MCC Students Launch Floating Treatment Wetland to Improve Muskegon Lake

MCC students with Floating Treatment Wetland

MCC biology students launch a Floating Treatment Wetland at Hartshorn Marina on Muskegon Lake.

Muskegon Community College environmental science (BIOLOGY 110) students planted and launched a Floating Treatment Wetland (FTW) near the college’s Lakeshore Fitness Center shoreline on Sept. 2 as part of an innovative approach to directly improve water quality in the Muskegon Lake Watershed.

FTWs are manmade ecosystems that biologically mimic natural wetlands. These floating wetlands remove unwanted nutrients and pollutants without added chemicals. Beneath the surface of FTWs, there is a frenzy of microbial activity in the biofilm that reduces nitrates, phosphorus, ammonia, total soluble solids and heavy metals.

MCC  students transport the Floating Treatment Wetland by kayak along the Muskegon lake shoreline.

MCC students transport the Floating Treatment Wetland by kayak along the Muskegon lake shoreline.

They leverage the natural processes of microbes and plants, while creating a sustainable ecosystem for better water quality and a diverse habitat for pollinators, wildlife, and fish. The islands are covered with plants that grow roots below the islands, with a wide variety of plants available that best address current water quality issues. The FTW wetland island can be custom planted for changing water conditions and anchored to adjust to changing water levels.

The ShoreLive Pilot Project, funded by the Great Lakes Protection Fund, was conceived by Chris Byrnes, whose project management firm Viability LLC approached MCC’s Entrepreneurial Studies Program with the idea.

“When Chris shared his concept with us, I connected him with our faculty in the Life Sciences Department,” said Stradal, who chairs MCC’s Business Department and Entrepreneur Program. “As our Fab Lab comes closer to opening, we expect to see more concepts come to us for development and testing. We help area inventors by leveraging the knowledge of our on-site instructors and the energy of our students across many disciplines.”

The project uses the latest FTW technology and demonstrates its ability to accelerate wetland ecosystem services, improve water quality, attenuate wave action, enhance waterfront desirability and develop a more sustainable, resilient watershed, explained Byrnes.

MCC students add native plants to the Floating Treatment Wetland

MCC students add native plants to the Floating Treatment Wetland.

“While FTW technology has had limited use in Michigan, it has been proven around the world to be many times more efficient at nutrient uptake and water quality remediation than traditional wetlands,” he noted.

When compared to natural wetland construction, FTWs represent a much lower cost and sustainably engineered Best Management Practice for improved water quality in storm water, lakes and ponds, he added.

MCC Biology Instructor Tom Szten, who teaches the environmental science class, said his 21 students are involved with “learning the technology, planting, transporting and possibly the final positioning of the floating wetland.”

The FTW was donated to MCC by Floating Island International, an Australian-based company. Launched at the City of Muskegon’s Hartshorn Marina, the FTW was attached to two kayaks and pulled to a shoreline location, where it will be tended until the plants grow. Eventually, the FTW will be situated in the small bay between the Lakeshore Fitness Center and Heritage Park Landing, a locale protected from potentially damaging wave and ice action during the winter months, said Szten.

Before the launch, MCC students planted approximately 25 native Michigan plants, grown and donated by Cardno of West Olive, MI, on the FTW. These included “Sweet Flag” Calamus and Swamp Milkweed – both large plants that occupy the middle of the FTW – and colorful and Monarch butterfly-friendly Cardinal Flower and Great Blue Lobelia on the perimeter.

“We will be monitoring it for the life of the course,” said Szten, whose MCC environmental science students have been involved with other community-focused projects. Over the summer, they worked with the Department of Natural Resources to help removed invasive species along the north side of the Muskegon Channel.

“We took out about ninety 32-gallon bags of spotted gnat weed working in the 90-degree sun,” he added. “Environmental science explores the problems that people have living with the environment and finds solutions to them.”

This project focuses specifically on Muskegon Lake, which is one of 42 Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOC) in the U.S. and Canada, is one of the original 14 listed in Michigan.

MCC plans to incorporate the FTW into future student research.

“Right now, we’re going to let it grow, but eventually we want to get the environmental science courses, maybe Biology 104 students, to go in and use it as a research site,” said Darren Mattone, who chairs the MCC Life Sciences Department. “There is a lot of potential for various research that we could do.”