Michigan Nature Monday: Michigan’s Many Water Resources

Michigan is well-known as the “Great Lakes State” but there is much more to the state’s freshwater ecosystem than the massive inland freshwater seas that garner all the attention. There is a true “underdog” in Michigan’s freshwater systems—groundwater.

In honor of National Groundwater Awareness Week (March 5-11, 2023), the Michigan Nature Association is proud to explore a vital component of Michigan’s groundwater system, fens, written by MNA volunteer Zoë Goodrow.

What is a fen?

When the final glaciers in Michigan retreated north about 8,000-12,000 years ago, they shaped landforms that eventually became the wetlands we see today. Fens are among the rarest types of wetlands – more specifically, peatlands – found in Michigan. What differentiates fens from other wetlands is their hydrology.

Fens are fed by a continuous flow of groundwater that filters through nutrient-rich layers of sediment, like limestone, resulting in an ecosystem rich in calcium and magnesium. The steady supply of groundwater into fens means that fen soils remain saturated throughout the year. This causes a reduced abundance of bacteria that break down plant materials (compared to other wetlands), resulting in a buildup of decayed plant debris – also known as peat.

Rare species in fens

Fens have 500 times more rare plant and animal species than the average acre of land in Michigan. They support nearly 60 rare species and are the Michigan equivalent of rainforests in terms of relative biodiversity. Typical plant species that are unique to fens across Michigan include sphagnum mosses, white lady slipper, fringed gentian, edible valerian, and carnivorous plants including sundews and pitcher plants. Rare animals that habituate fens include the yellow rail, Mitchell’s satyr, and eastern massasauga rattlesnake. Fens are extremely fragile and sensitive systems that are already being impacted by climate change, which does not bode well for the rare species that are endemic to fen ecosystems. Because of this, and their significance to Michigan’s biodiversity, it is important to know the guidelines for minimizing disturbance before you visit one.

Types of Michigan fens

Michigan is home to many types of fens, including the northern, prairie, patterned, and coastal fens. These different fens are characterized by the natural processes that formed them and the climatic conditions of the regions they reside in.

Prairie fen photo by Dave Cuthrell.

Northern fens are found in the Upper Peninsula and the northern half of the Lower Peninsula. They occur where a glacial outwash meets a more textured glacial feature like a kettle lake or an end moraine.

Prairie fens, located in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, occur in former oak-savanna prairies. As their name suggests, they are dominated by a mix of prairie and wetland sedges, grasses, and forbs. These fens were formed via the same glacial processes as northern fens.

Patterned fens, also known as string bogs, also occur in the Upper Peninsula. What differentiates these fens from northern fens is that they are a series of alternating ridges and hollows, oriented parallel to the contours of the land. The natural processes responsible for forming these unique systems are still unknown. While there are several proposed hypotheses – researchers agree that an essential factor is the direction of water movement, as the ridges and hollows are consistently oriented perpendicular to the flow of groundwater. (See more on patterned fens with MNA’s Fox River Wetlands in the video linked below)

Click on the image above to watch “The Fox and the Fen”. Photo by Jason Whalen, Fauna Creative.

Coastal fens occur along Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula. The natural processes that formed them are inextricably linked to those of the Great Lakes. The water tables that influence these systems are subjected to seasonal and multi-year lake level fluctuations, so vegetation in coastal fens changes quickly when water levels change.

To experience a fen habitat first-hand, consider visiting MNA’s Lefglen Nature Sanctuary in Jackson County. The sanctuary is home to a prairie fen and a natural flowing well visible from the south trail. Visit our online sanctuary map for directions and more information.


More on Lake Erie’s algae blooms, the Toledo water crisis and looming urban sprawl: this week in environmental news

Toledo Mayor Michael Collins drinks tap water in front of the community after the ban was lifted. Photo by Karen Schaefer courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

Toledo Mayor Michael Collins drinks tap water in front of the community after the ban was lifted. Photo by Karen Schaefer courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA gathers news related to the environment from around the state and country. Here are a few highlights from what happened this week in environmental news:

Toledo water crisis passes but long term threat looms (Great Lakes Echo): Despite the scare and being unable to drink water, residents still found themselves apprehensive to drink Toledo tap water — despite Mayor Michael Collins drinking the water in front of them. Although there is no longer a ban on drinking the water, a larger problem prevails not only in northern Ohio communities but those along the Great Lakes Basin.

NASA satellite view of Lake Erie.

NASA satellite view of Lake Erie.

Behind Toledo’s water crisis: A long troubled Lake Erie (New York Times): Like the MNA post this past week about Lake Erie and damage of algal blooms, Michael Wines of the New York Times offers an in-depth look into the problem. The story tracks down the past of Lake Erie and discusses the trouble its faced in the past and how now scientists and government officials are taking serious concern to the issue due to the recent water crisis in Toledo.

6 Ways Nature is Inspiring Human Engineering (Forbes): Biomimetics, or the imitation of nature for the purpose of solving human problems, has led to new breakthroughs in technology. Researchers are looking at the eyes of moths to understand how their structure can be applied to solar technology as well as using spider silk for bulletproof vests.

Just how far will urban sprawl spread? (Conservation Magazine): The World Health Organization has predicted by 2050, 70 percent of the global population will reside in cities. This will inevitably increase urban sprawl — an issue that affects natural habitats and ecosystems worldwide.


Sierra club on sustainable agriculture, global warming impacts on economy and polluted beaches: this week in environmental news

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA gathers news related to the environment from around the state and country. Here are a few highlights from what happened this week in environmental news:

Sierra club launches sustainable agriculture testimonials, Western Michigan University student project (MLive): Western Michigan University senior Erin Denay has been working on a project in collaboration with the Sierra Club asking Michiganders at farmer’s markets their thoughts on buying food from local farmers. Denay created a series of one-minute video testimonials to address the topic of local farming.

Innovative farm energy projects clash with Wisconsin policy (Great Lakes Echo): Central Wisconsin’s farming area has been known to produce a lot of waste with its methods of farming. Now New Chester Dairy and Brakebush Brothers are collaborating with New Energy North America to eliminate their waste and turn it into usable energy.


Graphic by the NRDC, courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Graphic by the NRDC, courtesy of the Huffington Post.

1 in 10 U.S. beaches so polluted they’re not safe for swimming, report says (Huffington Post): The Natural Resources Defense Council produced findings that one in 10 beaches in the U.S. are unsafe for swimmers due to pollution according to their 24th annual report.The organization collected water samples from 3,500 beaches and tested them according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s newer more health-conscious standards.

Global warming takes toll on U.S. economy, not just environment (Nature World News): The economic future of the U.S. economy seems bleak if climate change continues at its current rate, and could cost hundreds of billions of dollars by 2100. The U.S. has already been hit with several tropical storms, rising sea levels, droughts and flooding, already incurring costs which will continue to rise.


Photo courtesy of Conservation Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Conservation Magazine.

Western  snowpack could plummet this century (Conservation Magazine): Snowfall on lower elevation mountain peaks in the American west will change to rainfall in the next few decades, according to projections. The rainfall could drastically change how water supply reaches farmers who are used to snowpack accumulation for their water supply.

Water in danger around the world and in Michigan

by Hannah Ettema
MNA Intern

Earth’s most precious resource is under threat. Of water supplies around the world, 80 percent are in danger according to a new study featured in National Geographic news online.  Not only is 80 percent of water in danger, but two-thirds of the world’s river habitats are threatened. It’s not too late though; experts say that if we, “work with nature,” the water can be secured for future uses.

And the United States east of the Rockies is listed as a hotspot of concern.

The Michigan Nature Association (MNA) is constantly working to protect water systems around the state. “Any sanctuary that has water, we are working to protect it,” says Andy Bacon, MNA stewardship coordinator.

MNA also works to protect the high-quality of the water systems by promoting the diverse plant life and the balance of the ecosystem through:

  • Protecting riparian zones
  • Eradicating invasive species
  • Controlled burns

The Riparian Zone

riparian zone

A well preserved riparian strip on a tributary to Lake Erie.

Many MNA efforts go towards protecting the riparian zone of rivers and creeks. A riparian zone is the area where land and a slow-moving body of water meet and is crucial for maintaining the water quality of a river.

A healthy, undeveloped riparian zone helps to control runoff and dissipate stream energy, which in turn prevents soil erosion and a reduction in flood damage. The riparian zone also allows uptake of nutrients and release of pollutants.

Invasive Species

Invasive species to a habitat, especially to water systems, can be harmful if not removed.

In the Edwin and Margarita Palmer Memorial sanctuary in Kalamazoo county and Goose Creek Grasslands sanctuary in Lenawee county, the glossy buckthorn shrub is periodically removed by MNA volunteers to help the ecosystem.

Buckthorn bush

Invasive glossy buckthorn

The buckthorn has the potential to take over the area, especially floodplains or open communities and force the loss of the diversity of the system. The roots of the buckthorn are less able to slow down water and catch nutrients than native species. If the buckthorn were to spread completely over an open community it would shade out all other plants, which would be damaging for the water system in the community.

In Goose Creek Grasslands sanctuary, seed has been transferred in the sanctuary to instigate re-colonization by diverse native species in areas where invasive species growth has occurred.


controlled burn

A controlled burn at Saginaw Wetlands

Another method of protection for water systems is burning. This year plant life in Sand Creek Prairie sanctuary in Hillsdale county and Goose Creek Grasslands sanctuary were burned to help invigorate plant communities along creeks.

Controlled burns are necessary for systems because the ecosystems originally developed and depended upon fire. It is believed that Native Americans instituted controlled burns in oak, prairie and some dryer wet-prairie systems as a means to drive game, grow crops, or for defensive purposes.

Fires are necessary today to reintroduce the means which led to the original plant diversity.  For example, without burns an oak-hickory system would have secondary forest growth by faster growing trees such as birch and ash. The secondary forest growth would then create more shade and cause the amount of penetrating sunlight to drop from 30 percent to only 5 percent. The increase in shade would then in turn cause temperature and humidity shifts, disrupting the ecosystem.

Today controlled burns are carefully planned and executed. Fire breaks, which can be any barrier from lakes and stream to sidewalks are established first. Burning against the wind, the fire is started and a safety zone is established to prevent the flames from jumping outside the burn area. Eventually the entire burn area is scorched. Systems that have been burned in early spring typically take about a month for plants to re-grow.

Burns allow for the proper plants to grow and continue to filter and clean water, allowing ecosystems to flourish.

On December 6, MNA’s Saginaw Wetlands sanctuary will be prepared for a controlled burn this spring. If you would like to help, click here.

Among the areas east of the Rockies, Michigan is in good shape. “Michigan has so much water that it can replenish itself, and is one of the most sustainable water systems in the world,” Andy says.

If you would like to help protect our water systems, volunteer days in these sanctuaries and more can be found on the MNA events calendar.

We appreciate the time and effort the volunteers and members of MNA put toward protecting Michigan and its water systems.