Erica Muelmans taking a water sample

Water Water Everywhere

UW-Green Bay helps protect the largest freshwater estuary in the world

Green Bay and its surrounding communities sit on the largest freshwater estuary in the world, where water from the Fox River and the Bay of Green Bay mix.

“The estuary is important to all of Lake Michigan, both as an active port and as an engine for biological production,” says Patrick Robinson, Interim Director of Community, Natural Resource and Economic Development (CNRED).

Every member of the community depends on a constant supply of fresh water for drinking, and water dominates a local economy built on agriculture, paper and food processing industries, forestry, fishing, hunting and boating. Water is everywhere, but it is easy to forget just how intertwined water quality is to the region’s overall quality of life and the threats to our liquid lifeline. The Bay of Green Bay is threatened by invasive species, urban and agricultural nutrient run-off and wetland and shoreline loss.

UW-Green Bay scientists have long taken advantage of the University’s location on the Bay to study one of the region’s most valuable resources. During the University’s early years, scientists Jack Day, Jim Wiersma, Bud Harris, Paul Sager and Ron Stieglitz focused on understanding the impacts of pollutants and nutrients on water quality and ecosystem health that helped advise agencies as they began to tackle the national clean-up of the Fox River.

UW-Green Bay’s new cohort of award-winning faculty continue to be actively involved in all aspects of water quality, from soils and farms to helping industry and municipalities ensure that clean water keeps coming out of the tap. Current research focuses on water quality, wastewater management, habitat restoration and ecology.

Nine faculty and their staff and students are currently engaged in water-related research that now spans several disciplines. (Photo above, Environmental Science and Policy student Erica Meulemans studies the nutrient dynamics of the Lower Fox River using chemical sensors). There is a universal focus on funded research based on collaborative partnerships with local businesses, agencies, municipalities, non-profit organizations and other universities, which provide a rich resource of information about water quality.

Grants received between 2013 and 2016 amount to $3.1 million for water-related research
focusing on the region’s freshwater resources. Current partners with our faculty include 14 area farms, hundreds of businesses, non-profits and municipalities, NEW Water, The Oneida Tribe, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Sea Grant, The Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, Great Lakes Alliance, UW Extension and UW-Milwaukee, among them.

Collaborative data and information are shared with partners and are made publicly available to help agency and municipal personnel make informed economic decisions that can potentially save money, maintain water quality and conserve freshwater resources and habitat.

Nicole Van Helden, Director of Conservation-Green Bay Watershed at The Nature Conservancy, describes UW-Green Bay as an excellent partner. “UW-Green Bay provides the science we need to inform on-the-ground action. This helps us to make better decisions and provide cost effective solutions to improve water quality in our region.”

Faculty work extensively with their students, helping them to develop and practice skills. Over the last three years, hundreds of students have participated directly in water-related research as part of their coursework, independent studies, internships and senior and graduate thesis projects. Most are now pursuing advanced degrees or successful careers in water resources. Recent graduates now work with the DNR, The Nature Conservancy, USFWS, NEW Water, UW Extension, and with several local and regional businesses.

In addition, water research reaches students in area high schools. The Lower Fox River Water monitoring program, started 15 years ago by professors Bud Harris (Emeritus) and Kevin Fermanich, provides area science teachers with resources to lead teams of high school students who collect water quality data from streams that feed the lower part of the Fox River.

From long-term monitoring to modeling, water resources research by faculty in the College of Science and Technology with their students and collaborative partners allows business and community members to better understand their water resources and provide solutions and options for decision makers.

Current research focused on water quality, wastewater management, habitat restoration, and fisheries ecology:

Water Quality —

Ryan Holzem, an environmental engineer in UW-Green Bay’s Engineering Technology program, has as his primary research goal to improve  drinking and wastewater management. Holzem  has had several projects that team students with area businesses to solve unique wastewater issues. In one project, students under his direction worked with a food processing business to help find ways to economically reduce chlorides in waste water. This project benefits the community and sewage treatment facilities by alleviating  pressure on the water resource recovery and wastewater treatment facilities that would otherwise have to remove those chemicals. Other projects had students working with area farmers to apply manure to fields in a responsible way. Undergraduate Jake Pelegrin worked on an analysis to see whether it might be cost effective to harvest the invasive aquatic plant Phragmites to use in digesters to generate biogas.  This year, student Eric Short will work with wastewater treatment staff to facilitate  more efficient aeration  in treatment tanks.

Geologist John Luczaj has a number of ongoing projects that are examining the relationship between rock geology and chemistry related to groundwater availability and water quality. One project, which became part of graduate student Julie Maas’s thesis research, showed how deep aquifer water level recovered almost 200 feet since regional municipalities switched from using groundwater to lake water for their drinking supply.  His other  projects, in collaboration with UW-Green Bay chemist Mike McIntire and statistician Megan Olson Hunt, aim to better understand the geochemistry of rocks in relation to metals that become dissolved in groundwater supplies. Other projects involve students examining groundwater age and chemistry.

Soil Scientist Kevin Fermanich has spent the last 20 years studying soil health and nutrient runoff into streams and ultimately the Bay of Green Bay. His work on phosphorus, helping  to determine low oxygen  “dead zones” in the Bay of Green Bay with recent ES&P graduate Tracy Valenta and collaborators at NEW Water in Green Bay and  at UW-Milwaukee, gained national attention.

Restoration ecologist Matt Dornbush is working with Kevin Fermanich on projects related to monitoring  soil health, productivity and clean water on farms in the lower Fox Region that help farmers to improve their “edge of field” water quality. Other collaborations,with the Fox Wolf Watershed Alliance and the Nature Conservancy, are  looking at edge of field impacts and agricultural  treatment wetlands, which are similar to urban storm water ponds.

Dornbush and Fermanich are working with the Oneida tribe to quantify impacts on water quality in Silver Creek located on the reservation. This project uses Silver Creek as a test case for altering land use to improve water quality in an agricultural ecosystem. The project involves the cooperation of tribal farmers and agencies in comparing impacts of various agricultural practices from grazing to row crops, along with various restoration activities in the creek.

Environmental Chemist Mike Zorn studies chemical conditions in the Bay of Green Bay using a variety of sampling methods, especially new chemistry tools to better understand and make predictions about conditions. He is currently working on measuring nutrients using  chemical sensors deployed from Lake Winnebago into the bay to better understand the system and predict algal blooms, which will have significance for other projects like restoring Bay Beach in Green Bay. He is also working with collaborators from UW-Milwaukee and NEW Water to monitor oxygen concentrations in the bay.

Habitat and Ecological  Restoration —

Fisheries ecologist Patrick Forsythe works on projects designed to improve the health of fish populations, with the goal of improving reproduction and habitat quality that will benefit biodiversity and recreational and commercial fisheries in the Great Lakes. His recent research project is in collaboration with partners with USFWS, Ducks Unlimited, and the WI-DNR  to understand the reproduction ecology of Northern Pike and Lake Sturgeon. With collaborators at other institutions, he has recently received three new grants totaling more than $630,000, to extend the study to include several more fish species like Lake Whitefish. The results of this research will help regional fisheries managers with their efforts  to improve fish spawning in tributaries into Lake Michigan.

Several faculty, including Patrick Robinson, Patrick Forsythe, Matt Dornbush, Amy Wolf, and Bob Howe are working with a coalition of partners (Ducks Unlimited, USFWS, DNR, NRDA, Save Our Great Lakes Alliance, Green Bay Water Authority) to monitor restoration of the Cat Island chain of barrier islands in the southern part of the bay of Green Bay. The goal of the barrier islands is to improve water quality and wildlife habitat in the southern bay. Students and faculty have been monitoring shorebirds, fish, and water chemistry, and actively restoring vegetation between Duck Creek and the southern part of the islands. Major successes of the project include nesting by threatened Piping Plovers on the island and the return of wild rice to the mouth of Duck Creek. The team is currently transitioning to a new project focused on further restoration, with the help of a $1.2 million grant to continue habitat restoration, including continued vegetation restoration and improved waterfowl and fish habitat.

The Lower Green Bay and Fox River Area of Concern is just one of many sites in the Great Lakes that has been designated by the EPA as  areas where human activity has significantly impaired beneficial uses. Ecologists Amy Wolf and Bob Howe are leading a project that includes staff and students in developing the roadmap to guide local stakeholders in achieving  their goal of delisting the area. They are gathering and compiling data on current and historical conditions, identifying high biodiversity areas and developing statistical models that will help stakeholders to prioritize projects and to focus their management in the most cost effective way.

In order to restore habitat at UW-Green Bay’s Point au Sable coastal natural area, professors Robert Howe and Amy Wolf received funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to remove invasive plants, especially Phragmites. This natural area is an important migratory stop-over spot for birds and bats, as well as an important nesting site for game fish and birds. Students in Ecology and Conservation Biology courses helped with field work and monitoring for the restoration management plan. Wolf and Howe are continuing to pursue shoreline restoration at Point au Sable and in the UW-Green Bay Arboretum by pursuing funding to reduce erosion and storm water runoff into the bay, and to restore and improve beach habitat.

Bob Howe has participated in a Great Lakes Coastal Monitoring project with 14 other institutions, to monitor frog and bird populations in the western Great Lakes. The EPA has funded the project for the past 15 years and it has been renewed for another four  years. This research has provided eight graduate students and over 30 undergraduates with spring and summer research opportunities.

See a video on the importance of water and the collaborative efforts to keep it healthy.

Written by freelance writer Vicki Medland. Photo by University photographer Dan Moore.