A DELICATE BELLWETHER
Hope on the wings: The mayflies of Green Bay
The Neeskay cuts through the dark, rolling waves of Green Bay on a sultry summer night. Inside the cabin, UW-Milwaukee researchers are hard at work analyzing samples collected over the past 12 hours on the water. UW-Milwaukee biologist Jerry Kaster takes a break on deck, and exclaims happily at finding a mayfly among the insects plastered around the porthole, attracted by the light.
Mayflies are among the small but significant species that play an important role in the food web and serve as an indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem such as the Great Lakes.
Kaster has spent much of his life focused on mayflies, most recently attempting to restore the once-thriving population of the species Hexagenia limbata
in Green Bay.
Fleeting and fascinating, mayflies hatch in lake sediment as tiny lobster-like nymphs, then spend up to two years foraging on the bottom. They somehow know when to emerge from a water body roughly all at the same time, and begin an above-water life that lasts only a few days. They rise to the surface and transform into winged subimagos, which fly to dry land where they transform again, into shiny adults. Within a day, they mate, lay their eggs on the water surface and die. The adults don’t even have a mouth to eat.
When a lake hosts a healthy mayfly population, their emergence is a sight to behold. Massive clouds of them fill the air – they even show up on weather radar – and blanket surfaces like cars, roads and bridges, sometimes piling up so thick that snowplows have been used to remove them. These events have the feel of a biblical plague, but for Kaster, they are a feast that helps animals up the food chain, including birds, frogs and fish like walleye.
By 1955, the mayfly population in Green Bay had largely disappeared, Kaster explains, a victim of PCB and other contamination dumped into the Fox River by paper mills, and severe oxygen depletion linked to fertilizer runoff.
Since 2014, Kaster has seeded more than 730 million mayfly eggs in the sediment under the bay. He’s seen small populations take hold since then.
Threatening the mayfly and most aquatic life is eutrophication, an excess of nutrients that causes oxygen depletion in water. It happens when algae blooms fed by nutrient-rich runoff drop to the bottom and decompose, sucking up oxygen.
Collecting sediment and water samples to measure oxygen levels was among the tasks of the Neeskay, the research vessel for
UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences, on this August cruise. Despite reductions in phosphorus releases from wastewater plants and initiatives to help farmers reduce their fertilizer runoff, the problem of eutrophication in Green Bay has improved little. School dean and marine sciences professor J. Val Klump noted that some of the samples were showing high rates of oxygen depletion.
Kaster knows it will take many years for mayflies to re-establish themselves in Green Bay, if they ever do. The mayfly he found on the
Neeskay that night was not one he’s seeded; he was curious where it came from, especially since they are weak fliers and it had been windy.
“Mayflies in the Great Lakes are like the gold standard,” Kaster says. “If you have a healthy population of
Hexagenia, you’re moving in the right direction.”
Diversion requests by straddling communities can be approved by the home state, with no veto power for other states in the compact. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ April approval of the request hinged on the plan meeting the compact requirement that the water be primarily for “public water supply,” meaning the area served includes “largely residential” and also commercial and industrial customers, as the compact says.
The swath of Mount Pleasant outside the basin contains few residential homes, and most of the water in the diversion request was specifically earmarked for Foxconn at the time the request was granted, so the legal challenge argues that it doesn’t meet the public water supply requirement laid out in the compact.
Racine officials backing the project counter that there are plans for more residential development in the diversion area, which Foxconn will make possible. “This area had long been evaluated for development, given its proximity to I-94, but successful development requires access to public water and sanitary sewer service,” says Jenny Trick, executive director of the Racine County Economic Development Corp. Foxconn’s investment in the area will cover the costs of a regional water study, engineering planning and new infrastructure that wouldn’t have been possible with lower-density residential and commercial development alone.
But the petitioners contend that an out-of-basin transfer of Great Lakes water to serve a private purpose such as Foxconn violates the compact’s requirement that “all the water so transferred” be used solely for public water supply purposes. Sinykin says Wisconsin’s interpretation – allowing any in-basin community with a municipal water system to divert Great Lakes water to private users – is not one that was ever considered or intended by the framers of the compact.
A significant part of the Foxconn property actually lies within Lake Michigan’s watershed, but site plans suggest the water-intensive operations are planned for outside the basin. (Foxconn did not respond to questions about the location of operations within its site.)
Sinykin and other advocates wonder why, if they understood the Great Lakes Compact and took it seriously, local, state and Foxconn officials would not ensure that the factory was built on the portion of Foxconn’s land that is within the basin, avoiding the whole issue of a diversion. Opponents surmise that siting the factory outside the basin shows a cavalier attitude toward the compact, during a process in which elected officials went to great lengths to lure the company.
Along with a $3 billion incentive package, the state waived usual permitting requirements, including an environmental study and public hearings that Sinykin believes would have provided more opportunity to discuss the Great Lakes Compact and encourage Foxconn to find ways to comply with it.
“Foxconn considered a number of sites both in and out of Wisconsin before deciding to locate the Wisconn Valley Science and Technology Park in Mount Pleasant, and we were aware early in the process of the need to comply with the compact,” the company said in a statement in response to questions. “Environmental sustainability is a priority for Foxconn, and that includes compliance with all appropriate laws, rules and regulations relating to water use, water quality and wastewater treatment that apply to our operations.”
AFTER DRIVING AROUND
the Foxconn site, Sinykin and Nenn continue to Racine’s popular North Beach. Surfers ride the breakers and kids play in the powdery sand. Nenn, a competitive sailor, describes one of her recent races while looking out to the watery horizon.
“I never tire of it,” Sinykin, a Milwaukee native, says about the lake that she has gazed at nearly every day of her life.
She describes the Great Lakes Compact as a crowning achievement, one that people need to stay vigilant to protect. “Water moves even easier than oil, and you see how oil is transported around the country,” she says. “Without a strong Great Lakes Compact, water diversions are a very real threat.”
She and Nenn were young kids in 1972 when the Clean Water Act was created. “For our generation, [the compact] is the most significant piece of environmental legislation passed in our [adult] lifetime,” she says.
“People might look at us and say we’re being really nitpicky” about enforcing the compact, adds Nenn. “But we’re dedicated to making sure the spirit and the intention are followed. If we chip around the edges of it, then it won’t stand. In the future, water is going to be rare not only in parts of our country but throughout the world. We need to make sure we protect our resource and don’t whittle it away.”
KARI LYDERSEN IS A CHICAGOBASED JOURNALIST WHO HAS WRITTEN EXTENSIVELY ABOUT THE GREAT LAKES FOR PUBLICATIONS INCLUDING THE WASHINGTON POST AND CHICAGO MAGAZINE.
Top: J. Val Klump aboard the research vesselNeeskay on Green Bay in August. Below: Klump, right, and Jerry Kaster take a sample of the bay’s sediment.
North Beach in Racine.