Federal Money Begins Flowing to Lake Erie for Projects With an Eye on Future Climate Impacts 

Lake Erie will face more stormwater runoff, increased erosion and changes in both water levels and quality as climate change continues. Projects to mitigate those impacts range from restoring a wetland to deploying a plastic-scavenging drone named Pixie, and more. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced plans this spring to fund nearly 150 projects, including four in Ohio. The $8.2 million for those four projects is just a tiny part of almost $6 billion authorized over the next few years for NOAA’s climate-related programs under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Yet the projects provide creative approaches to cleanup, conservation and restoration.  

“It’s important to take these actions now because of the pressures from climate change on our planet, and also in looking at the pressures that brings specifically to our coastal areas where 40 percent of the population lives,” said Joelle Gore, chief of the stewardship division for NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management.

The projects also offer insights into the type of climate change actions that might qualify for funding in future rounds of grants. A number of the winning projects involve multiple organizations and are part of larger initiatives, for example. Some projects also have other sources of funding, either for the immediate project or for other aspects of the initiative.

“There’s no formal match required, but leveraged funding or matched funding is encouraged,” Gore said. Projects that address impacts from climate often also bring multiple benefits, she added. Ohio’s projects provide examples.

Restoring Shorelines on Sandusky Bay

Up to $6 million of the NOAA funds will go for a nature-based shoreline restoration project at the Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area on Sandusky Bay, roughly 75 miles west of Cleveland. Plans call for restoring 44 acres of wetlands to allow the natural flow of water between the stream and surrounding land during storms.

The Nature Conservancy is collaborating with the state’s H2Ohio program, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio Division of Wildlife on the shoreline project. The project is also part of the larger Sandusky Bay Initiative, which deals with multiple environmental and transportation issues for Ohio’s coastal communities.

Draining of wetlands, hardening of shorelines and other human changes to the landscape mean habitat around Sandusky Bay “has been super-altered over time,” said Alexis Sakas, natural infrastructure director for the Nature Conservancy in Ohio.

The restoration should allow water to move more naturally between the stream and adjacent land. In turn, that should reduce or at least slow the amount of fertilizer and sediments flowing into the bay as climate change continues to bring wetter and wilder weather to the area. A more gradually shaped shoreline should also mitigate impacts from strong waves during storms, Sakas said.

Conservation Along the Chagrin River, With Future Generations in Mind

Another NOAA grant will provide $1.7 million to purchase and conserve 105 acres of land along the Chagrin River, roughly 20 miles east of Cleveland and about four miles from Lake Erie. The city of Willoughby will hold title to the property, and other partners on the initiative include the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Chagrin River Watershed Partners and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

Work on the site will take approximately two years, assuming all permits come through, said Thomas Thielman, the economic development director for Willoughby. That work will include restoring wetlands and vernal pools, removing invasive plant species, and providing walking trails. The property will connect to two other parks along the Chagrin River.

Conserving the land for natural habitat should help control flooding, while also improving water quality by reducing runoff that eventually reaches the lake, Gore said. “I really like that it creates opportunities for future generations to enjoy natural space” through activities such as hiking or birdwatching, she added, noting that an educational curriculum will be developed as well.

Keeping Plastic Out of Lake Erie

The other two projects take aim at preventing plastics pollution in Lake Erie. More amounts of heavy rain will provide “an extra push” for any plastic debris on beaches or land near streams to wind up in the lake, said Chris Winslow, who heads the Ohio Sea Grant Program and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory.

One $300,000 grant will go to the Wisconsin and Ohio Sea Grant programs to develop a plastic-free coalition for the Cleveland metropolitan area and to expand a similar plastic-free program in the Milwaukee area. The goal is to reduce the use of single-use plastics by businesses and individuals, which should in turn cut down on pollution in the watersheds.

A separate $299,000 project will provide paid workforce opportunities for underserved and underrepresented students through Ohio Sea Grant in partnership with the Cuyahoga Community College Youth Technology Academy. The students will work with and develop training resources for two trash removal devices, a robot and a drone, which are part of a broader coalition’s pilot project to clean up beaches, marinas and inland waterways that flow towards Lake Erie.

Other groups participating in that coalition include the Stone Laboratory, Cleveland Metroparks, Lake Metroparks, the environmental group Eriesponsible, the maritime education group Argonaut, the Port of Cleveland and the Council of the Great Lakes Region, from whom the devices are on loan. The grocery chain Meijer has also provided financial support for the pilot project.

“I’m just so happy that we get to work with [the students] for the next few years,” said Jill Bartolotta, an extension educator with Ohio Sea Grant. Many of the students are tech-savvy, so they’ve already been a great help, she added.

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One of the devices is a robot, called BeBot. It travels along a beach or shoreline, straining out debris as a human operator walks behind. During a May launch event at the Hinckley Dam spillway in Medina, BeBot scooped up a discarded plastic soldier, along with various beach rocks.

The other device, a drone called Pixie, works like a remote-controlled pool skimmer. A human operator steers it wirelessly from on shore, using a camera to spot plastics or other debris near the water’s surface. Pixie successfully retrieved a number of ping pong balls from the spillway during the May launch demonstration. 

BeBot and Pixie, a robot and drone to recover plastic from Lake Erie.

Some of the NOAA grant money for Ohio projects will provide students from disadvantaged backgrounds with paid experience operating and preparing user manuals for BeBot (right) and Pixie (left). The robot and drone are part of a larger project to reduce plastic pollution in Lake Erie. Credit: Kathiann M. Kowalski

After each clean-up session, operators will retrieve the devices and collect whatever came out of the water or off the beach. The devices will then be ready to head to their next job. The gathered plastics and other materials will be disposed of properly, but only after they’ve been sorted and counted and other information has been noted.

“We’re going to submit this data to the University of Toronto’s trash team, and it will go into an international database,” Bartolotta said. Baseline data from those efforts can frame the conversation about why plastics are in the environment and how to prevent further pollution and keep waterways clean, she added. 
On June 6 NOAA announced its general framework for using $2.6 billion authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act for supporting climate-ready coasts and communities. The agency will post opportunities to apply for those funds as they’re announced, and a second round of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding opportunities should begin this summer, too.

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