Water Center wins $20M contract to help lead estuary research


The U-M Water Center has been awarded a five-year, $20 million cooperative-agreement contract to join the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in overseeing research at a nationwide network of 28 coastal reserves.

Less than two years after it was launched, the Water Center is extending its reach beyond the Upper Midwest to help coordinate, with NOAA, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System’s collaborative science program.

The NERRS Science Collaborative supports water-quality monitoring and long-term research on the impacts of land-use change, pollution and habitat degradation in the context of climate change trends. The overarching goal is improved stewardship of these economically significant estuaries.

“This cooperative agreement will enable the University of Michigan Water Center to widen its focus and tackle critical issues facing coastal communities across the country, including water-quality degradation, habitat loss and the adverse impacts of climate change,” said President Mark S. Schlissel. “This research program represents a great example of the important work done by Michigan faculty and students who apply their expertise to problems of significance to society.”

“We intend to enhance the already strong estuary research program so that it yields science that helps decision makers restore, protect and improve some of this country’s most vital and beloved coastal ecosystems,” said Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute and principal investigator for the new cooperative agreement.

The 28-site reserve network includes well-known estuaries such as Chesapeake, Delaware, Narragansett and San Francisco bays, as well as the Hudson River, Apalachicola, Florida, and Old Woman Creek in Ohio.

The first call for research proposals could be as early as January 2015. Projects typically address a coastal management issue for a specific location, and results are used to benefit the research reserves and nearby coastal communities.

“Few coastal resource management issues are purely environmental in nature. They impact everything from local economies, where we live and play, and the quality of the food we eat from our nation’s coastal waters,” said Dwight Trueblood, NOAA’s NERRS Science Collaborative program manager.

“The programs funded by the research reserve’s Science Collaborative will engage local communities as we develop and apply the best available science to address some of our most pressing coastal environmental problems.”

More than 1.3 million acres are protected in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, where on-site staff members, visiting scientists and graduate students study coastal ecosystems.

Under the cooperative agreement, U-M and NOAA will jointly manage the NERRS Science Collaborative, which awards an average of $4 million annually to support research. The process used for the competitively awarded, peer-reviewed grants brings together organizations, community leaders and scientists to determine the most pressing needs of coastal communities.

“The reserve system’s long-term monitoring and research programs provide a foundation for developing solutions to coastal management problems,” said Jennifer Read, director of the Water Center and co-investigator on the project.

“Gaining a better understanding of how estuaries function and change over time will allow us to predict how these systems will respond to changes in climate and human-induced disturbances. That knowledge will enable coastal managers to make more informed decisions.”

A core group of nine U-M faculty researchers, staff members and students, along with partners from institutions on the east and west coasts, will guide the NERRS Science Collaborative.

Through national competitions, the program will support three kinds of projects: collaborative research projects of up to $250,000 per year for up to three years; integrated assessments of up to $250,000 per year for up to two years; and science transfer projects of up to $45,000 per year for up to two years.

The Water Center was launched in October 2012 with $9 million in funding and an initial goal of guiding efforts to protect and restore the Great Lakes. Financial support included a $4.5 million, three-year grant from the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation and a matching commitment from U-M. The Graham Sustainability Institute administers the Water Center.

In less than two years, the Water Center’s staff has grown to 17, and the center has awarded $5.7 million in grants to more than 180 researchers at universities, government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

“Today’s announcement further underscores Michigan’s leadership in preserving our waters and wildlife habitats both here in our state and across the country,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “This support will help Michigan’s own world-class researchers and scientists find new ways to protect our waterways, coastlines and beautiful natural resources for future generations to come.”

Estuaries are coastal areas where rivers empty into the sea and freshwater mingles with tidal saltwater to become brackish.

In addition, “freshwater estuaries” occur where rivers flow into large lakes, such as the Great Lakes, and possess many of the same characteristics as traditional brackish estuaries. An example of a freshwater estuary in the reserve system is Old Woman Creek on Lake Erie near Huron, Ohio.

Estuaries are among the most biologically productive natural habitats on Earth, with a great abundance and diversity of plant and animal life. They serve as important buffers by filtering pollutants, shielding coastal areas from storms and preventing soil erosion.

Estuaries also provide a safe haven and protective nursery for small fish, shellfish, migrating birds and coastal shore animals. In the United States, estuaries are nurseries to more than 75 percent of all fish and shellfish harvested, according to NOAA.

Under joint U-M and NOAA management, the NERRS Science Collaborative will include a special focus on climate adaptation. Because the coastal reserves in the national network have fixed geographical boundaries, they will face special challenges in coming decades.

For example, rising seas are already encroaching on land that serves as critical habitat for many shellfish, fish, bird and plant species. Various plant and animal species are expected to migrate out of the protected boundaries in response to climate change. And salinity changes will affect the viability of coastal ecosystems.

“We’ll build on ongoing research to develop a framework for successful adaptation to climate change. In doing so, we’ll help estuarine reserve managers better protect the nation’s valuable coastal wetlands,” Read said.

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System was established by the federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. Each reserve is managed by a lead state agency or university with input from local partners.

Other estuaries in the reserve system include Weeks Bay, Alabama; Grand Bay, Mississippi; Padilla Bay, Washington; Kachemak Bay, Alaska; and Great Bay, New Hampshire.


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