Hope on the wings: The mayflies of Green Bay

Milwaukee Magazine - - INSIDER -

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.”


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.”


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.

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