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Great Lakes coastal wetlands mapping tool expands access to environmental data

Interactive website aids wetland management, protection and restoration

Contact: Curt Smith

By Robin Miner-Swartz

Two grants in six years gave Central Michigan University researchers $20 million to collect, analyze and share vast amounts of crucial environmental data to better protect our Great Lakes coastal wetlands.

And now, the results are available through an interactive website that enables state and federal agencies to mine the data so they can make better decisions about how to manage, protect or restore Great Lakes wetlands across Michigan, seven other U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

"We are generating an enormous amount of data," said Donald Uzarski, director of CMU's Institute for Great Lakes Research, director of the CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island and CMU professor of biology. "A project of this size has never existed before. This website is one-stop shopping for coastal wetlands data."

Over five years, Uzarski and his team sampled, monitored and chronicled conditions in an estimated 1,039 Great Lakes wetlands — roughly 200 sites per year. Their work documents water chemistry, vegetation, invertebrates, fish, amphibians and birds.

CMU was awarded $10 million grants in 2010 and again in 2015 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The first one paid for the nation's first collection of scientific data assessing the health of coastal wetlands spanning more than 10,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline — more ground than the nation's west and east coasts combined. The second $10 million grant pays for identification, monitoring and extended evaluation of restoration efforts through 2020.

CMU oversees the $20 million and the resulting collaboration with 10 universities, one state agency, one Canadian federal agency and one U.S. federal agency in addition to the EPA.

Learning to share

While the collaboration and research are exceptional and extensive, the online component — the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program Mapping Tool — is unusual.

monitoring-program-website.jpg"In the early 2000s, the EPA came to scientists and said, 'You have to share your data.' That's pretty much unheard of in scientific circles," Uzarski said. "If another scientist publishes our data, we can't publish it again."

That's a risk in academia, where the value of work is measured in publications, he said. The concept of collaboration was new for the scientists on the project.

"What was most surprising to me was not something scientific. It was that we could pull this off with such a large group of scientists," Uzarski said. "Normally, if you put three scientists in a room, you have three different opinions."

It was essential everyone was comfortable sharing their data, and the sharing is going well. Hundreds have accessed it through the website already, and it's only in the beta version.

"You get a sense for the value of the research you're doing when so many people are accessing and using it," he said. "The people who were the most apprehensive are now seeing their work making an on-the-ground difference. It's very satisfying."

Putting the data to work

Later this year, Uzarski and his team will launch an additional component to the mapping website — a decision-support tool that will help state and federal environmental agencies determine where to use resources to restore Great Lakes coastal wetlands for maximum benefit.

It takes the data collected over six years, combines it with other relevant data such as land use, surrounding population density and hunting lands, and puts everything in a map interface allowing users to make decisions about managing the wetlands.

Matt Cooper, a Northland College (Wisconsin) research scientist and former CMU colleague of Uzarski's, has been closely involved in the project and the research.

"We hope these tools are used by everyone from state and federal agencies — the DEQ, DNR, EPA, the Nature Conservancy, watershed groups — that have influence on our wetlands," Cooper said.

This month, Cooper will travel to the White House as part of President Barack Obama's Resilient Land and Waters Initiative. He'll present the new decision-support tool along with the success story of the wetland monitoring initiative.

The decision-support tool — set to launch in mid-December — covers wetlands from western Lake Erie through the Saginaw Bay. Moving forward, the Michigan DEQ is funding an expansion throughout the state.

"If we're going to invest in wetland restoration, it has to be in a data-driven way," Cooper said.

Previously, when organizations wanted wetland data, Cooper said he and Uzarski were crunching the numbers themselves and delivering results in spreadsheets. "Having the funding to build this tool was essential so people can get at the data themselves and make decisions."

The EPA grants are part of an effort supported by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The initiative was launched by President Obama in 2010 to accelerate efforts to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world: the Great Lakes.

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