Restoring the Shiawassee Flats: Estuarine Gateway to Saginaw Bay

Client Organization: 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge
Project Location : 
Saginaw Bay watershed, MI
Secondary Client Organization: 
U.S. Geological Survey, Great Lakes Science Center
Summary of Project Idea: 

The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR) sits near the confluence of the Shiawassee, Flint, Cass, and Tittabawassee Rivers.  These rivers join to form the Saginaw River, which drains into Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron.  Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay are listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an Area of Concern with multiple beneficial use impairments.  The Saginaw River watershed is the largest watershed in Michigan.  The 9,620-acre Refuge is located near the geographical center of this watershed and provides wildlife habitat and ecosystem services to the 1.4 million residents that live in it [the watershed].  Historic anthropogenic stresses in the area include nutrient runoff from agriculture, legacy contamination from industry, and large-scale hydrological modifications for the timber industry and agriculture.  Despite these stressors, the Refuge and the surrounding area, known locally as the Shiawassee Flats, remains one of the most productive wetland complexes in Michigan.  Two hundred and seventy sepecies of migratory birds make use of the area throughout the year; up to 25,000 Canada geese and 40,000 ducks have been observed during peak migration times, and 55,000 visitors frequent the Refuge every year. 

In 2011, Ducks Unlimited was awarded a Sustain Our Great Lakes grant of $1.5million through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).  This grant will be used to fund efforts to hydrologically reconnect 940 acres of lower river floodplain to the Shiawassee River at SNWR.  Currently, the floodplain is isolated from the river by an extensive system of levees and pumps that maintain the land for agriculture.  The reconnection project received financial and technical support from partner organizations across the conservation community, including Ducks Unlimited; the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network; U.S. Geological Survey; the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge; the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; and the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture.  The aim of the reconnection project is to transition the agricultural land back into westlands by reestablishing a more natural hydrology in the area.  The reconnection project is currently in the planning phase.

Our Master's Project team was charged with conducting baseline sampling of fish, aquatic macroinvertibrates, water chemistry, vegetation, and flow data to help inform a post-restoration monitoring plan.  Team members who conducted sampling also examined the importance of monitoring biotic communities and abiotic factors as indicators of ecosystem health, highlighting the need for adaptive management in response to environmental change.

Another subset of the group focused on evaluating case studies of similar wetland restoration projects and contacted partner organizations in the Saginaw Bay area to identify the characteristics of "successful" restoration and the potential for future collaboration with SNWR.  Through all our work, we conclude that ecological monitoring is crucuial to successful resotration work, and that communication with partners and stakeholders plays a critical role in motivating, funding, and sustaining restoration projects.

SNRE Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Environmental Informatics
Landscape Architecture
SNRE Faculty Advisor: 
Mike Wiley, Sara Adlerstein, and Kurt Kowalski
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Yohan Chang, MLA
  • Seta Chorbajian, MS Conservation Ecology
  • Andrea Dominguez, MS Conservation Ecology
  •  Brandon Hartleben, MS Conservation Ecology
  • Janet Irvine, MS Environmental Policy and Planning
  • Brianna Knoppow, MS Conservation Ecology
  • Joshua Miller, MS Environmental Policy and Planning
  • Caitlin Schulze, MS Conservation Ecology
  • Cecilia Seiter, MS Conservation Ecology/Environmental Informatics
Project Status: 
Past Project