A new $9 million University of Michigan Great Lakes research and education center will guide efforts to protect and restore the world’s largest group of freshwater lakes by reducing toxic contamination, combating invasive species, protecting wildlife habitat, and promoting coastal health.
With a $4.5 million, three-year grant from the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, the new University of Michigan Water Center will provide a solid scientific framework for more efficient and effective Great Lakes restoration.
U-M scientists and their partners across the region will use research and on-the-ground collaboration to inform Great Lakes restoration projects. The University will add an additional $4.5 million to the project over three years, says U-M President Mary Sue Coleman.
“As a university, 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. The U-M Water Center will do that,” Coleman says. “I want to thank the Erb Family Foundation for supporting our work and, more important, for continually pushing us to do more.”
During its first three years, the center will focus on identifying and filling critical science gaps in the four focus areas of the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI): removing toxic contamination and restoring regions of environmental degradation known as areas of concern; combating invasive species; protecting and restoring wildlife and their habitats; and ridding nearshore waters of polluted runoff.
Numerous ongoing threats to the health of the lakes were the impetus for the Obama administration’s establishment of the GLRI, the largest single source of funding ever focused on the Great Lakes. Administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the GLRI has spent an unprecedented $1 billion on Great Lakes restoration projects in its first three years.
The new U-M Water Center will lead region-wide academic efforts to guide development of the next GLRI phase. It will engage with conservationists, policymakers, nonprofit groups, and researchers across the Great Lakes states and in Canada.
“Our foundation is very pleased to provide U-M with this grant to identify and fill critical knowledge gaps and help develop a science framework for the restoration of the Great Lakes,” says John Erb, president of the Erb Family Foundation. “The lakes are a unique and precious ecosystem that we must steward for the benefit of current and future generations. This regional and international engagement is essential at this critical stage in our stewardship of the Great Lakes.”
The U-M Water Center will be administered by the Graham Sustainability Institute and will involve faculty and students from across the University, including the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecological Research (CILER); Michigan Sea Grant; the School of Natural Resources and Environment; the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences; the College of Engineering; the School of Public Health; and the Ford School of Public Policy.
A portion of the initial funding will be used to hire three prominent Great Lakes scientists, adding depth to the research effort and offering new learning opportunities for students. Two of these scientists, Tom Nalepa and Gary Fahnenstiel, recently joined the U-M faculty from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor. Both are considered to be among the top Great Lakes scholars in the world. They will teach a new Great Lakes oceanography field methods course at the U-M Biological Station and a new Great Lakes science and management course in Ann Arbor.
“While their immense size can make them seem indestructible, the Great Lakes are showing severe signs of stress and face unprecedented threats,” says Nalepa, who is perhaps best known for his seminal work on invasive mussels and their effects on Great Lakes communities. “The integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem has been compromised in recent years, and many important plant and animal species are in decline or have been lost.”
The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, and the region provides drinking water to more than 40 million U.S. and Canadian citizens while supporting 1.5 million U.S. jobs. The region includes 10,000 miles of coastline and numerous globally rare plant and animal species. In addition, the Great Lakes support a wide range of recreational and economic activities, including vibrant tourism and a sport fishery industry that contributes $4 billion to the economy.
“The GLRI recognized the Great Lakes as nationally important both ecologically and economically, as a provider of myriad services upon which society depends,” says aquatic ecologist and Graham Sustainability Institute Director Donald Scavia, special counsel to the U-M president on sustainability issues. “It has provided a unique opportunity to build and catalyze efforts leading to major improvements in the health of the lakes.”
While the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been widely praised, there is great interest in integrating a stronger science base into the projects and helping to assess their cumulative environmental and economic impacts. That is the primary near-term focus of U-M’s new Water Center.
The center will follow a truly collaborative approach, including regularly convening the region’s science leaders, policymakers, resource managers, and other stakeholders with the aim of enhancing regional dialogue and collaboration. “This is a much-needed effort to engage the broader academic community, and we are excited to be a partner in building a stronger science base for Great Lakes restoration,” says Val Klump, the associate dean for research in the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
As a first step in shaping the new center’s mission, the Graham Sustainability Institute recently convened a group of more than 20 directors of U.S. and Canadian academic Great Lakes centers and institutes to discuss and develop science recommendations for the next phase of the GLRI. The group concluded that sound science must be an integral part of restoration projects.
“Following the meeting, the group developed and has submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency a science strategy and implementation plan to consider for the next phase of the GLRI,” says Professor Allen Burton, who will serve as director of the new center in addition to directing CILER. “Our science plan stresses that we 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.”
To ensure broad-based input and information sharing across the Great Lakes community, the center will form an advisory group composed of science, policy, and practitioner communities representing public (federal, state, tribal, and local governments), private (relevant industries and/or industry associations), academic, environmental, non-governmental, and other citizen stakeholder organizations. The advisory group will provide input that helps guide future research projects undertaken by the U-M Water Center and will ensure broader communications across the Great Lakes basin.
The U-M Water Center grant is the third grant from the Erb Foundation to the University of Michigan. In 2009 the foundation awarded $500,000 to a U-M-led research team for a project, known as the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping project, or GLEAM, to comprehensively analyze and map various threats to the Great Lakes. Last year the foundation provided a $200,000 challenge grant to fund third-year students at the U-M Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.