2016-11-10 / Life in Leelanau

New Baykeeper feeling right at home

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff


HEATHER SMITH poses for a picture this week on the West Grand Traverse Bay waterfront in Elmwood Township across M-22 from the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay where she now works as the Grand Traverse Baykeeper. HEATHER SMITH poses for a picture this week on the West Grand Traverse Bay waterfront in Elmwood Township across M-22 from the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay where she now works as the Grand Traverse Baykeeper. The new Grand Traverse Baykeeper was just a toddler when water levels in Lake Michigan hit their all-time high in 1986.

She said can’t remember much of that.

But she does recall witnessing a very sharp fluctuation in water levels in West Grand Traverse Bay while she was growing up in northern Elmwood Township and attending Suttons Bay High School.

When she was a freshman, water levels in the big lake were well above average. By the time she graduated from Suttons Bay, in 2001, water levels were approaching some of the lowest levels seen since record lows were set in 1964.

“I remember people complaining that the water level was so high it covered our fire pit on the beach,” Smith said.


WATER QUALITY monitoring was among the duties Heather Smith performed when she was with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources before returning home to become the Grand Traverse Baykeeper. WATER QUALITY monitoring was among the duties Heather Smith performed when she was with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources before returning home to become the Grand Traverse Baykeeper. “Then, a few years later,” she added, “people were talking about how much bigger our shared beach was after the water went down and they were worried about what everybody thought of as ‘weeds.’ But this is all part of a natural cycle, of course.”

These days, water levels and water quality in Grand Traverse Bay are more than just a passing interest for a young woman who grew up swimming and boating on the bay. Smith went on to earn an undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Science from Michigan State University and a graduate degree in Water Resources Management from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Since then, she’s held a variety of positions in the field, including a job with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She’s worked in watershed outreach, water quality monitoring, community engagement and volunteer management. She was most recently with the Sacramento (California) Tree Foundation and returned to her native roots for her new position this summer.

Smith was named the new “Grand Traverse Baykeeper” on Aug. 1, replacing Northport native John Nelson who retired after holding the position for many years.

According to a news release, as Baykeeper, Smith will advocate for the environmental health of the Grand Traverse Bay watershed by serving as a liaison between concerned citizens, regulatory bodies, municipalities, planners and developers; conducting outreach and education programs; providing oversight and comments on proposed projects that require permits when water quality could be affected; and monitoring area waters.

Her job also involves piloting the 23-foot aluminum-hulled tugboat the Bay Monitor around the bay as part of water quality monitoring, research and educational efforts.

“I grew up boating around here and love it,” she said. “I even operated a research vessel for the state of Wisconsin, so this is all second-nature to me,” she said.

Smith acknowledged that the surface water temperature in Lake Michigan this fall has been unusually high, but would hazard no guess about whether West Grand Traverse Bay will freeze over this winter.

She said the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a “colder and wetter than average” winter for 2016-2017.

“Higher water surface temperatures do more than lengthen the swimming season,” she said. “More warmth also brings a longer growing period for algae — and that can impact water quality.

“We’ve even had a few reports of swimmer’s itch on Grand Traverse Bay this year – and that’s something you usually only hear about on our inland lakes,” she added.

As for water levels in Lake Michigan, the fluctuation is natural and some people forget what an impact that can have.

“You can almost track the fluctuating water levels by studying the number of applications being submitted for permits to install seawalls or riprap,” she said.

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