Year: 2015 – ongoing
Location: Great Lakes Basin
Supported by: Great Lakes Protection Fund
Team members:
Sean Burkholder (Co-Primary Investigator), Assistant Professor, University of Buffalo

The situation
The states of the Basin rely on their ports and harbors both economically and culturally. The long-term economic and ecological health of these ports is one of the great issues facing the region over the next generation in the face of accelerating climatic change and economic volatility. Ports in the Basin are typically located at river mouths, where critical wetlands were historically found. The loss of these wetlands, and their potential recovery, is one of the great opportunities in the restoration and conservation of the long-term ecosystem health of the Great Lakes system. This is even truer nowadays, as they could potentially function as sponges and filters for the pollutants and nutrients coming into the system from urban and agricultural land uses.

The management of sediment in ports is a constant and primary concern of operators and directors throughout the Basin. Our research at the Dredge Research Collaborative is also showing that sediment is a way into a larger set of issues, especially environmental and social. The need to rethink sediment management in ports is now critical, and we believe that this condition offers an opportunity to figure ecological and social values alongside economic and technical concerns as ports develop strategic plans to secure operational sustainability. The present draft of the Maritime Transport System plan for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River also highlight a need for understanding the long term implications of sediment management within Great Lakes ports.

Two pieces of recent legislation have proposed to halt the deposition of dredged sediment into the open water of the Great Lakes in the interest of ecological health. At the state level, Senate Bill 1 was signed by Ohio Governor Kasich on April 2nd, 2014. The bill proposes to cease all open lake disposal on Lake Erie by 2020. Additionally, on April 23 Congressman Bob Latta reintroduced the “Protecting the Great Lakes Act” which calls for the immediate cessation of open lake disposal within the Great Lakes. At the same time, the confined disposal facilities in the region are filling up. They are a 1960s solution to the physical contamination issues posed by the desire to maintain navigation and flood protection, and a 21st century approach is needed.

While the proposed and recent legislation is environmentally forward-thinking, if current practices and policies are maintained and no new disposal facilities are built, the result will be that there is nowhere to place sediment within a generation. It is clear that a systematic and creative collection of strategies to address sediment in ports throughout the basin is going to be necessary.

[this atlas is developed for the entire basin focusing mapping the dynamics, processes, trends, and objects related to sediment management in ports of the Great Lakes system. This atlas unifies data sets pertaining to ecosystem health and wetland potential, soil type, bathymetry and sedimentation, nutrient loading, shipping, urban populations, shipping totals, dredging amounts and types, critical habitat and fisheries, and regional transportation infrastructure. This atlas can now serve as a decision-making tool to identify problem areas related to sediment management and areas with high potential for ecological, cultural, and economic value related to sediment]

[The old sea wall and breakwater at the Port of Oswego on Lake Ontario; like many navigation and flooding infrastructures in the Great Lakes, it was built when we had less knowledge of coastal, river, and urban dynamics, and when values and opinions about public space, economics, and the environment where different; in addition, many of these infrastructures are badly in need of maintenance or reconstruction]

Our project starts with the question: What will ports of the Great Lakes Basin look like in the future? Can they become engines that mitigate anthropogenic impacts? Can they play a proactive role in the restoration of ecosystems in the Basin, helping to actively regenerate environmental processes and habitats critical to the long-term health of the Great Lakes system? What new forms, structures, sediment management techniques, and landscape types are needed to generate these outcomes? Can we imagine a future for ports in the Basin that is defined by a long term vision that integrates multiple uses and forms of value, including the ecological and social? If so, what pre-conditions are necessary? What could the long-term ecological benefits of the port be? What are the operative temporal and spatial scales for conceiving of and measuring these transitions?

Future infrastructure in Great Lakes Basin ports should be multi-functional. Until now bulkheads, dredging, causeways, and bridges have been conceived of as mono-functional projects prioritizing efficiency, often with deleterious social and ecological effects. As landscape architects we can say that this singular approach can also be seen in most conservation or restoration ecology efforts, where environmental concerns are largely divorced or understood apart from the needs of navigation or flood control, but also the social and economic needs of locals.

These problems have to be thought about on multiple temporal scales simultaneously. Not only are cities in the Basin dynamic and always changing (politically, economically, socially) but the place where fluvial ecosystems meet lacustrine environments – ports and river mouths – are even more so.

We are producing an analytical and projective methodology involving data visualization and scenario modeling, as well as a trans-disciplinary team consisting of the expert researchers together with a consortium of sediment managers in ports across the Basin. The models produced using this method would serve as an integrated and future-oriented decision making tool for testing and evaluating the ecological, economic, and social potentials and impacts of future port infrastructure and sediment management across multiple temporal and spatial scales. The research team is working closely with a consortium of decision-makers in ports throughout the Basin.