Veteran Great Lakes Advocate and Author Explores Letting Rivers ‘Meander’ in Latest Book



What is the “physical integrity” of the Great Lakes ecosystem and why does it matter?

In her latest book, Meander: Making Room for Rivers, Margaret Wooster, former director of Great Lakes United and resident of Buffalo, New York, answers the question. Physical integrity is one of three recovery targets in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (the others are biological integrity and chemical integrity). Wooster makes the case that failing to commit to physical integrity is not only bad policy, but also will thwart efforts to restore chemical and biological integrity as well.

FLOW recently asked Wooster about the message of the book, the decline of the physical integrity of the waters in the Great Lakes Basin and in her native Western New York, and her prescription to fix the problem.

FLOW recently asked Wooster about the message of the book, the decline of the physical integrity of the waters in the Great Lakes Basin and in her native Western New York, and her prescription to fix the problem.

What is the message of the book?

Wooster: The theme is generally, “Here’s where we live. Here is the water that keeps us alive. What do we know about it?” My book follows the natural flows of several Western New York tributaries within the Great Lakes bioregion, the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world, and asks questions. Where does this water come from? Where does it go?

The theme is generally, “Here’s where we live. Here is the water that keeps us alive. What do we know about it?”

How do these forests create streams? How do these streams create aquatic and terrestrial landscapes and the particular plants, fish and wildlife communities that live there? How can we design our lives and spaces to best support and be supported by these flows? How can we collectively, personally, responsibly, gently, insert ourselves into this ecosystem’s natural patterns and rhythms so that all may recover and thrive?

Why has physical integrity received so little attention in Great Lakes restoration efforts?

Wooster: Restoration efforts have mainly focused on chemical integrity: reducing pollution discharges and cleaning up contaminants already in the system. Restoring biological integrity is often approached with discrete habitat restoration projects on public lands. But restoring and maintaining the physical integrity of a lake or tributary requires regulating land use, and that goes against our tradition of water management, which is one of moving rivers, wetlands, floodplains, and coastlines to accommodate development and commerce. We have re-routed, deepened, buried, and guttered our rivers in order to build more, farm more, profit more.

We have re-routed, deepened, buried, and guttered our rivers in order to build more, farm more, profit more.

In relatively closed ecosystems like the Great Lakes, the costs of this are increasingly apparent. Dangerous levels of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie are related to increased phosphorus loadings, which, in turn, relate to deforestation and sprawl, including the unchecked growth of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and manure spreading in the watershed. Impoverished benthic and aquatic communities downstream are further affected by unrestricted shoreline development and regular cycles of dredging and dumping. Restoring physical integrity to our lakes and rivers requires re-thinking traditional cost-to-benefit calculations that typically support engineering solutions. We must also include land use policies and regulations that make room for rivers (and floodplains and wetlands) to function naturally in the landscape.

How does this play out in your area?

Wooster: In exploring our Lake Erie tributaries in Western New York from mouth to source, I accidentally discovered the deteriorating condition of our headwaters. Our major creeks—Tonawanda, Buffalo, and Cattaraugus—all originate in a glacial terminal moraine, the southern rim of our section of the Great Lakes Basin, dividing it from the Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi watershed. I remember these hills as richly forested places to go camping. Today much of that tree cover is gone, replaced by dairy CAFOs that must grow to be profitable and clear ever more land to spread manure. The source of Cattaraugus Creek is a small lake with a sign warning no drinking, no swimming, no contact of any kind because of Harmful Algal Blooms (cyanobacteria) in the water. It is at the foot of a ridge crowned by dairy CAFOs above, and connected to a high-yield, unconfined aquifer below.

In exploring our Lake Erie tributaries in Western New York from mouth to source, I accidentally discovered the deteriorating condition of our headwaters.

Downstream, on the lake plain where I live, our Buffalo-Lake Erie and Lake Erie-Niagara River coasts are both designated “Areas of Concern” (AOC) or toxic hotspots under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. We have spent much money, labor, and time in cleaning up these former industrial areas, mainly by dredging out contaminated sediments, to the point that they are becoming attractive to developers.

Some of us who worked on the Remedial Action Plans for these two AOCs have tried to maintain the gains made in water quality and ecosystem health by suing developers, including local and state agencies, for approving shoreline residential towers and other land uses incompatible with the natural, and assisted, regeneration that has begun to take place. We have lost in court but have sometimes delayed projects long enough for them to die of their own “unconstructability.”

What’s your prescription to fix the problem?

Wooster: My first prescription for restoring and maintaining the physical integrity of our waters is for all of us, no matter where we live, to know where we are in the watershed. I live in the watershed of Cornelius Creek—a stream I’ve never seen because it’s completely underground, tied into the city’s sewer system. I don’t yet know what to do about that, but it is good to know that it’s there and it explains the salamanders that appear in some folks’ backyards, and the turtles living in the culvert at its mouth on the Niagara River. It could be a starting point for reweaving the unraveled water fabric of this city.

My first prescription for restoring and maintaining the physical integrity of our waters is for all of us, no matter where we live, to know where we are in the watershed.

As a long-time Great Lakes activist, I further advocate that all Great Lakes Areas of Concern, when restored, should be redesignated “Areas of Protection.” I owe this idea to Daniel Green, an activist on the St. Lawrence River and fellow member of the binational Great Lakes Ecoregion Network. This designation would support our ability not just to restore, but also to maintain, a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem. From a survey of AOC Remedial Action Committees, we know that most fear that simple delisting might mean the end of government resources for the important, but endless, work of monitoring and tending our waters. I think 43 restored Areas of Protection along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River flow better suits the goals of the Agreement.

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