Central Michigan University receives $10 million grant to continue Great Lakes wetlands research

For years, Central Michigan University (CMU) has been at the forefront, conducting leading research on coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes. Recently, the university received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the latest in a series of grants from the EPA with $30 million being awarded to CMU since 2010.

"There's been a lot of development that's occurring internationally,” says David Weindorf, Ph.D. and vice president for research and innovation at CMU. “We hear about all these booming trends and growth of residential construction, commercial construction, and these kinds of things have a lot of impact on the environment in terms of how the sediment is moving into streams affecting the lakes and how are endangered species impacted in threatened areas like this.”

Weindorf says that the grant helps to supplement costs associated with a wide variety of expenses such as salaries and stipends for graduate students, and also equipment, software, and travel expenses.

“Sometimes they have to stay in arduous conditions, remote areas and things like that, and there are a lot of expenses involved,” says Weindorf. “It's typical research work, and it's not always glamorous to go out there and collect all of the data, but it's vitally important that we get out to the front lines to do that.”

Taylor Gillespie, Strategic Communications Coordinator at the EPA, says a lack of standardized and robust monitoring protocol to determine the quality of coastal wetlands across the Great Lakes was highlighted by the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office (EPA GLNPO) and the greater scientific community in the late 1990s. In response, she says the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Consortium (GLCWC) was created in 2000 to develop and evaluate metrics and protocols for measuring the ecosystem health of Great Lakes coastal wetlands. The Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program (CWMP) was later created in 2011 by the EPA to implement a comprehensive monitoring program to determine the status and trends of coastal wetlands across all the Great Lakes. It’s a cooperative agreement between the EPA and qualified government and academic entities that is funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

Photo Courtesy of Central Michigan University

Gillespie says that the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office and other GLRI partners regularly use CWMP data when making decisions on which restoration, enhancement, and protection projects to fund for coastal wetlands. A list of ongoing and former projects can be found at glri.us/projects.

“Great Lakes coastal wetlands are critical habitat for many aquatic and terrestrial species, including some that are commercially important or are rare, threatened, or endangered,” says Gillespie. “Coastal wetlands sequester nutrients and sediment from upstream sources, protect shoreline property against erosion and wave damage, reduce the severity of flooding, and provide recreational opportunities.”

Despite their importance, Gillespie says that more than 50% of Great Lakes coastal wetlands have been lost relative to historic levels due to agricultural practices such as diking or ditching, and other land use changes.

In February 2017, the EPA announced the program would be one of their permanent programs and continue indefinitely with renewal every five years. The most recent grant ensures that the program will continue through 2025.

Every three years the EPA releases information on trends in coastal wetland health in the State of the Great Lakes Reports. Gillespie says that the most recent report found that that coastal wetland health indicators — such as amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates, and plants — are good for Lake Superior, a combination of good and fair for Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, mostly fair for Lake Ontario, and a combination of fair and poor for Lake Erie.

“Currently, approximately 500,000 acres of coastal wetlands still exist in the Great Lakes and understanding the overall quality of these remaining coastal wetland habitats is of high importance,” says Gillespie.

Donald Uzarski, Ph.D. and director of CMU's Institute for Great Lakes Research and the Biological Station on Beaver Island, says CMU’s research covers more than 1,000 coastal wetlands, which equates to approximately 10,000 miles of shoreline. 

“This program is one-of-a-kind in the world,” says Uzarski. “It’s unmatched anywhere else — a program of this magnitude and collecting as much data as we are.”

Photo Courtesy of Central Michigan University

Using mathematical models that they developed, Uzarski says that they collect data at each site in a standardized way that they then plug into the models to compare each site. 

“Basically what they're doing is comparing every aspect of the ecosystem, from water quality to plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and birds,” says Uzarski. “We use what we call reference sites that we know have had very little human impact and then the rest are basically compared to those in specific regions. We're dealing with significant latitude here, so we should not expect a Lake Erie wetland to be structured or function like a Lake Superior wetland for example. So everything is scaled based on where you're at.”

CMU’s research on the Great Lakes wetlands is in congruence with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. The goals focus on initiatives such as climate action, life below water, and clean water and sanitation in order to have a sustainable ecological presence.

“Sometimes we think about Central Michigan University being a kind of a regional based university, but to have the opportunity through projects like this to make an impact on the national and global stage it really sets us apart from other universities who don't have the specialized expertise that we have here,” says Weindorf.

Weindorf says that it’s an important contribution that Central Michigan University is making on the world stage.

“These are themes that are not only being addressed within the United States, but on a global scale through partners that we have around the world,” says Weindorf. “It's really neat to know that in addressing those larger thematic goals of the United Nations, that work is being done right here at Central Michigan University. We're taking those big goals and paring them down into national and regional goals, looking at ways that we can actually have meaningful impact right here in Michigan and the other states that surround the lakes.”
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Liz Fredendall is a photojournalist and communications professional with experience working with nonprofits. In addition to her work with Epicenter, Liz manages communications for the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, runs her own photography business, and writes for several publications. During her free time, Liz enjoys reading and exploring with her husband Erick and their Corgi, Nori. Contact editor@epicentermtpleasant.com or follow her on social media @lizfredendallphoto.