Environmental Protection Specialist, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Great Lakes National Program Office

Karen Rodriguez is the Ecological Protection and Restoration Team Leader with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office. Her work includes managing a grant program for habitat projects, developing Great Lakes indicators jointly with Canada, involvement in the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, and assisting in restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern. She is on the Boards of Directors of both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Upper Mississippi-Great Lakes Joint Venture and the Society for Ecological Restoration International. She received a Master of Arts degree in Geography and Environmental Studies, and a BA in Anthropology from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. She also has an Associate in Applied Art degree in Visual Communications from Madison (Wisconsin) Area Technical College. She is Co-Editor of Seeding the Snow, a journal of nature writing and artwork for Midwestern women. In addition to writing environmental book reviews occasionally, she has published articles and essays about the Great Lakes in journals and newsletters such as Ecological Restoration and the Society for Ecological Restoration News.

Can you tell me a little about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) and your role in it?

Along with the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) is one of only three national program offices within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These three programs do not have regulatory responsibilities. GLNPO was created in accordance with the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in the early 1970s. GLNPO works binationally on Great Lakes issues with Environment Canada, the International Joint Commission, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, other federal agencies, states/provinces, Tribes/First Nations, municipalities, universities, non-governmental organizations, and industry.

GLNPO has a relatively small budget – somewhere around $15-20 million a year. In addition, GLNPO has responsibility under the Great Lakes Legacy Act to clean up contaminated sediments in what are called Areas of Concern throughout the Great Lakes basin. There are 45-50 people working in GLNPO on contaminated sediment, invasive species, pollution prevention, and ecological protection and restoration issues. We have various roles including managing the work of the Binational Toxic Strategy, monitoring water and air quality in all five Great Lakes, fulfilling the terms of the Great Lakes Legacy Act, and conducting a grant program. We have two vessels. The Lake Guardian is a research vessel used for yearly water quality surveys and air monitoring throughout the Lakes. The Mud Puppy is a small vessel which we use to look at contaminated sites in harbors.

According to the GLWQA, GLNPO is also responsible for Lakewide Management Plans (LaMP). The LaMPs provide ecosystem-based, management strategies for each of the five Great Lakes. These management plans focus on near and long-term actions and are developing sustainability strategies. Each LaMP identifies priority needs and objectives as well as the corresponding management actions required to address the problems. Some critical issues such as aquatic nuisance species, protecting habitat, contaminated sediments, drinking water, and beach closings require immediate attention and resound throughout all of the LaMPs. Other issues continue to be the subject of public dialogue, long-term monitoring and continued research.

At a more local scale, our office and Environment Canada also have responsibility for Areas of Concern (AOCs), some of the most polluted areas in the basin. Remedial Action Plans assess and address environmental degradation in the AOCs according to the guidelines in Annex II of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Of the 43 AOCs originally designated three have now been delisted, two in Canada, Severn Sound and Collingwood Harbour, and more recently, Oswego, in the United States. Two other AOCs are in the recovery stage.

I started in June of 1990 with EPA’s Water Division and then transferred over to the Great Lakes National Program Office in 1993. My part of the office is ecological protection and restoration. Our part of the GLNPO budget is quite small—anywhere from $1-1.5 million each year to spend on grants and contracts related to habitat protection and restoration throughout the eight Great Lakes Basin states.

The habitat protection and restoration budget is divided among several areas. Part goes to projects for restoration in Areas of Concern. Part goes toward big, basinwide projects, such as the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Consortium. And part goes to a grant program in its second year called the Great Lakes Watershed Restoration Grant Program. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation coordinates the program and GLNPO and four other federal agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the U.S. Forest Service—contribute dollars for protection and restoration projects. We review grants and proposals and then decide together, as five federal agencies, what projects would contribute the most to Great Lakes habitats. We have a little under a $1 million to spend this year.

That definitely extends your buying power.

That’s right. Plus, the grant program has a one-to-one match, so we’ve really tried to leverage our dollars. The grant program was set up in response to the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, which stems from the President’s Executive Order on the Great Lakes. It serves as a mechanism for federal agencies to work together to fund habitat projects.

How has your background in science AND communication helped you to do your job?

Certainly that has helped a lot, as has the behavior management part of my background! I’m not a scientist. My job is to look basinwide and collaborate, network, and try to bring resources together for people to continue to protect and restore the basin’s natural resources.

Aside from your work, tell me about your relationship w/the Great Lakes. How do you personally enjoy them?

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin outside of the basin. It was in Waukesha County, which is now begging for Great Lakes water. I also spent a lot of time in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, next to Lake Michigan, where my grandparents lived. Spending time on Lake Michigan has always stuck with me as a peaceful part of my life. Other than that, I’ve grown to love the region through this job over the last 15 years.

If you had to recommend one place within the GL region that people visit to see the good ecological health and rich biodiversity, what would you recommend?

There are a number of places I love, because it’s a huge area. Each Great Lake is extremely different. Each has special places that I would recommend. On Lake Superior, one of my favorite places is northern Wisconsin around Chequamegon Bay and Bayfield, Wisconsin.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is fabulous. You can kayak, camp or hike on a dozen islands or the surrounding mainland forests. The whole shoreline is wonderful, particularly in winter when there are shoreline ice caves. The Kakagon Sloughs, owned by the Bad River Tribe, is often called the Everglades of Wisconsin. It’s a wilderness area—thousands of acres of wild rice. You can only go out there with Tribal members. But I’ve been there and have seen bears swimming and eagles flying.

On Lake Huron, in Canada, is the Bruce Peninsula. In addition to the aquatic sanctuary, there are special communities called alvars, thin-soiled rocky harsh places with a specialized plant community. Ninety-five percent of the alvars in the world are in the Great Lakes along the Niagara Escarpment. You can find rocks with wild irises and other prairie-like plants growing out of them. Only a small group of people study alvars and the Bruce Peninsula is a great place for research.

In Lake Erie, I’d recommend Long Point in Canada. The sand spit extends into the middle of Lake Erie and includes rich and extensive coastal marshes. My favorite time to be there is in May, when the birds are migrating. On Eastern Lake Ontario, around Sandy Pond, there is a 17-mile stretch that is very quiet with rolling, green hills, coastal marshes, sand dunes and alvars. It has a very different feel and look. In Lake St. Clair, between Lakes Huron and Erie, there is an area called Walpole Island, the best remaining example of oak savanna and tallgrass prairie in the world. It is owned by three Canadian First Nations and you have to have permission to walk there. I was there in August one year and I was stunned. It was thick with hundreds of different species, many of which were in full bloom.

24% of our readers rank invasive species as the number one threat to the health of the Great Lakes (followed closely by toxic contaminants and non-point source pollutants). What do you believe currently poses the greatest threat to the Great Lakes?

Aquatic invasive species is certainly extremely high on the list of problems, but there are a couple of other problems that rank high as well. Emerging chemicals of concern is one. Fire retardants and other contaminants are now getting into the aquatic system and we haven’t yet learned how to deal with them. This is an emerging concern, but I don’t want to diminish the importance of it.

Another problem is that we have developed the coastline of the Great Lakes and the shores of our rivers to such an extent that the water quality has certainly suffered. Western Lake Erie and inland for many thousands of acres was once known as the “Great Black Swamp.” And now most of that marsh is gone. Draining the swamp for agriculture has greatly impacted fish communities from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

So really, there are three major stressors to the Great Lakes. Development is still occurring and degrading or eliminating remaining natural areas. New and emerging contaminants are causing us to research their impacts to water quality. Aquatic invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels, the round goby and carp are disrupting the aquatic food web of very large Lake systems. It is thought, for example, that the demise of Diporeia in Lakes Michigan and Huron is in part due to zebra mussels.

Do you think most Americans and Canadians understand the importance of the Great Lakes in terms of ecology and quality of life? 

I think some do, but no, I do not think most people understand. The importance of the Great Lakes, which contain 20% of the world’s fresh surface water, will become clearer as we lose access to clean water. People in Waukesha, Wisconsin certainly understand the importance of the Great Lakes. Just outside the Great Lakes Basin, Waukesha depleted its groundwater supply and is now trying to get piped in Lake Michigan water. And if the ice continues to melt in the Arctic and Antarctic, it will become a pretty obvious target for people who need fresh water.

When our office first started dealing with habitat protection and restoration issues, we were dealing with a lot of people—even many within the basin—who thought that the Great Lakes were brownfields, old cities, and polluted, industrial areas. They didn’t see the beauty of the north shore of Lake Superior, for example, with its high cliffs, water falls and roaring rivers. They didn’t see the Kakogon Sloughs. They didn’t see Door County or the Niagara Escarpment. So our office made a real attempt to show people that there were natural resources of significant importance in the Basin and we work to fund projects that highlight species and habitats of beauty and ecological significance. I think that attitude has now changed a little inside the basin. Outside of the basin, I’m not sure how many have seen the beauty of the Lakes.

Was that a critical first step to embarking on your mission?

With a small grant program for protection and restoration projects we accomplished a lot, and now people talk about natural resources as part of our heritage and something of beauty.

Do you think there is one overarching misperception about the Great Lakes among the general public.

Not anymore. Up until about ten years ago, people didn’t see it as beautiful. In general, people thought of it as industrialized and degraded. Ten years ago we started to turn that perception around. Our office and partner agencies and organizations like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Service, The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited have worked a lot on changing that old perception.

What would you say was the most powerful tactic you employed to turn it around?

Our habitat grants programs. My old boss used to call it “a thousand flowers blooming.” The GLNPO habitat grant program started in 1992. For the first four or five years, we gave out grant money for protection and restoration projects throughout the Basin in a clearly untargeted manner. We wanted to show people through our request for proposals that we were looking at the Great Lakes a different way. We encouraged good projects and I think now people know who we are and look to us for information about natural resources and for support for some of the things they are doing. Other federal and state agencies have developed similar grant programs during this time.

Sixty percent of our readers say they believe the Great Lakes are at a “tipping point,” where they face irreversible damage if something is not done. Those who disagree, however, say things like, “They’ve been in worse shape…this is not a critical threshold,” and “…it’s easy to underestimate the remarkable recuperative potential of such an enormous ecosystem.” What do you think? Are the Great Lakes at the tipping point? Are certain lakes closer than others?

I think they tipped a long time ago, probably several times. We have a completely different Great Lakes system than what was in place fifty years ago or a hundred years ago. Three hundred years ago, when people cut down the trees around Lake Ontario and sedimentation set in and choked out the wetlands, the fishery was altered. When the St. Lawrence Seaway was built, the whole Great Lakes ecosystem was opened to invasive species that have irreversibly changed the aquatic species structure. Every tributary mouth has been dredged and altered. We have fished out several Lake species and put in new ones that we have to build hatcheries to support. Nearly every river has been dammed not once but many times, altering fish spawning and movement. We even control the levels of Lake Ontario, which has had a devastating effect on coastal marshes there. What tipping point? There have been many along the way.

On the other hand, there are many good stories that show we can tip the Lakes in a good direction. Lake Erie started to turn around 30 years ago when we took phosphorous out of it and started to work on pollution problems. We now know where the coastal wetlands and islands are and their importance to the overall health of the Lakes. Rivers are being un-dammed. Hundreds of restoration projects are occurring across the basin and hectares are being protected. Restoration plans are being implemented. Areas of Concern are being delisted. Regions are organizing and beginning to manage natural resources in a coordinated way such as Chicago Wilderness with its 200 organizations, agencies and thousands of restoration volunteers.

But these are things that have been going on for a long time. We never have enough money, we never have enough people, and we never stop making difficult choices with regard to the natural resources of the Lakes. What we have to work with now is an ecosystem that will get better if we look very hard at how to stop invasive species; if we reevaluate our sewage treatment systems, for example, to deal with new chemicals that are getting into the Lakes; if we as a region begin to respect the systems that support us.

What do you think is the solution?

There is no one solution to all Great Lakes problems. There are many. We currently have a Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in place. A review of that Agreement is taking place right now and the community is considering whether it needs to be an “ecosystem agreement.” I feel that we need an agreement that includes provisions for protecting and restoring the chemical, physical and biological aspects of the Lakes.

In the United States, we have few authorities to protect our natural resources in a holistic way. We need to fix that. We need to look at the Great Lakes as a treasured global resource, not just a national or binational resource. We need to put legislation, practices and partnerships in place.

It does, however, seem like there is a trend toward cooperation

If there’s one wonderful thing that has happened in the last four or five years in the Great Lakes, it’s the dialogue that has taken place binationally with agencies and universities and non-governmental organizations and industry. I expect that dialogue to continue and that gives me hope.

In 2002, Congress passed the Legacy Act, authorizing $270 million in funding over five years beginning in 2004 to help with the remediation of contaminated sediment in Areas of Concern. Your office is administering these funds. I understand that three projects have been completed and two are underway. What can we learn from the completed projects?

First of all, we can learn that we can do something about contaminated sediments and legacy chemicals, which is a huge problem in the Great Lakes. We have learned that when we all put our minds to it, we can take care of some of the severe pollution problems. In the cases of Hog Island in Superior, Wisconsin and Ruddiman Creek in Muskegon, Michigan for example, when those sediments were gone, wildlife started coming back right away. Before, these were more or less aquatic dead areas. So we know that if we can get rid of the contaminated sediments, we can make things better for wildlife, and of course for people.

I understand that the Ruddiman Creek project won an award at this year’s SOLEC

The Ruddiman Creek sediment remediation project won an award at the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) that took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in early November. Ruddiman Creek is in the Muskegon Lake Area of Concern. The benthos was degraded. Fish and wildlife habitats were degraded. Populations of fish and aquatic organisms were degraded. For 15-20 years, people had been working on this issue. Finally, with Legacy Act money, very strong participation from the community, and an assessment from our office, contamination levels and geographic extent of contamination was assessed and the contaminated sediments were cleaned from the creek last year. At one of the public meetings, I talked to several people who had lived near Ruddiman Creek for some time. One woman told me she had come to the meeting because she was so happy that something was finally being done to clean up a creek she had ice skated on and fished in when a child. I said, “How did the contamination start?” She said, “It was midnight dumping. We used to hear the trucks in the middle of the night, but we were too frightened to tell somebody.” There is more information about this project on our web site. This project all took place under a year, which is why the Legacy Act is so important.

Protecting and restoring the chemical, biological and physical integrity of the Great Lakes requires cooperation and coordination among US states, Tribal Nations and of course, Canada. I read that the EPA and nine other federal agencies administer 140 programs that fund and implement environmental programs in the GL basin. What have you found to be the greatest challenge to coordinating all of these efforts?

Each agency and organization has a different mission. Within agencies such as EPA, work and budgets are “stove-piped,” that is, our money and the work that we do can only go to certain things designated by Congress. Our budget has to be spent in accordance with Clean Water, Clean Air, Superfund, and so forth—pieces of legislation that are our responsibility. This, while practical in some senses, sometimes makes it difficult to work with others that have different mandates.

In what way has the creation of the Interagency Task Force and then the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration helped with coordination?

The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration and Interagency Task Force have forced the issue of agencies working together more closely. All the federal agencies are on alert. Each agency has to participate in the work of restoring the Great Lakes. So on the one hand agencies are cooperating but on the other hand, each agency now has to struggle with how to realign their programs.

Has implementation of the “Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategythe report prepared by the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, begun? If so, what is the status?

Implementation has begun. For example, EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) have created a new grant program for protection and restoration of Great Lakes natural resources. It’s called the Great Lakes Watershed Restoration Grant Program. We each contributed some of our dollars and with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) as coordinator the Program is in the second year of funding grants across the Basin.

Another example is the cooperative basinwide monitoring program with Canada. We are pooling agency resources and monitoring each Great Lake on a five–year rotational schedule. A final example is the research being conducted cooperatively on the impacts of invasive species. I’m impressed by the amount of coordination that has occurred over the last year or two and I expect that to continue for a long time.

You are on the steering committee for the biennial State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) which just took place. Based on the indicators your office helped develop to monitor the Great Lakes, what was one on the most exciting pieces of news that was shared at that conference? What about the most alarming?

SOLEC is a binational conference to report on the status of the Great Lakes ecosystem. More than 60 indicators were reported on at the Milwaukee conference. Indicator reports this year were updated by more than 150 authors from many different agencies and organizations. We have more work to be done on developing indicators. For example, our agricultural and tributary indicators are few and need work. We have few endpoints for the indicators because it is difficult to get agreement on amount of forest that should be in protected status, for example, or number of bald eagles nesting on the shoreline.

This year a couple of interesting items were reported. We now know there are more than 31,000 Great Lakes islands, the most in any freshwater system in the world. They have all been mapped and are being prioritized in terms of biodiversity importance. This is the first time it’s been done. In addition, The Nature Conservancy and Nature Conservancy of Canada, along with many partners, released the Binational Conservation Blueprint for the Great Lakes, 501 areas of biodiversity significance across the Great Lakes basin. We now have a map of the places we need to protect.

Six experts presented new information about legacy chemicals and new and emerging chemicals. This information was alarming to me. We still don’t understand what impacts pharmaceuticals, personal care products and other chemicals we use everyday will have on water quality and human health.

Our mission at Biohabitats is to “restore the earth and inspire ecological stewardship.” In your opinion, how do the Great Lakes compare with other systems like the Amazon, in terms of their affect on the overall health of the planet?

The Great Lakes are extremely important globally for their fresh water, first and foremost. In addition, we have 95% of the world’s alvars in the Great Lakes; more than 50% of the Great Lakes watershed is boreal or temperate forest. We have the largest freshwater dune system in the world, and 31,000 islands that contain many rare and endemic species. We have over 140 rare and endangered terrestrial species, such as the Pitcher’s thistle, Kirtland’s warbler, and Pearly catspaw mussel. We have tallgrass prairie and oak savanna remnants, thousands of hectares of coastal and inland wetlands, and a migratory bird flyway that brings thousands of songbirds, waterbirds, birds shorebirds and raptors through the basin yearly. So although significant changes have taken place, we still have an opportunity to protect and restore.

For this issue of Leaf Litter, we have also interviewed representatives from The Nature Conservancy, the International Joint Commission and Bird Studies Canada. Has your office worked directly with any of these organizations? If so, how?

We have worked with all of them. The Nature Conservancy and Bird Studies Canada have both done tremendous work throughout the basin over the past decade. It is because of The Nature Conservancy Great Lakes Office that we’ve turned around the perception of the Lakes among people who live in the basin—from that of a horrible, industrial dumping ground to that of a beautiful place with natural resources. Bird Studies Canada (BSC) has also been a wonderful partner. BSC has worked in our Areas of Concern doing marsh monitoring and has also developed marsh bird and amphibian protocols for monitoring in coastal marshes. The International Joint Commission has helped lay the foundation for discussions on different Great Lakes issues. We also work every day with the state, tribal and federal agencies, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the Great Lakes Commission, Ducks Unlimited, Council of Great Lakes Mayors, Council of Great Lakes Governors, Council of Great Lakes Industry, and many others. We’re all a pretty close network of people right now.

Tell me about your publication “Seeding the Snow.” How can our readers obtain a copy?

Seeding the Snow is a journal for Midwestern women nature writers and artists. We started publishing the journal twice a year ten years ago. It started out as a journal about ecological restoration because we were thinking of all of the ecological restoration work being done by four or five thousand volunteers in the Chicago area and what it means to the women who participate. There were plenty of newsletters and scientific articles about restoration, but no one at the time was publishing poetry or essays or artwork that interpreted restoration artistically. So four of us got together and decided to publish writing and artwork. Eventually that broadened to include pieces about women and nature in general.

The name Seeding the Snow is restoration-related. In the Chicago area, we collect seeds from native plants in the fall, and sow them in the winter, sometimes when there is snow on the ground. We hope the seeds sprout in the spring. Thus, we had our image for the title of the journal. The production of the journal is quite social. We actually hand bind the journals at someone’s home with a group of women. We have a potluck lunch and sometimes take a hike at a local preserve. In addition to the two times a year journal binding parties, we hold other events. One year we collected seeds at a North Branch Restoration Project site. One year we partnered with Woman Made Gallery and held a juried art exhibit. One year we went canoeing. So it’s not just a journal it’s a women’s social group. For more information, the website is Seeding the Snow  the email address is krod17@msn.com.

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