Wayne Lusardi from Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary preparing to collect invasive mussels in Saginaw Bay.

A University of Michigan-based research institute that protects and manages the health of the Great Lakes has been awarded $53 million to expand its work – and some of it will include an investigation on the disproportionate effects of flooding for Detroiters.

The five-year federal grant announced this week enables The Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research to continue its efforts to restore the health of the Detroit River and Rouge River watersheds, address flooding, improve weather forecasting, and research solutions to invasive species threatening the Detroit River and Great Lakes.   

The funding renewal, which more than doubles the funding provided over the last five years, is the largest sponsored award in UM’s history and it will allow for a greater focus on flooding in southeast Michigan.

A weather buoy is deployed into Lake Michigan to collect data on weather, climate, and aquatic ecosystems.

Due to climate change, more frequent and intense storms that cause flooding are predicted in Metro Detroit and the institute said it’s working on projects related to flooding to help Detroiters and other residents in the region.  

“We are also investigating the disproportionate effects of flooding among Detroit residents and developing a white paper on the history and impacts of systemic discrimination in Detroit sewer infrastructure investment,” Mary Ogdahl, a program manager for CIGLR, told BridgeDetroit. 

The institute is working on modeling to improve forecasts for lake-effect snowfall, precipitation, and ice and to increase the ability to predict extreme weather events. The improved accuracy would give residents more time to prepare for flooding and to protect their property by clearing debris from drains, or elevating items off of the floor. 

“This (funding) represents a substantial expansion of our research activities in the Great Lakes,” added Gregory Dick, director of the institute. 

In a related move, the institute is partnering with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments to improve SEMCOG’s flood risk tool by incorporating social vulnerability to “ensure resources are not disproportionately allocated,” Ogdahl said, and to make vulnerable communities more resilient.

The tool is used to inform the Michigan Department of Transportation’s decisions around planning and investment in the transportation network. MDOT plans to spend tens of million dollars in the next few years addressing flooding on Metro Detroit’s highways. 

Last June, historic rains flooded multiple highways in Detroit, stranding thousands of people on the freeway. 

The institute is a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, other universities, non-governmental organizations, and businesses. Its research areas in the Great Lakes are varied, including environmental policy, atmospheric science, aquatic ecology, and climate adaptation. 

The federal funding also will be used to develop solutions for harmful algal blooms and invasive species across the Great Lakes region. 

“This new era of our research is going to involve expansion as well as some new directions that we’re really excited about,” Dick said. 

Flooding is just one example of an issue of increasing concern, he said.  

Another focus for the institute is restoration of the Detroit River and Rouge River. During industrialization, most of the Detroit River’s original coastal wetlands were destroyed, and for years the channel acted as a dumping ground for toxic pollutants, threatening fish habitats and populations. 

Similarly, the Rouge River acted as a dumping ground for industrial pollutants. The river became so polluted that it caught fire a little more than 50 years ago. 

Part of the institute’s work includes soil remediation in both of the rivers and cleanup along the shoreline. 

The extra funding is expected to help the institute hire a specialist to develop outreach strategies with underrepresented groups, doubling its engagement work. 

“Part of our excitement about the funding increase is the capacity it allows us to build for engaging key communities around the Great Lakes, including Detroit,” said Ogdahl. 

Moving forward, the institute plans to engage with more high schools in southeast Michigan by pairing the engagement arm of CIGLR with a UM program that supports underrepresented high school students through college readiness programs and summer courses. 

“It’s really critical that the scientists that are studying and managing the Great Lakes come from some of these communities that are being affected by climate change in the Great Lakes, like Detroit,” Dick said. 

The institute employs 42 people at its Ann Arbor-based campus. In the next year, the group plans to use some of the federal funding to hire an additional 20 employees. 

Since 2008, the institute has provided training to nearly 600 people for careers in the science, math, engineering, and technology fields, as well as supported more than 750 jobs in the region. 

two people working in the buoy
The Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research’s Russ Miller and Heidi Purcell perform buoy maintenance on a buoy in Lake Erie. The buoy captures wind speed, water and air temperature, and wave height measurements.

The institute has previously partnered with Wayne State University to provide opportunities to a more diverse population in Detroit. 

“Both CIGLR and Wayne State are looking to expand our collaborations,” said Donna Kashian, director of environmental science at Wayne State. Past collaborations have included work on harmful algal blooms, invertebrate diversity, and research focused on quagga and zebra mussels in the Detroit River. 

Quagga and zebra mussels are invasive species that reduce biodiversity and threaten Great Lakes ecosystems. In the Detroit River especially they affect infrastructure. 

“The mussels will clog the pipes of water intakes but also nuclear power plants, so there has to be constant diligence trying to protect the risk, in addition to loss of biodiversity,” she said. “The impacts from the mussels have spread all the way throughout the entire food web.”

Wayne State students are able to access large research vessels on the Great Lakes, Kashian said, a unique opportunity for inner city youth that might not have happened without the partnership. One student, for example, studied how consumption of mussels impacted yellow perch growth and survival, conducting some of her research on a vessel. 

“Those collaborations were awesome,” Kashian said. “They were great for students.”

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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