Where the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute Shapes A New Generation of Water Stewards
Imagine a dark sandy bottom of a lake, smoothed and shaped by thousands of years of glacial movement. Sonar pulses bounce signals off the bottom, searching for the smallest interference or disruption to shape the acoustic landscape. This is hardly lunar exploration; this is the Grand Traverse Bay, and the work of Hans VanSumeren, Director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute. Using the institute’s search and recovery sonar or ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), VanSumeren and Freshwater Studies students explore the features of the lake bottom, searching for ships wrecked, undiscovered, and undocumented.
‘The opportunity to know a global drop of water, by putting perspective and what we can do to it, treating it, ignoring, using or misusing, is the perspective of the grassroots of what students study.’
VanSumeren explains the mind-expanding survey, a process called hydrographic: “We plan the mission, the approach, get on site, and ‘mow the lawn’ using acoustics, overlapping the coverage really well. We go over standard operating procedures of the technical equipment with students. We run over the feature, and map the bottom.”
If the team finds something with their multi-beam sonar, they’ll use a remotely operated sub to “fly over” the found object with video monitoring, to measure and identify it. His excitement in talking about the Grand Traverse Bay, and the technical skills through which students gain the expertise is infectious, “it’s like watching National Geographic.”
And his enthusiasm is not without reason. The Great Lakes Maritime Academy (GLMA) and the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute (GLWSI) — part of Northwestern College in Traverse City — is on the cutting edge of shaping an entire generation of water workers and water stewards. Since 1969 the GLMA has been one of only seven nationally authorized and state designated maritime academies (with the US merchant marine academy). In 2004, under the leadership of Northwestern President Timothy J. Nelson, the GLWSI was borne, becoming the first institution in the nation to award an associates degree in Freshwater Sciences. Today, and each year Northwestern’s programs train hundreds of full and part-time students in disciplines ranging from Marine Engineering and Nautical Archaeology to Water Policy and Spanish for Environmental Management. Northwestern’s programs merge Traverse City’s love for water, and location on Lake Michigan, with the expertise of the staff and faculty, creating a place for people of different ideas and visions to explore careers as well as visions for Grand Traverse Bay and the Great Lakes, and the waters of the world, in a wonderful setting.
‘We can sit down and talk things out’
Hans VanSumeren joined GLWSI during a multi-year dialogue to restore the Boardman River Watershed to its original state. At the time it was the largest river restoration project in the United States. “I would convene groups and ask: ‘how is this the best plan’.” VanSumeren, who grew up in the Traverse Bay area, says that with the local knowledge of the Bay and a long history of working with water helped to quell the fears of residents who were at risk of losing waterfront property, those with a fear about loss of energy from dam removal, and potential ecological loss.
“I had been on the rivers, and people knew I was a local entity, and as an engineer without an agenda. And I try to maintain the integrity of the school,” he says. After years of input and assessment about whether to remove aging dams on the river, three dams are now slated for removal – Boardman, Brown Bridge and Sabin – at an expected cost of $8 million.
Although the Institute is a small staff of three, it plays a collaborative role within the College and beyond to other water institutes, and water researchers across Michigan. Michigan Tech, Grand Valley State University, and Western Michigan University are just a few who have collaborated to streamline student programs, curriculum, and conduct research. Partnerships extend to industry players such as the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center (MATE), which seeks to improve technological education through applied experiences, or C & C Technologies, an international surveying and mapping company that specializes in deepwater services, and more. These partnerships advance curricula to adapt and adjust to the skills needed and technology utilized within the private sector. The trifecta of directed training, applied research and a strong resource pipeline makes the Water Studies Institute ahead of the curve in the United States. So much so that scholars and researchers local to Michigan come to the Grand Traverse Bay to retire as adjuncts for the College, and new job postings lure global applicants. Think brain gain, rather than brain drain.
VanSumeren sees growth for the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute in Traverse City, and it has global implications. “The opportunity to know a global drop of water, by putting perspective and what we can do to it, treating it, ignoring, using or misusing, is the perspective of the grassroots of what students study.” For more info, go to nmc.edu/resources/water-studies