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Michigan’s URC researchers working to improve great lakes water quality, management

After being used for hundreds of years for drinking water, transportation, fishing, entertainment, boating and industrial purposes, the Great Lakes are increasingly under stress from their shoreline inhabitants.

But even as a group led by University of Michigan researchers works to map where the “environmental stressors” are most acute, scores of fellow scientists at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University – the three institutions that make up Michigan’s University Research Corridor — are searching for ways to protect and restore the vast ecosystem that contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

Their influence was evident in January, when more than 75 researchers, policymakers and advocates gathered in Ann Arbor for the first meeting of the Great Lakes Futures Project, a partnership of 21 U.S. and Canadian research institutions, including the three URC universities. The project is focused on eight driving forces that have shaped the Great Lakes region in the past and will shape it over the next 50 years: climate change, energy, economics, water quantity, biological and chemical contaminants, invasive species, demographics and societal values, and governance and geopolitics.

The Great Lakes Futures Project is just the next step in research at the three URC universities reaching back decades and dealing with everything from monitoring and restoring fish populations to dealing with stormwater and agricultural pollution, conserving water, cleaning up the Great Lakes and keeping them navigable.

Since last year, a team led by Jeremiah Asher, a geographic information systems (GIS) and computer systems specialist with Michigan State’s Institute of Water Research, has been using a $690,000 grant to develop a new collaborative approach to stormwater management and other environmental issues faced by communities with ties to the Great Lakes. The team plans to provide online information, environmental models and guidance on community outreach tools such as social media to local governments managing stormwater and other potential pollutants that could adversely affect the lakes. Grand Rapids is one of the cities where the team’s approach is being piloted.

“We know there are a lot of technologies that people are using now to address environmental issues, but there’s not a lot of guidance for communities on how to get the biggest impact,” Asher says. “We’d like to provide some guidance for these communities on what’s the most effective means for them to address the environmental issues they’re dealing with.”

At Wayne State University, the Urban Watershed Environmental Research Group (UWERG) comprised of professors, researchers, administrators and students from law, medicine and engineering are on a mission to save, protect and improve the fresh water in the Great Lakes region. Carol Miller, co-director of UWERG and an environmental engineering professor in Wayne State’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is working with her colleagues to develop a system that has the potential to reduce the energy required to power large water utilities such as the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department by 15 percent while improving the health of the Great Lakes through reduced pollution emissions.

“With WSU’s presence near the banks of the Huron-to-Erie Corridor, it’s especially important that we play a major role in the protection of the Great Lakes resource,” Miller says.

At the University of Michigan, Graham Family Professor of Environmental Sustainability Donald Scavia is leading the charge to reverse existing damage to the Great Lakes and put plans in place to prevent further damage. As one of the four Great Lakes Future Project’s leaders and special counsel on sustainability to U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, Scavia said it’s important to consider the health of the Great Lakes over the long haul.

“What do we want the future to look like? Are the current policies, practices and programs moving us toward that future? And if not, what do we need to do to change that?” Scavia asks.

MSU’s Quantitative Fisheries Center is deep into research affecting the Great Lakes. In addition to searching for alternative management strategies for walleye, whitefish and perch populations, its researchers are studying food web dynamics affecting commercial fishing and fish stocking practices.

The three URC universities are combining their strengths by cooperating on a host of other water-related projects. The Great Lakes Surface Water Temperatures reporting system, for instance, is a cooperative project between the NOAA CoastWatch Great Lakes Regional Node located at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor as well as the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network, and it’s maintained by MSU’s Remote Sensing & GIS Research and Outreach Services. Michigan Sea Grant is a joint program of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan to promote greater knowledge of the Great Lakes through research and education.

Water researchers from the URC institutions recently played a major role at February’s TAcLE (Take Action on Lake Erie) Workshop sponsored by the International Joint Commission (IJC), the agency through which the United States and Canada cooperate to manage lake and river systems along the border. The workshop focused on harmful algal blooms throughout the Great Lakes, but specifically the Western Basin of Lake Erie. As a member of the IJC’s Science Advisory Board, Miller of WSU chaired the session on best management practices while Scavia of U-M and Shawn Patrick McElmurry, WSU assistant professor of engineering, provided key reports. Other URC researchers also attended the workshop.

Another project where the universities are cooperating is the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project, or GLEAM, which includes researchers from MSU and U-M. David Allan, GLEAM’s lead researcher and an aquatic sciences professor at U-M, says looking at the entire Great Lakes ecosystem is the best way to address the factors that are stressing them.

“Current efforts to conserve, manage and restore the Great Lakes often take a piecemeal approach, targeting threats one by one,” Allan says. “The cumulative impact map provides a quantitative perspective on how best to protect critical natural resources such as beaches, boating and fishing that support a vibrant tourism industry, as well as commercial fishing which remains important to local economies.”

Wayne State is helping to keep the Great Lakes harbors and waterways accessible by studying the historical and predicted future rates of sediment accumulation behind the network of dams in the Great Lakes watershed that lead to federal harbors. The goal of the study is to help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decide how best to maintain the navigability of the Great Lakes, where shippers have had to make changes to deal with extremely low lake levels.

Whether they’re dealing with problems already affecting the Great Lakes or trying to head off future problems, researchers at the three URC universities are eager to address the series of lakes stretching from Minnesota to the state of New York and Ontario, Canada.

“We need to recognize that the Great Lakes are affected by multiple environmental stressors, and devise strategies based on a full reckoning,” Allan says, adding that it’s important “to protect the Great Lakes and the services they provide to society.”

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