Go Deep

Grand Traverse Bay

Water Facts

  • The total watershed system of the Grand Traverse Bay annually accumulates 220 billion gallons of water, 80% of which is derived from the Elk River Chain of Lakes, and the Boardman River watersheds.

  • Groundwater makes up roughly 5% of the attributed watersheds, and almost all groundwater deposits are leftover from the last glacial event, over 11,000 years ago. These are very slow to refill, and rapid drainage is a threat to stability which could collapse aquifers.

  • The Grand Traverse Bay is an oligotrophic water body, meaning it is high in diffused oxygen and vulnerable to chemical change. Agricultural and septic runoff could rapidly inject nitrogen into the bay, creating dead zones where no wildlife could survive.

  • In 2000, a watershed report stated that water quality of the bay and surrounding areas was ‘excellent’, but potential threats could reduce that quality rating dramatically.

  • In 2020, an integrated report was released that designated water quality of the bay and surrounding areas as ‘good to excellent’, meaning water management procedures are mostly sufficient.

Water Challenges




as a result of enhanced erosion of the shorelines and water systems due to climate change is lowering water quality in the bay. The higher presence of suspended particulates lessens light penetration and can suffocate spawning grounds of waterborne life.


Higher temperatures from climate change

Higher temperatures from climate change

combined with agricultural and septic runoff are a recipe for cyanobacterial blooms, which are toxic to humans and could force closures of the bay if not addressed.


Rapid expansion of the urban core and agriculture

Rapid expansion of the urban core and agriculture

forces land to be repurposed, which damages hydrological connectivity and can waste precious groundwater resources.


Invasive species

Invasive species

The delicate balance of biodiversity could shift to the point where sports-fishing is a luxury more than a recreation, and the beautiful scenic environment is overrun with Phragmites, or locked down for conservation efforts.


A must-read report on climate change in Grand Traverse Bay:

The Watershed Center has been striving to protect the environment in the Grand Traverse Region since the early 2000’s. They advocate for clean water and high quality habitats through hands-on projects, and provide in-depth studies of watershed health. They are a member of the watershed alliance, a non-profit organization that represents over 300 organizations over 6 continents, and have constructed a strategic watershed management plan through to 2023.


In 2021, The Watershed Center also released a thorough watershed protection plan, detailing the current state of water quality, biodiversity and the environment. In this report, threats to the watershed were outlined, and suggestions for preparations, outreach and implementation of protection were provided.

https://www.gtbay.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/GT-Coastal-Bay-Plan_FINAL_May-2021 with-figures_for-distribution.pdf

Michigan has released a climate plan with directions to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Other goals include sustainable environmental management, conservation of resources and wildlife, as well as preparations for climate change threats.


The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has begun publishing biennial reports on overall water quality, including statistics on: Contaminants, effects on and from nearby watersheds and systems, as well as impending threats and suggested solutions.


Grand Traverse Bay Situation Report

The Situation Report provides a state-of-the-moment overview and analysis of Grand Traverse Bay’s water conditions, challenges, and emerging issues.

Leader in Focus

  • Hans Van Sumeren

    Northwestern Michigan College (NMC)

    Hans Van Sumeren is the Director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City, Michigan.  He has over 32 years of experience across multiple water-related programs and activities at the University of Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College. 

Research Facility

The Great Lakes Water Studies Institute (GLWSI)

Strategically located on the coast of Lake Michigan, the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute (GLWSI) at Northwestern Michigan College is strategically positioned to engage individuals and organizations, both locally and globally, in advancing technical skills, knowledge and understanding of the world’s dynamic water resources.  A comprehensive suite of water-focused academic and professional training programs are offered through the GLWSI along with multiple research and service related projects and programs.


The content of this Go Deep page was written by:

Alara Cohen

University of the Fraser Valley

Robert Newell

Royal Roads University & Food and Agriculture Institute, University of the Fraser Valley