorized by the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 to address national coastal issues. The program is administered by NOAA."
In Michigan, the coastal management program is administered through the Office of the Great Lakes, which, since December, is housed within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Previously, the office was part of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The coastal management program has helped elevate the importance of Michigan's "freshwater coast" on a national level and drive the last four decades of work to protect, enhance and restore the state's 3,288 miles of Great Lakes coastline. The Office of the Great Lakes is calling attention to Michigan's incredible Great Lakes coastal resources and the work of our state's Coastal Management Program by naming 2018 the "Year of the Coast."According to NOAA, "coastal management" refers to the actions taken to keep the environmental, community and economic aspects of coastal life in balance.
Michigan's Coastal Management Program celebrates its 40-year anniversary this year, along with saltwater coast states including California, Hawaii, and Maine, and fellow freshwater state, Wisconsin. Michigan's program team members each focus on a specialty area of coastal stewardship, including habitat, public access, water quality, community development and hazard management.
"Michigan's coastal program protects our coast's unique places, including freshwater wetlands, dunes and beaches, home to rare and endangered species found nowhere else in the world," said Karen Boase, the program's coastal habitat coordinator. "Michigan's state wildflower, the dwarf lake iris, is only found in the Great Lakes region, but faces threats due to habitat degradation and shoreline development. Piping plovers, lake sturgeon and mudpuppies are other coastal species in need of habitat protection."
Public access to the Great Lakes is critical to the Michigan way of life. Weston Hillier, the program's public access coordinator, helps communities establish trail systems, add beach access, protect historic resources like lighthouses and shipwrecks, and elevate coastal tourism efforts.
"These projects enhance our ability to recreate outdoors and enjoy our coastal resources," Hillier said. "The goal is to partner with, and invest in, coastal communities to create and enhance coastal public access, so everyday activities such as swimming, kayaking, hunting and looking for Petoskey stones are more accessible and enjoyable."
Recent projects include boardwalks and stairways for people to safely access beaches and wetlands, restoration of a historic fishing tug in partnership with a maritime museum, and continued work on water trails to establish Michigan as "The Trails State," in the water as well as on the land. "Developing water trails includes planning projects, as well as development of coastal access sites, such as the installation of accessible kayak launches and navigation signs," Hillier said.
Public access connects people to coastal resources in meaningful ways – to learn and play. Keeping those resources healthy for people and wildlife is the mission of Madeleine Gorman, the program's coastal water quality specialist. She tackles coastal issues by engaging residents in water stewardship through partner programs like Adopt-a-Beach and Michigan Clean Marina.
"We also work with communities to implement green infrastructure techniques, like rain gardens and porous pavement that soak up storm water, mimicking nature's processes," Gorman said. "This work helps communities reduce runoff pollution and become resilient to the effects of flooding and changing water levels."
It's no secret that waterfronts can be an incredible community asset. Leveraging that asset sustainably supports a healthy environment and local economy. The coastal program supports community growth through smart planning.
Program community development coordinator Matt Smar helps support sustainable waterfront towns that are good places to live and visit. This takes a thorough understanding of the Great Lakes assets that make coastal communities special. The beauty of the Great Lakes and the title 'lakes' can lead people to underestimate them. The Great Lakes system is dynamic and needs to be respected.
"Storms, erosion, rip currents, and even meteotsunamis can occur on the Great Lakes," said Matt Warner, the program's coastal hazards coordinator.
Warner educates communities on coastal management techniques that can reduce risks from those hazards, saving lives, homes and infrastructure.
"Innovative ways to think about protecting coastal residents and assets emphasize techniques that work with coastal processes instead of trying to battle a lake's forces," Warner said. "For example, natural shorelines with hardy native vegetation can be more effective than an armored seawall. They also provide scenic and environmental benefits for the shoreline property owner."
Since its establishment, the Michigan Coastal Management Program has made strategic investments of millions of dollars in coastal communities and provided the technical assistance to get the work done. In this 40th year, the program plans to focus on community resiliency, coastal dunes and education. The team will promote water stewardship, continue work to establish and enhance Michigan's water trails, and work in boating communities to keep marinas clean. This work continues a decades-long legacy of service to our state's coastal communities and natural resources.
Learn more about the Great Lakes Coastal Management Program at www.michigan.gov/coastalmanagement. Follow the journey throughout "The Year of the Coast" online with #YearoftheCoast2018 for coastal facts, information, and projects. Subscribe to the e-mail list and follow on Twitter at @MichiganOGL.