City stormwater projects up close

Tana Jordan of the Great Lakes Conservation Corps works during a beach restoration project in Marquette. The city and SWP partner on efforts to improve stormwater management. (Superior Watershed Partnership photo)

Editor’s note: This is the sixth and final part of a series on stormwater management and why it is important. The series was created with the help of the Superior Watershed Partnership of Marquette.

In Marquette, the city government has been proactive in managing stormwater runoff to Lake Superior for many years, in order to protect the public drinking water supply and water quality at public beaches. While plenty of work has been done to restore water quality and reduce stormwater impacts to Lake Superior within the city limits, there are still more improvements to be made.

That, often, is where the Superior Watershed Partnership enters the picture, with its frequent work on environmental restoration issues. That’s included planning and design on several stormwater-related projects, which sometimes also means coastal habitat restoration work.

Much of the city of Marquette and SWP’s current work related to stormwater actually comes from a beach monitoring effort put in place back in 2011. The city and SWP implemented an expanded beach monitoring program at public beaches in Marquette, and collecting data on water quality was part of that. The expanded monitoring helped identify sources of E. coli bacteria coming from storm drains that have outlets near city beaches.

“Beach monitoring is how we discovered these problems, which allowed us to identify and prioritize projects to reduce these impacts,” said SWP senior planner Geri Grant.

The beach monitoring results particularly showed high levels of E. coli and other bacteria near the Lakeview storm drain outflow into Lake Superior. It was coming from the large area of Marquette’s neighborhoods that are connected to that storm drain. So, the city and the SWP undertook a big stormwater improvement project at the site of the existing drainage ditch behind Lakeview Arena. Funding was provided by a grant from the EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The outflow was re-designed with a larger stormwater retention area, native wetland plantings and better riparian buffers. Green infrastructure management practices were used throughout. All the improvements were designed to let stormwater stay in the drainage area longer and filter more slowly through natural systems, so when it does reach the lake, it’s much cleaner.

Grant said although data is still being collected to form long-term conclusions, the results so far have been good. In the first year after the Lakeview stormwater project, beach monitoring tests found about 70 percent less bacteria in the water from the outflow, and continued beach monitoring has found no above-normal levels of bacteria on Marquette’s beaches.

That effort led to more stormwater projects along the lakeshore in cooperation with the city. In October, the city of Marquette released a brand-new stormwater management plan to encompass these and future improvements.

The SWP is also working to restore and enhance about 15 acres of wetlands that had been filled in along the Dead River near its mouth on Lake Superior. They would be described as degraded coastal wetlands, said Grant, and were privately owned until the city purchased them in an agreement that includes conservation easements.

The land purchase and conservation easements, along with financial contributions from the seller, Michele Butler and the Clark Lambros family, have allowed for the type of wetland restoration work that’s needed. The wetlands are near Clark Lambros Park, and stretch back along the Dead River toward Schneider Mill Court.

When all’s said and done, the area will also serve as part of the city park close by, and connect to the lower Dead River, offering increased recreation opportunities for residents, and increased wetland habitat for wildlife.

The project also includes the redesign of another city stormwater outflow, which is located at Hawley Street and drains directly into Lake Superior. It serves about 112 acres of city neighborhoods in north Marquette as part of the city stormwater system. The drainage ditch at Hawley Street will instead be disconnected and the stormwater will be redirected into the newly-restored wetlands along the Dead River.

The redesign should be a vast improvement over the current outflow, which often tests high for bacteria counts after rain events or during high water temperatures, yet remains a popular wading and swimming spot for families and children. Instead, stormwater drainage will be re-routed under Hawley Street into the restored wetlands area, which has the double purpose of supplying the needed water for wetlands creation, and channeling that water into a natural filtration system of native plants to remove any bacteria or other pollutants on its way to Lake Superior.

“So now, the wetlands will filter that stormwater before it reaches the Dead River or Lake Superior,” explained Grant.

Together, the projects will create an improved stormwater system for that end of Marquette, as well as restore needed coastal wetlands, improve recreation, and allay health concerns about shoreline bacteria counts. The work’s also being done with the help of the Great Lakes Conservation Corps, which trains young workers in conservation fields. The wetlands improvement and Hawley storm drain project are both scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2019.