CMU leads national conversation on Great Lakes Research
Establishing itself as the top university in the nation for Great Lakes research, Central Michigan University is shaping the national conversation on restoring mid-west coastal wetlands.
“We’ve been able to take (CMU) and make it a legitimate leader in the study of the Great Lakes," said Ian Davidson, dean of the College of Science and Technology. "For (CMU) to be able to be leading that effort and our scientists to be in a variety of areas as the go-to people when there is an issue, I think says a lot."
In October the Federal Government issued Action Plan II of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the largest national conservation effort in history. Continuing the initiative that President Barack Obama's administration began in 2010, Action Plan II focuses on funding projects that will protect and restore 60,000 acres of coastal wetlands in the next five years.
CMU has more than 20 faculty in the Institute for Great Lakes Research, which is supported by state-of-the-art facilities in Mount Pleasant and at the CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island.
Donald Uzarski, director of the Institute for Great Lakes Research, said the health of wetlands is extremely important to the greater ecological health of the Great Lakes because they act as "the last line of defense," filtering out toxins before they reach the lakes.
"We've already developed over 50 percent of the coastal wetlands," Uzarski said. "In the Saginaw Bay, we have eliminated 90 percent of the wetlands in the region. It's only been in the last 15 years that we have discovered how important these coastal wetlands are to the overall Great Lakes ecosystem."
The coasts only represent 1 percent of the surface area of the Great Lakes, however the wetlands within that area account for 14 to 37 percent of biological energy that is passed along the food chain and vital for keeping a habitat system alive.
In addition, wetlands provide flood control and nursery habitats for the $7.5 billion fishery industry. These fisheries are beginning to crash, which has been linked to the declining energy base of the coastal wetlands.
In September, scientists from the IGLR received $274,157 in combined grant monies from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin Sea Grant. The funding will be used to enhance current research of a basin-wide Great Lakes coastal wetlands monitoring program, the first study of its kind.
Uzarski was awarded one of six grants in the 2000s to develop techniques to measure the health of the wetlands. After they were published, the Environmental Protection Agency requested proposals to use these techniques to monitor the Great Lakes.
He pulled in collaborators from across the region to sample at every coastal wetland in the Great Lakes Basin larger than 4 hectares. CMU was awarded a 5-year $10 million grant from the EPA and subcontracted nine universities to conduct these samples.
IGLR researchers, led by biology Professor Matt Cooper, are developing a mathematical decision-making tool that will determine specific coastal wetlands sites for restoration. The tool will ensure the greatest return possible on restoration investments.
"There are thousands of sites so determining where to do (restore) is tough, it usually goes to the group that screams the loudest," Cooper said.
He said spending millions of dollars restoring a damaged ecosystem may not be a practical decision to the EPA if people don't have as much access to it. The tool will allow agencies to determine for themselves what the most important factors are for choosing restoration sites.
Nearly $1.6 billion has already been spent on more than 2,100 restoration projects on the lakes’ American side. Action Plan II’s initiatives expect to cost approximately the same amount.
"It's never too late, looking back at (what could have been done) doesn't matter" Uzarski said. "It's about what we are doing now to manage and start to get on top of these issues."