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Great Lakes rivermouths: a primer for managers

May 1, 2013

Between the North American Great Lakes and their tributaries are the places where the confluence of river and lake waters creates a distinct ecosystem: the rivermouth ecosystem. Human development has often centered around these rivermouths, in part, because they provide a rich array of ecosystem services. Not surprisingly, centuries of intense human activity have led to substantial pressures on, and alterations to, these ecosystems, often diminishing or degrading their ecological functions and associated ecological services. Many Great Lakes rivermouths are the focus of intense restoration efforts. For example, 36 of the active Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) are rivermouths or areas that include one or more rivermouths.

Historically, research of rivermouth ecosystems has been piecemeal, focused on the Great Lakes proper or on the upper reaches of tributaries, with little direct study of the rivermouth itself. Researchers have been divided among disciplines, agencies and institutions; and they often work independently and use disparate venues to communicate their work. Management has also been fragmented with a focus on smaller, localized, sub-habitat units and socio-political or economic elements, rather than system-level consideration.

This Primer presents the case for a more holistic approach to rivermouth science and management that can enable restoration of ecosystem services with multiple benefits to humans and the Great Lakes ecosystem. A conceptual model is presented with supporting text that describes the structures and processes common to all rivermouths, substantiating the case for treating these ecosystems as an identifiable class.1 Ecological services provided by rivermouths and changes in how humans value those services over time are illustrated through case studies of two Great Lakes rivermouths—the St. Louis River and the Maumee River. Specific ecosystem services are identified in italics throughout this Primer and follow definitions described by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (Table1). Collectively, this primer synthesizes existing information in a new way that aims to support management of rivermouths as distinct and important ecosystems. The development and management decisions made around rivermouths today will shape the future of these ecosystems, and the human communities within them, well into the future.

1 The information presented in this paper was derived from discussions and draft documents of the Great Lakes Rivermouth Collaboratory. The Great Lakes Rivermouth Collaboratory was established by the U.S. Geological Survey's Great Lakes Science Center (USGS-GLSC) in collaboration with the Great Lakes Commission to engage the Great Lakes scientific community in sharing and documenting knowledge about freshwater rivermouth ecosystems. For more information, see

Publication Year 2013
Title Great Lakes rivermouths: a primer for managers
Authors Victoria Pebbles, James Larson, Paul Seelbach
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70048817
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center