Waves of Renewal

As state-based universities and colleges educate a new generation of scientists, policymakers and conservationists, relevant strides in the widening field of freshwater study are being fueled through collaborations of higher learning and dedication to the Great Lakes.
Photography courtesy of istockphoto.com/ Paul Lemke

In Michigan, numbers set a unique stage for freshwater study: 3,052 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, 6.3 million acres of wetlands, nearly 50,000 miles of rivers and streams and 62,798 inland lakes with a surface area of at least 0.1 acres make skipping stones more inviting than skipping class — though students and faculty immersed in these currents of higher learning are focused on making a more substantial impact.

“It’s amazing how much is going on in Michigan, especially regarding the Great Lakes,” said Jerry Dennis, author of “The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas,” (St. Martin’s Press), who is often called to address students. “We’ve definitely emerged as the leader state.”

Dennis’s 2004 Michigan Notable book is required reading at schools including the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College (nmc.edu), which began offering the nation’s first associate-level degree for Freshwater Studies in 2009.

Great Lakes Water Studies Institute
The Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College is ideally situated on West Grand Traverse Bay. // Photography Courtesy of Great Lakes Water Studies Institute/Northwestern
Michigan College

Ideally situated on West Grand Traverse Bay, the program features an on-site water analysis laboratory, underwater robotic submersible and comprehensive skill building aboard the 56-foot research vessel Northwestern. Assessing effects of dam removal to restore a renowned trout river, aiding commercial navigation through hydrographic surveys and uncovering a shipwreck are all in a relevant day’s work.

“We’ve really been able to push the technical envelope,” said institute director Hans Van Sumeren. “Every summer, we put students out on the water with underwater mapping technology and other equipment that’s worth upward of a million dollars, but on loan at no cost/low cost to us from numerous companies — most notably Kongsberg Maritime — and government agencies. We also work with law enforcement agencies to support their training and they help support our programs through the use of equipment.”

This latest and greatest in technical support prepares graduates for immediate workforce demands, he noted, adding, “We’re hearing more and more about challenges in water access, certainly globally but even in the U.S. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t talk about the Great Lakes being a source.”

It’s amazing how much is going on in Michigan, especially regarding the Great Lakes. We’ve definitely emerged as the leader state.
— Jerry Dennis

For students making science, sustainability, business or the technical side of freshwater studies their focus, NMC’s Associate in Science and Arts Degree and Associate in Applied Science Degree for Freshwater Studies transfer very well to other programs, Van Sumeren said, including among others those at Ferris State, Davenport College, Grand Valley State, Western Michigan, Michigan Technological, Lake Superior State and Michigan State universities: “We are working to expand bachelor completion opportunities for the benefit of the students.”

The pursuit of such degrees is in step with a recent U.S. News & World Report that ranks environmental and sustainability studies third among “Nine New College Majors with a Future” (Christopher Gearon, September 2012; usnews.com/education).

“There’s so much we can do with water for energy, water for food,” Van Sumeren said. “A healthy water system is an economic driver for prosperity — opportunities are endless in terms of jobs.”

quagga mussels
Researchers from the University of Michigan examine a load of quagga mussels pulled from Lake Michigan’s bottom during a 2009 voyage. // Photography Courtesy of University Michigan News Service

He believes the Silicon Valley of water should be right here in Michigan.

“The talent is here. The sense of place is here. With more funding and education, you start seeing the level of intellect move up…We’re seeing a very well-coordinated momentum build.”

Since the Obama Administration unveiled its five-year Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (glri.us) in 2009, the EPA has awarded more than $1 billion in GLRI grants to efforts addressing four urgent areas of focus: Cleaning up toxics, combating invasive species, restoring wetlands and protecting watersheds from polluted runoff. Tracking progress and working with strategic partners is the fifth charm.

While this level of federal support is unprecedented, “Current efforts to conserve, manage and restore the Great Lakes often take a piecemeal approach, targeting threats one by one,” said David Allan, professor of aquatic sciences at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

“We need to recognize that the Great Lakes are affected by multiple environmental stressors, and devise strategies based on a full reckoning.”

Beaver Island Researchers
Photography courtesy of Central Michigan University/Peggy Brisbane

To that end, Allan led a three-year effort to create a comprehensive, interactive Great Lakes map that cross-compares unique ecological services each lake provides and 34 inter-relating stressors, such as coastal development and climate change. The Great Lakes threats map, a subject in the revered “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” in December 2012, will be used to help guide system-wide restoration, conservation and management efforts.

Last summer, 20 directors of Great Lakes research centers and initiatives from the U.S. and Canada met in Ann Arbor and developed a Science Plan for the GLRI.   This comprehensive plan was provided to the EPA to help restore the Great Lakes Basin as a whole, rather than approach problems like Eurasian milfoil in isolation.

“Our Science Plan stresses the need to determine which regions are under the greatest threat, identify factors most responsible for negatively impacting ecosystem health, and assess the effectiveness of restoration efforts over time,” said Allen Burton, Ph.D, director of U-M’s new Water Center.

Beaver Island Researchers in Boat
Photography courtesy of Central Michigan University/Peggy Brisbane

Channeled from within the university’s Graham Sustainability Institute beginning this spring, the $9 million initiative — made possible by a $4.5 million, three-year grant from the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation — will play a pivotal role in uncovering these answers and supporting selected programs and projects that help achieve Science Plan goals and those cited by the GLRI.

Working to secure on-going federal support for these efforts will be the center’s consortium of academic partners, regional policymakers, scientific leaders and other freshwater stakeholders. While this group routinely convenes to share research, prioritize projects and leverage Great Lakes resources, professors and students at U-M will work to fill scientific gaps in the GLRI’s focus areas from their varying disciplines, building on a prominent history of Great Lakes research that stretches back more than century.

“As a university,” said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, “we need to take on ownership and responsibility of regional sustainability challenges that affect us close to home, and where our expertise can have enormous impact.”

Beaver Island Researchers in Water
Photography courtesy of Central Michigan University/Peggy Brisbane

At Central Michigan University’s In­sti­tute for Great Lakes Research in Mount Pleasant (cmich.edu), students and faculty are immersed in collaborative projects.

“Because a multidisciplinary approach is necessary to understand the complex issues surrounding the ecology of the Great Lakes, the IGLR draws faculty and students from a variety of academic departments,” said founding director Donald Uzarski, Ph.D.

CMU scientists actively engaged in freshwater academics on campus and CMU’s Biological Station on Beaver Island (at right) are also dedicating their expertise in earth and atmospheric sciences, biology, chemistry, geography, computer science, physics and other fields to protecting freshwater resources for future generations.

Their impact is wide-spread.

While CMU Associate Professor of Chemistry Anja Mueller recently patented an industry-changing method to filter perchlorates from drinking water (cmich.edu, “Research”), CMU Assistant Professor of Biology Andrew R. Mahon and colleagues from the University of Notre Dame have introduced a revolutionary new tool — laser transmission spectroscopy (LTS) — that provides real-time, DNA-based testing to detect invasive species in freshwater.

Sandhill Cranes
CMU is overseeing the nation’s first major study of coastal Great Lakes Basin wetlands. // Photography courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

Brought to the Great Lakes mostly through ship ballast discharge, quagga and zebra mussels alone cause $150 million in U.S. damage each year by clogging water intake pipes. “Early detection of invasive species is critical in the effort to manage potential ecological and economic damage,” said Mahon, noting that the inexpensive, user-friendly technology can be used to screen ships in port.

Recipients of a $350,000-plus Great Lakes Research Initiative (GLRI) grant through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mahon’s research team is presently detecting the proximity of invasive species in the Erie Canal Corridor, including the much-feared Asian carp.

Meanwhile, as the lead university for a $10 million federal GLRI grant, CMU, under Uzarski’s direction, is overseeing the nation’s first major study of coastal wetlands throughout the Great Lakes Basin, which encompasses all of the U.S. and Canadian shorelines. These marshes and fens are essential for migrating birds and the successful reproduction of more than 30 Great Lakes fish species. The wetlands are also critical for flood control and — as natural filters of pollution — water quality of the Great Lakes. But from urban uses and shoreline development to agriculture and recreation, “Over two-thirds of the Great Lakes wetlands have already been lost,” reports the EPA, “and many of those remaining are threatened.”

Searching for trends in health and water quality which will help aid in preservation and restoration, scientists from 10 universities including CMU, Grand Valley State and Lake Superior State in Michigan are collecting samples and monitoring every wetland ecosystem until 2015.

“By boosting awareness of our impact and long-term effect on these watersheds, people are becoming more educated,” Uzarski said.

For more details about freshwater studies and research at these schools, visit their Web sites. To learn more about the Great Lakes and Great Lakes Research Initiative, go to www.epa.gov/greatlakes and www.glri.us.

Beaver Island
Photography courtesy of Central Michigan University/Peggy Brisbane

Island Allure

The hiring of six new researchers at Central Michigan University’s Institute for Great Lakes Research (IGLR) since it began its work in the fall of 2010 reflects rapid student growth in a range of related studies. No small attraction is CMU’s Biological Station (CMUBS) on 58-square-mile Beaver Island northwest of Charlevoix.

Here, an old U.S. Coast Guard boathouse has been retrofitted into a state-of-the art experimental mesocosm facility, where students and faculty can study, replicate and manipulate miniature Lake Michigan ecosystems in 250-gallon tanks. Through small class sizes, close faculty interaction and hands-on experiences, undergraduates become immersed in such specialized programs.

Advancing Beaver Island studies is the 32.5-foot RV Chippewa, a custom-built research vessel equipped with an onboard laboratory, and a 36-foot 2002 Sea Ray Sundancer donated by CMU alumni Roger Kesseler, who serves on the CMU College of Medicine’s Steering Committee.

Beyond Beaver Island’s own seven inland lakes and variety of forests, wetlands and bays, eight more islands in the archipelago provide countless other research opportunities. Students return to the main campus to study their findings in CMU’s state-of-the-art James C. Gillingham Academic Center.

“The best feature of CMUBS is that it brings together individuals from all areas and all levels of expertise for cross-disciplinary work within the natural sciences,” notes graduate research assistant David Schuberg in CMU’s Department of Biology. Learn more at cmich.edu.

Lake Superior State University Dr. Jun Li
At a lab on the campus of Lake Superior State University, assistant professor of biology Dr. Jun Li tests for bacterial kidney infection (BKD) in the fertilized Atlantic salmon eggs. If the test is negative, the eggs will continue with the incubation process back at LSSU’s Aquatic Research Lab. // Photography courtesy of Michigan DNR/David Kenyon

Currents of Collaboration

Additional freshwater initiatives and centers of study across the state include among others those below. To learn more about these highlights of higher learning and additional research being performed by faculty and students, visit provided Web sites.

Grand Valley State University: Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI)

Opening this May, a new $3.4 million, 14,800-square-foot field research building featuring a dozen 350-gallon mesocosm tanks and two other new laboratories will expand research, education and public outreach efforts at AWRI’s Lake Michigan Center on Muskegon Lake.

This multidisciplinary organization within GVSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, led by nine scientists, allows graduate and undergraduate students to perform ground-breaking research, features state-of-the-art technology to aid critical decisions about natural resource management and utilizes two research vessels. Hands-on experiences during Great Lake cruises aboard the W.G. Jackson and D.J. Angus are funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

Research highlight: Furthering larger GLRI funds, the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly has awarded AWRI researchers an $85,000-plus grant to help restore portions of the Muskegon River. As part of this larger project — which is expected to prevent 100 tons of sediment, 1,000 pounds of phosphorus, and 6,000 pounds of nitrogen from reaching the Muskegon River and Lake Michigan each year — AWRI’s team is aiding private landowners who want to maintain or enhance established forests on their property (www.gvsu.edu/wri).

Lake Superior State University: Aquatic Research Laboratory (ARL)

Uniquely situated in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on the St. Mary’s River — the sole connecting waterway between Lake Superior and Lake Huron — LSU’s off-campus ARL in Sault Sainte Marie is within an hour’s drive of Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan and within reach of more than 500 inland lakes and 2,000 miles of rivers and streams, many in state and national forests.

While access to this multitude of ecosystems and current 3,500-square-foot lab facility benefit the community, scientific researchers and students enrolled in fisheries, limnology, biology, environmental science and toxicology courses at LSSU, increasing research collaborations and external funds are propelling plans to renovate and relocate the ARL to a nearby, 16,000-square-foot building donated by Edison Sault Electric Company.

Research highlight: In 1984, the ARL began partnering with the Michigan DNR to produce Atlantic salmon for release into the St. Mary’s River. The ARL has reared and stocked an average of 40,000 yearlings annually, and has made great strides in bringing a premier salmon fishery to the upper Great Lakes (www.lssu.edu).

Atlantic Salmon
Addie Dutton, a Lake Superior State University fisheries and wildlife management student, has just gathered a male Atlantic salmon from a raceway inside the Cloverland Electric Cooperative power plant. The milt from this fish will be used to fertilize eggs from a female. // Photography courtesy of Michigan DNR/David Kenyon

Michigan State University: Global Water Initiative

In 2010, seven Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants totaling more than $3 million were awarded to MSU researchers for a range of projects related to water technology, water access and water management. Currently, more than 100 faculty members pooling knowledge from the depth and breadth of their expertise within the natural, social, and engineering sciences are collaborating across campus and worldwide to solve related challenges and develop new technologies.

Multidisciplinary efforts impacting freshwater research, education and outreach at MSU include among others the Institute of Water Research, Invasive Species Initiative, Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan Sea Grant (a collaborative with U-M) and Land Policy Institute.

Research highlight: With the 2012 launch of the MSU Global Water Initiative, the university will be adding 16 new scientists over the next three years to address one of the 21st century’s most critical challenges: securing a safe and plentiful water supply (msu.edu).

Michigan Technological University: Great Lakes Research Center

Funded primarily by the State of Michigan and dedicated in August of 2012, Michigan Tech’s new $25.3 million freshwater studies facility — situated on the Keweenaw Waterway dividing Houghton and Hancock, adjacent to the main campus — includes eight state-of-the-art laboratories to support a broad array of Lake Superior research. While Michigan Tech faculty conduct interdisciplinary studies here ranging from invasive species, fisheries and biogeochemistry to air-water interactions, sediment transport and storm-water management, freshwater issues including climate change are also being addressed by researchers from government agencies, other schools of higher learning and scientific institutions.

The new center also features a computer center, underwater robots, docking for the Michigan Tech’s 37-foot research vessel, the Agassiz, and hands-on activities for the public and K-12 students.

Research highlight: The Low Impact Development research team will operate a rain garden, green roof and constructed wetland remediation demonstration area on the GLRC site, while a mesocosm research system including several 300-gallon outdoor fish tanks permits ecosystem manipulation studies (mtu.edu).

Freelance writer Kim North Shine resides in Southeast Michigan. Lisa M. Jensen is editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.

Facebook Comments