A deep dive into freshwater science and sustainability

CONTACT: Molly Goaley

Fish biology students aboard the Inland Seas Education Association schooner

Fish biology students aboard the Inland Seas Education Association schooner.

The Great Lakes are the signature of a perfect Michigan summer, and on a hot June day, the ideal location for WMU students to get their feet wet in freshwater science and sustainability research.

Dr. Devin Bloom’s fish biology course has just set sail on Lake Michigan, aboard a schooner chartered by Inland Seas Education Association. Working with the ship’s crew, the students prepare to hoist up a trawl from the deep water off the coast of Suttons Bay. A tangle of green nets splashes onto the deck and spills around them, revealing some interesting creatures.

“People spend a lot of time talking about experiential learning and there’s nothing better than going out and seeing firsthand how the natural world operates,” says Bloom, assistant professor of biological sciences. “I could talk about it all day long in the classroom but what’s going to have the greatest impact and stick with students the longest is seeing organisms in their natural habitat – touching them, feeling them and having that firsthand experience.”

Fieldwork is a key component of freshwater science and sustainability, a joint degree program offered by WMU’s Extended University Programs and Traverse City-based Northwestern Michigan College, and housed within the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Launched in 2014, the program integrates scientific research with environmental, social and economic issues, preparing students to address complex challenges concerning the sustainability of freshwater resources.

In addition to the Great Lakes, Michigan’s diverse aquatic ecosystems, including 36,000 miles of streams and more than 11,000 inland lakes, provide the ideal habitat for research and education in water-related issues. Students enrolled in the program have the option of earning an associate’s degree from NMC and seamlessly transferring to WMU-Traverse City to complete a bachelor’s degree, or enrolling in the bachelor’s-only version on WMU’s main campus in Kalamazoo.

One of the nine students in Bloom’s class, Lauren Hucek, started at NMC and will graduate with her bachelor’s degree from Western in December. She is already employed as a fund development and grant specialist with For the Love of Water (FLOW), a Traverse City-based water law and policy nonprofit.

“I took a freshwater science and policy class with Jim Olson (president and founder of FLOW) at NMC,” Hucek says. “It really inspired me to go into the policy side of the program. There are a lot of issues facing the Great Lakes that people might not be aware of, so the educational aspect and increasing water literacy is important to me.”

Schooled by fish

Aboard the ship, Hucek and her classmates marvel over some exciting fish finds, including two colorful Iowa Darters. But a more concerning discovery is the gobies, quagga mussels and zebra mussels – all species invasive to the Great Lakes – that far outnumber the native organisms in the trawl.

The mussels, for example, are tiny aquatic hitchhikers that accidentally made their way to the Great Lakes from the ballast waters of transoceanic ships. While the students examine and catalogue the organisms, Bloom explains the many ways in which they wreak havoc on the ecosystem: competing for resources from native species, clogging intake pipes used for irrigation and drinking water, and creating an excess growth of algae at greater depths.

Not only do the invaders damage the aquatic habitat; they come with major consequences to the region’s economy, affecting everything from fisheries to tourism and trade. More than 1.5 million jobs and $62 billion in income are tied to the Great Lakes, which is one reason field experiences on the water are so eye-opening for students.

“The lakes are so inherent to our quality of life in Michigan,” Hucek says. “Water is life. We can’t live without it and we have 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water right here. Forty million people in the region rely on it for drinking water, and I want to make sure it’s safeguarded for generations to come.”

Great threats

Invasive species are just one of the many challenges facing the Great Lakes. Students are learning that pollution, climate change and lowering lake levels also pose a serious threat to Michigan’s waterways.

Graduate students examine gobies

Graduate student Halle Nienhaus and Ph.D. candidate Kimberly Foster examine gobies in the lab.

“Most of the challenges come in terms of water quality,” says Dr. Steve Kohler, director of WMU’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and professor of biological sciences. “The stuff we’re seeing with Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), for example, is very reminiscent of things that took place 50 to 60 years ago, but the causes are different.”

Starting in the early 2000s, Lake Erie began to develop HABs, or huge blooms of toxic sludge that make the lake nearly impassible for boats. To make matters worse, the blooms produce contaminants that can cause serious illness in humans and animals.

HABs were severe in the 1960s, once caused by large releases of phosphorous from sewage and industrial plants. The 1972 Clean Water Act and Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement helped reduce the amount of phosphorous coming from these sources and dramatically improved water quality. Today, HABs are primarily a product of excess algal nutrients – phosphorous and nitrogen – from synthetic fertilizers that enter the lake through agricultural and urban runoff.

“The Clean Water Act was very successful in addressing those sorts of problems in the ‘70s,” Kohler says. “We can regulate what is discharged at sewage plants very well but that’s not what’s causing the problem now. Nutrient issues are still a problem throughout the Great Lakes.”

Sustainable solutions

These types of threats are not unique to Michigan. In fact, WMU researchers are tackling a variety of issues that affect global freshwater resources on a daily basis.

One project led by Drs. Mohamed Sultan and Matt Reeves (geological and environmental sciences) is making it possible to forecast and prevent HABs along the Charlotte County, Florida coastline. Another led by Dr. Kathryn Docherty (biological sciences) and Dr. Carla Koretsky (geological and environmental sciences, Arts and Sciences dean) examines roadway salt that enters lakes and influences methane production. Yet another, led by Dr. Gellert Mezei (chemistry), utilizes compounds that can encapsulate toxic ions and purify water. And Dr. Dan Macfarlane (environment and sustainability) specializes in freshwater policy and sustainability issues, particularly the transnational aspects of Canadian-American border waters.

Although sustainable solutions to freshwater management have never been more urgent, Kohler says that WMU faculty and students are driven to address the issues head on. “It’s a challenge and it takes a very large coordinated effort, but people are working on the problems very seriously,” he says. “Students get excited about aquatic research. Once they see what’s actually living in the water, that has an even bigger impact.”

To learn more about WMU researchers' work in freshwater science and sustainability, view the 2018 issue of Arts and Sciences Magazine.