Water woes - Part 2: Toxic consequences

Alex Doty • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:47 AM

As the big lake drops below 576.6 feet and nears a record low set in the 1960s, a concern arises among residents and ecology experts that there could be dire changes to the watery landscape.

Among other foul side effects, lower levels encourage invasive plant growth and create a potential of toxic buildup in lakes.

To read Part 1 of the "Water woes" series, click here.

Shallower lakes are known to provide a green-thumb effect for the growth of non-native species of plants.

"When you live around water, you have to worry about phragmites," Wetland Watch President Leslie Newman said. "It seems to get started in the wetlands."

Phragmites is a perennial grass that grows up to 15 feet tall. A particularly invasive variety of the grass is threatening the ecological health of area wetlands, and the recent water level drop is only making matters worse.

The tall, dense stands of grass degrade wetlands and coastal areas by crowding out native plants and animals, blocking shoreline views, reducing access to swimming, fishing and hunting. They also create fire hazards from dry plant material.

"The phragmites take hold in the low lake levels because, in the muck, it's easier for them to grow," Newman said. "Fluctuating lake levels tend to inhibit it, but repetitive years of low water encourages it."

Al Steinman, Annis Water Research Institute director, said with a fluctuating water level, more diverse plants are able to grow as one species is not able to dominate the area.

“It’s not that we want it all high or all low, we want it fluctuating all the time,” he said.

Ken Larson, who lives along Stearns Bayou, said he is concerned about invasive plant species taking over the shoreline.

“It’s going to travel all (over),” he said, pointing to areas along the bayou where new stands of phragmites are already forming. “That whole thing is going to get here eventually if you don’t keep up with it.”

Directly across from his home, stands of phragmites and invasive plants are encroaching on a plant-free beach.

In addition to phragmites, Larson has concerns about purple loosestrife causing problems.

“The loosestrife came in from the marsh, which is part of Stearns, and now it has come around the corner,” he said.

He said that like the phragmites, it’s important to stay vigilant against the plants’ potential explosion.

“We’ve kept it out,” he said. “If you don’t take it out, it’ll take over.”

To read more of this story, see today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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