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Issues of the Environment: Protecting Washtenaw County's waters in the season of campfires and wood-burning

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Lauren Koloski
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Lauren Koloski

Overview

  • Many of the lakes in the greater Washtenaw County region suffer from high phosphorus levels. High levels of excess nutrients in the water can promote the growth of aquatic plants and cause algae blooms. While fall is a season that typically sees a reduction in algal blooms, the Washtenaw County Water Resources Department says that fall activities like leaf burning and applying yard fertilizer can dramatically increase harmful nutrients in lakes in the spring and summer. 
  • It is especially important not to rake or blow fallen leaves into lakes, where they decompose and lead to lower dissolved oxygen levels that can farm aquatic life. Open burning of leaves, wood, and other yard waste near lakes should also be eliminated because the ash left behind contains phosphorus, heavy metals, and it creates wood-ash lye that is mildly caustic. In addition, open burns are illegal in Michigan in areas with a population over 7,500 due to air pollution.
  • Lauren Koloski, Environmental Supervisor for the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office, says that instead of burning leaves, they can be shredded and applied to gardens or lawns away from the lake edge. They can also be composted. The Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner's Office recommends establishing native vegetative shoreline buffers to catch runoff, and proper septic system upkeep, and the office offers a number of helpful resources including a rain garden program, native plant sales, and advice in transitioning your shoreline to a more natural buffer. 

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to a fall edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair, and we're entering the time of year when a lot of people start burning wood and leaves and fertilizing lawns. Unfortunately, these kinds of activities can increase harmful nutrients in our waterways, and that leads to other adverse environmental impacts. Our guest today will fill us in on some best practices, but also help us better understand the ramifications of our actions. Lauren Koloski is the environmental supervisor for the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner's office. And thank you for making time today. I appreciate it.

Lauren Koloski: I am happy to be here. Thank you.

David Fair: There are a lot of areas in the county that don't allow the burning of leaves and wood within their community boundaries, but there are also plenty that do. How significant an issue is that for the Huron River, its tributaries, and other waterways in the county?

Lauren Koloski: It's a big deal. Everybody lives in a watershed, so you have to be aware that everything that happens outside of your home eventually kind of makes its way into the watershed. So, additional nutrients outside your home is going to make its way eventually to a lake or river or stream.

David Fair: When I think of these kinds of burns, I guess I've always personally considered it more of an air pollution issue. But then, in thinking about it, what goes up into the air must come back down into the water. What are some of the pollutants created when we burn these materials?

Lauren Koloski: Well, we get a lot of phosphorus and nitrogen. That's kind of a byproduct of the burning that you may be doing in your fire pit. And so, those are the ones that are the most impactful for a watershed.

David Fair: Now, I know there are a lot of municipalities like Ann Arbor that conduct controlled burns in wooded areas of the community. They're described as ecological burns that are aimed at enriching the soil and removing dead thatch, layers of living and dead stems, leaves, and roots. That's all considered an environmental benefit. So, in your mind, how do we weigh the balance of environmental enrichment against environmental harm?

Lauren Koloski: You have to look at the benefits of what you're doing if the aftermath of what you're doing could be detrimental to the water body.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment and our conversation with Lauren Koloski from the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner's Office continues on 89 one WEMU. She is environmental supervisor there. Another serious water issue, which we've sort of alluded to, is fertilizers. Both agricultural and lawn fertilizers get washed into the storm drains. They make it into the water system. And again, phosphorus is the central issue in those materials. It can create algal blooms, which then can sometimes become toxic. Locally, it's been a recurring issue in Ford Lake, and, every summer, we see an expanse of algal bloom in Lake Erie. Help me better understand how significant the problem is in Washtenaw County.

Lauren Koloski: Well, this last summer, we had a couple of incidences over on the chain of lakes that's over from Zukey to Little Portage. We have a special assessment district over there, so we monitor them as well. Nothing confirmed, but some suspected ones. Over the last couple of years, we've had some confirmed harmful algal blooms over there on that chain of lakes as well, too.

David Fair: And, again, some of these blooms can produce toxins that are a threat not only to people and the waterway, but to all the critters that depend on it. So, through the efforts of your office, the Huron River Watershed Council, and other groups and concerned agencies, has there been tangible evidence of the damage done beyond the blooms themselves?

Lauren Koloski: Not that I'm aware of, but the state of Michigan continue to work on it and grow the knowledge and database of information. So, they are a wonderful sort of resources in wanting to know more about the widespread impact of them throughout the state.

David Fair: You know, a lot of times when we're taking care of our lawns or we are having a campfire out by the lake or the river, we don't think so much about what we are leaving behind and its potential damages. So, do you have to take different approaches to creating awareness and providing education when addressing agricultural, municipal, and residential runoff?

Lauren Koloski: Yep, each one is different. So, no two houses over say no to parts or lots of the same, as we do have to address everything holistically and different.

David Fair: This is WEMU once again talking water protections with Lauren Koloski on Issues of the Environment. As we look to reduce impacts of individual land, ecological burns, and the phosphorus runoff issues created by fertilizers and associated products, do we have to start looking more at local ordinance and state and federal law to drive us closer towards a solution?

Lauren Koloski: That could be one option. We've seen a lot of educational pushes come out through local conservation districts that we're also seeing as well, too, in watershed groups.

David Fair: Obviously, some of that would be considered reactive solution to ongoing problems. When it comes to damaging runoff, what is being done, if anything, to better manage and regulate the actual manufacture of these products that are being put to market as agricultural and residential fertilizers?

Lauren Koloski: I am not aware of any movements that are happening on that big of a level--a little bit more information about the kind of what the residents are doing instead of the businesses and agricultural.

David Fair: And that leads us to this. What is your best advice for the good people of Washtenaw County for limiting our impact on our water resources? And what actions should we be taking and considering?

Lauren Koloski: The things that you can do to help your watershed and protect your lake is just kind of observe your property. What happens on your property? Do you fertilize? Do you pick up after your pets? Do you wash your car in your driveway or take it to the car wash, which is a much more environmentally friendly option? Anything that is on your property that has the potential to end up in our local waterways.

David Fair: So, as you look to the year and years ahead, what is the Water Resources Commissioner's Office going to continue to do and expand upon to better protect our waterways from these issues?

Lauren Koloski: In my division, we're working on getting the shorelines, working with the local residents who our riparian owners who have that beautiful view when they look at it in the morning. It's just add a little bit of a shoreline buffer to their yards, to help us kind of absorb some of those nutrients before they get into the local water.

David Fair: And what would be considered a good shoreline buffer?

Lauren Koloski: Hmm. I am not the expert on the shoreline buffer, but I do have a team of people who would give you way more details. But my overall is a area full of native pollinating plants that are both wonderful for the watershed and the local pollinators and other animals that utilize the habitat.

David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you so much for the time today and sharing the information, Lauren.

Lauren Koloski: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about it.

David Fair: That is Lauren Koloski. She serves as environmental supervisor for the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner's office. And for more on today's Issues of the Environment topic and conversation, just visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

Resources

Phosphorous in ash from woody fires the harm in burning other materials or additives: 

Perspective for riparian owners who want to protect the environment:

What homeowners can do:

Pros and cons of the small-scale controlled burns:

Lawn care and native planting practices vs riparian focus: 

More specific tips for riparian owners, from MSU Extension:

HABs (harmful algae blooms):  

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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