At her yearly leadership breakfast, University President Mary Sue Coleman announced the formal creation of a center that will be dedicated to studying the ecological health of the Great Lakes.

The project is closely tied with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an endeavor established by the Obama administration to strengthen preservation efforts in the Great Lakes region. Since its inception in 2009, the GLRI has evolved into a partnership of 11 federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and has received more than $1 billion in funding for hundreds of ongoing projects.

The Water Center, which will operate within the Graham Sustainability Institute, will be a consortium of universities, with contributions from Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Notre Dame. The center will also be available for use by a variety of governmental agencies.

The University will contribute $4.5 million to its funding and an additional $4.5 million will come from a donation by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

Engineering Prof. Don Scavia said the Great Lakes have always been an important topic on campus, and the creation of the center signifies a critical advancement in how the lakes will be studied.

“The conversation on campus about rebuilding the Great Lakes (has been going on) for around eight years, as long as I’ve been here,” Scavia said.

According to Scavia, the unique confluence of interests in the Michigan ecological environment led to a natural partnership between the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, the Graham Institute and the Erb Family Foundation.

The grant is the third that the Erb Family Foundation has given to the University. Previous donations included a $500,000 grant for comprehensive mapping of threats in the Great Lakes and a $200,000 “challenge grant” for third-year students at the University’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.

Scavia said faculty will begin to write grants for projects through the Water Center this spring.

The Water Center’s primary focus will be on techniques for removing toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes, combating invasive species and restoring wildlife habitats. Undergraduate students will have the opportunity to engage in faculty-sponsored research when the center has been established and grants are finalized.

The Great Lakes have received national media attention in recent years because of highly publicized and expensive attempts to prevent Asian carp, an invasive aquatic species, from entering Lake Michigan. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent millions of dollars on an artificial barrier near Chicago in attempt to prevent their entry, but water samples above the barrier are consistently testing positive for the presence of Asian carp DNA.

Coleman said the formation of the center demonstrates the University’s dedication to Michigan’s natural resources.

“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,” Coleman said.

J. Val Klump, the associate dean for research in the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said in a press release the center will regularly gather policymakers and scientific leaders to consult on feasible, scientifically sound solutions to persistent problems.

“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,” Klump said.

Though water quality has improved in recent decades, the International Joint Commission — the collaborative group between the United States and Canada tasked with monitoring the Great Lakes’ ecological health — wrote in 2009 that the lakes are beginning to face new threats.

“In the past, human health concerns addressed by the governments have focused on legacy contaminants,” the report stated. “While these materials remain of concern, current and emerging threats to human health include a suite of substances and problems ranging from algal blooms to little-regulated materials often found in consumer products.”

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