TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The University of Michigan is establishing a research program designed to make sure the federal government bases decisions in its billion-dollar battle to clean up the Great Lakes on solid science, officials said Tuesday.
Shortly after President Barack Obama took office in 2009, his administration kicked off the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to begin solving problems that experts said were seriously degrading the system containing nearly one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water. Among them: invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels, toxic pollution, runoff that causes harmful algae blooms, and shrinking wildlife habitat.
Congress has appropriated more than $1 billion toward the initiative's first three years, and funding has already been approved for about 700 projects, including efforts to prevent Asian carp, an aggressive invasive species, from reaching the lakes and starving out native fish.
The program has drawn praise from environmental groups, state officials and others who have long warned the Great Lakes are in danger of becoming ecological wastelands. But some of the region's leading researchers say it should have a stronger scientific foundation to make sure it produces long-term, system-wide solutions, not just temporary fixes in particular locations.
That will be the primary goal of the new University of Michigan Water Center during its initial three-year phase, when it will be supported by grants of $4.5 million each from the university and the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.
"With budget cuts everywhere, we have to be able to show this money is being well-spent," said Allen Burton, director of the new program, who also runs the university's Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecological Research.
Supporters say a sustained effort over many years is needed to repair more than a century of abuse and neglect. Obama has asked Congress for an additional $300 million for the next fiscal year. Strong scientific backing will be crucial to keep the money coming, Burton said.
From the beginning, Great Lakes advocates have debated how to divide the federal cash between research and hands-on restoration work. The great majority of the spending thus far has gone to projects in the field — dredging polluted sediments from harbors, restoring shoreline wetlands, removing invasive plants such as Eurasian milfoil, dismantling dams to restore natural river flows.
That approach early on dovetailed with the administration's stimulus plan, which was pumping money into "shovel-ready" projects to get the economy going and create jobs. Advocates said there was plenty of evidence to justify quick action.
"I testified before Congress that we know enough to act, we don't need a lot of studies to determine what the problems are and what to do," said Don Scavia, an aquatic ecologist and director of the university's Graham Sustainability Institute. "But you don't want to do that with blinders on. You want to do it in a way that you learn from it and determine whether you're getting the outcomes you needed. Now's the time to do that."
The Water Center will bring together researchers, government policymakers, resource managers, and advocates to make sure future Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects are supported by science, he said. The center will look for gaps in knowledge about the problems and try to fill them.
John Erb, president of the family foundation that is providing half of the program's funding, said its three-year grant is designed to get the center off to a strong start. "I would hope that what they're doing would prove so beneficial that others would continue to fund it and keep it going," he said.
More than 20 directors of U.S. and Canadian academic programs focused on the Great Lakes recently called for a more strategic and science-based approach to the restoration effort.
"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," Burton said.
Tom Nalepa and Gary Fahnenstiel, veteran staffers with the federal Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, have been hired to teach graduate courses through the new University of Michigan center. They'll help educate a new generation of scientists who can continue measuring the restoration program's success.
Joel Brammeier, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, said bolstering the program's scientific foundation is a worthy goal — as long as it doesn't slow progress to a crawl.
"We don't want to convey that we should be waiting around for the perfect answer before we decide to do the work," he said.