Rivermouth ecosystems, or freshwater estuaries, are the focus of human and wildlife interactions with the Great Lakes. They are highly valued as the region’s urban, industrial, shipping and recreational centers; and home to recreational harbors, wildlife viewing and production, beaches and urban riverfronts. Rivermouths are also both the mixing zones where nutrients from upstream watersheds are incorporated into the Great Lakes ecosystem and important sites for fish nursery and passage to upstream spawning grounds. These estuarine processes have been broadly altered through watershed land use, floodplain development, harbor channel dredging, wetland filling, urban stormwater, shoreline hardening, road and bridge construction, pier construction and the introduction of non-indigenous species. Despite the importance of rivermouth ecosystems to humans, fish and wildlife, very little is known about how these ecosystems function or how anthropogenic changes have altered those natural processes. Our lack of understanding severely limits our ability to manage or restore these ecosystems effectively and efficiently.
The overall goal of this project is to link biological, hydrological and societal controls over rivermouth structure and function within an improved scientific framework that will form the basis for restoration, management and future research. To maximize usefulness, this framework will link rivermouth services (e.g., fish production, water quality) to important ecosystem processes, such as: 1) hydrogeomorphic influences, 2) distribution of habitat, 3) relationships between rivermouth habitats and Great Lakes biota (in particular fish), 4) structure and controls of food webs within rivermouths and the effects of upstream watersheds and 5) unique ecological and chemical processes that propagate the influence of rivermouths to the Great Lakes. Furthermore, this framework will be widely distributed, accessible and responsive to resource managers and scientists working on other aspects of Great Lakes ecology.