Task force updates efforts to protect Buffalo Reef fish habitat

Contact: John Pepin, 906-226-1352
Agency: Natural Resources

Feb. 21, 2020

A map shows the prominent features of Grand Traverse Bay.

Feb. 21, 2020

A backhoe removes stamp sands from an area north of the breakwater at the Grand Traverse Harbor.The multi-agency Buffalo Reef Task Force is looking for help from shoreline property owners in reporting flooding and ice shove events along Grand Traverse Bay.

Over the past roughly 100 years, historic copper mine tailings from the Wolverine and Mohawk mines – called stamp sands – were deposited at a milling site along Lake Superior, located in the community of Gay in Keweenaw County.

Since that time, the stamp sands have been moved by winds and waves south down the shoreline roughly 5 miles, inundating natural sand beach areas and threatening to cover spawning habitat and recruitment areas important to Lake Superior whitefish and lake trout in and around Buffalo Reef.

The natural reef is situated beneath the waters of Grand Traverse Bay.

To help combat the threat posed to the reef and the harbor by the migrating stamp sands, various dredging efforts have taken place over the past couple of years.

“The U.S. Corps of Engineers is developing a dredging plan to protect Buffalo Reef and associated juvenile fish habitat,” said task force member Stephanie Swart, Lake Superior coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. “The plan must also protect shoreline property owners from flooding and ice shove.”

Property owners located between the community of Gay and Grand Traverse Point, including those situated south of the harbor, are asked to fill out a brief reporting form.

“Pictures are helpful, but dates and locations of flooding or ice shove will help the design team minimize future occurrence of these incidents,” Swart said.

Meanwhile, efforts to decrease the amount of stamp sands along the beach have been ongoing over the past few months.

From Nov. 14 through Dec. 6, 2019, 175,000 cubic yards of stamp sands were removed from the original milling site at Gay. This work included pulling a 25-foot-high bank of deposited sands back from the Lake Superior shoreline.

In addition, 13,255 cubic yards of stamp sands were removed from the Grand Traverse Harbor and another 32,677 cubic yards of material was moved from the adjacent beach in work that began Jan. 2 and ended Jan. 28.

“The removal of stamp sands north of the breakwater provides some protection for the harbor, but is not a permanent solution,” Swart said. “With record high water levels expected for 2020, waves will continue to form a ridge of stamp sand along the shoreline that overtops the north jetty at Grand Traverse Harbor.”

For the short term, this ridge of stamp sands will have to be removed periodically.

The task force is continuing its work to develop a long-term solution that protects juvenile whitefish habitat south of the harbor, while keeping the harbor open for fishing, boating and other recreation.

The trough area, which is located directly north of the reef, will be dredged this spring. This winter’s dredging activities will enable to the contractor to work in the trough once ice leaves the bay.

A backhoe is used to clear stamp sands from the Grand Traverse Harbor.As these efforts are being undertaken, a team of engineers and scientists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working with the task force to develop cost estimates and other details for three finalist action plans aimed at protecting the reef’s important Lake Superior fish habitat.

After extensive consultation with the public and other stakeholders, the task force narrowed its list of 13 action plans under consideration to three.

The three finalist action plans include:

  • Building a retaining wall to contain the stamp sands at the original pile, as well as the stamp sands dredged from the lake and beach.
  • Building a landfill in an upland area near the community of Gay for the stamp sands removed from the lake and beach.
  • Placement of stamp sands removed from the lake and beach in the tailing basins at the former White Pine Mine in Ontonagon County.

The team of engineers and scientists is working to develop preliminary implementation cost estimates and to identify potential benefits and risks for each alternative.

The task force will present the costs and benefits of the three designs to the public with the end goal of selecting the best alternative. After that, if funding is available, the selected alternative, or alternatives, will be fully designed and ready to be implemented.

The reef project, funded primarily through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, is being executed in cooperation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to save the 2,200-acre reef. Additional funding for the recent dredging efforts was provided by a special appropriation by the Michigan Legislature in late 2018 being administered by the Michigan DNR.

For more information on the ongoing effort to save Buffalo Reef, visit Michigan.gov/BuffaloReef.

To sign up for Buffalo Reef email updates, visit Michigan.gov/DNR and see the bottom left-hand corner of the webpage.

Accompanying photos are available below for download. Suggested captions follow. Credit: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, unless otherwise noted.

Beach: An excavator is used to remove stamp sands from the beach directly north of the breakwater at the Grand Traverse Harbor.

Harbor: An excavator is used to dredge stamp sands from the Grand Traverse Harbor.

Map: A map shows significant features at Grand Traverse Bay. (Michigan Department of Natural Resources)