For centuries, the bay of Green Bay has been vital to how northeast Wisconsin lives, works and plays. It’s had its share of challenges, but it also has cultivated a group of strong supporters willing to put in work to preserve it.
Those supporters have begun to wonder: What’s next for the bay?
To help preserve the bay for future generations, they’re pushing to designate it as a research reserve that would use National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding to study the area and educate the public about how to protect and celebrate the unique resource.
The bay is bouncing back after generations of abuse caused degraded water quality, fish and wildlife habitat.
Among the signs of progress: A decades-long, billion-dollar cleanup effort removed more than 3 million tons of toxic sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the Fox River. The city of Green Bay is working to reopen a swimming beach at Bay Beach Amusement Park that was forced to close in the 1930s due to industrial pollution. And in Door County, conservation groups are banding together to restore a lake long plagued by phosphorus runoff that fuels algae blooms.
Still, there’s much more work to be done. Environmental Protection Agency officials still classify the lower bay and the Fox River as an “area of concern,” noting degradation of fish, plant and wildlife populations, algae blooms, reproductive problems in fish and birds and other environmental issues.
There are still fish consumption advisories in place, though they’ve been relaxed.
State lawmakers are racing to regulate perfluorinated chemicals, so-called “forever chemicals,” that have been flowing from Marinette into the bay and have been linked to low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system and cancer.
And an accumulation of phosphorus pouring in from surrounding farmland is producing algae blooms that, when they die, choke off oxygen — creating a massive “dead zone” ebbing and flowing around the bay.
Supporters hope a reserve will bring a national spotlight to the bay to spur further research and look for new solutions to those problems. If successful, it will build on the existing work of conservation groups to promote water education, collect research for a national database and put what’s learned from that research into the hands of local policymakers.
It will also serve as a meeting place, both figurative and literal, for the many Wisconsinites who care about the bay and want to plan for its future.
“There’s intense interest and excitement about this effort,” said Emily Tyner, who directs freshwater strategy at UW-Green Bay and is the state lead on the reserve project. “It seems like it’s something that’s been wanted for a long time.”
Reserve would bring national resources and attention to the bay
The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay will lead the charge to add the bay to a nationwide network of research reserves that study estuarine systems, which encompass the lands and waters where a river meets a maritime environment like a lake or sea. The bay of Green Bay is the world’s largest freshwater estuary.
The first reserve was established in Oregon in 1974. There are two other Great Lakes reserves — one in Wisconsin, on Lake Superior, which was designated in 2010, and one in Ohio near Lake Erie, designated in 1980.
The bay site would be the first to represent the Lake Michigan region, an area that NOAA has zoomed in on in recent years because it didn’t already have a reserve, Tyner said.
The designation process could take years to complete, but if things go to plan, the reserve could be established by the end of 2024.
Most other reserves are scattered along the U.S. coasts, but their water futures aren’t so different from our own, Tyner said. Like Great Lakes communities, those on the coasts are dealing with changing water levels, algal blooms, coastal erosion and the growing effects of climate change. Being part of the reserve system will ensure we don’t have to deal with these challenges on our own, she said.
Each reserve has a few core responsibilities. Education, which Tyner envisions could take place through hands-on classes and exhibits for K-12 students and older adults; research, in which each reserve collects data for NOAA as well as working on its own projects; and stewardship and training, which would ensure the work being done on the reserve gets into the hands of policymakers.
The bay’s bid to become a reserve began in 2019 with a letter from Gov. Tony Evers establishing the state’s intent to host it. Wisconsin sits on a large chunk of the nation’s freshwater supply that will “increasingly become the envy of regions not so blessed,” he wrote. Once the reserve is established, state funding will need to cover 30% of its cost, while NOAA picks up the remaining 70%.
Now, several groups are working to determine the exact location of the reserve, which will include both built infrastructure, like a visitor center and dorms to house researchers, as well as publicly owned land and water areas in which to conduct that research.
The bay spans more than 1,600 square miles stretching from the city of Green Bay up through the Door County Peninsula on the east and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the west. Brown County leaders held a news conference at the end of March to announce their efforts to position the reserve in their county.
A local committee will decide what they should look for in a reserve site. NOAA has some general guidance, like whether the site represents the area as a whole, and whether it would be suitable for research and education purposes.
Then, possible locations will be sent to a second committee which will evaluate those locations and make a final recommendation, said Nicole Van Helden, who directs conservation efforts for the Nature Conservancy in the Green Bay watershed and will co-chair that second committee.
The site should be selected by the end of next year, Tyner said.
In the meantime, there’ll be chances for the public to weigh in, beginning with two virtual kickoff meetings held last week.
Creating ‘a convening point’
Since the Lake Superior reserve was established about a decade ago at the lake’s St. Louis River estuary, its staff have leveraged national resources to begin to tackle several problems along the coast of the nation’s largest Great Lake.
The lake began to see its own toxic algae a few years ago, and a reserve staffer is participating in a national program to improve monitoring for the harmful blooms. They also spearheaded a campaign alongside Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services to warn beachgoers about the danger.
Reserve staff are also partnering with a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior to sample the lake for microplastics, and they are planting new trees in wetland areas after older ones have died off due to an invasion of the emerald ash borer.
Great Lakes estuaries are just as important as those that reside near oceans, said Lake Superior reserve director Deanna Erickson, “but they’re not as well understood and maybe not even noticed in the same way.”
The reserve program is helping to build a better understanding of the systems that drive the massive lakes, she said, and the combination of education, research and stewardship has allowed their reserve to become a “convening point” for progress in a way that not many other agencies or entities can pull off.
Brian Glenzinski, Wisconsin’s regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, said much of his organization’s focus on the Green Bay project will be to spread the word among the sporting community about how helpful the reserve would be. A better habitat includes more resources for waterfowl, he said; then more birds come, which in turn supports the hunters.
His organization already works with the university to evaluate Ducks Unlimited’s conservation projects in northeast Wisconsin, Glenzinski said, but being part of the reserve system would boost their restoration efforts by getting in touch with how other coastal communities are handling similar problems.
Like Ducks Unlimited, NEW Water (Green Bay’s metropolitan sewerage utility) has long been invested in the health of the bay. The monitoring of the bay and the Fox River, which began 35 years ago, is likely the oldest data set of its kind, said executive director Tom Sigmund.
There’s still much more to be learned about the complex and dynamic estuary, though, which is where the reserve will come in handy.
“It’s an opportunity that hasn’t come knocking before,” Sigmund said. “I know this community is going to make sure that we are successful with this.