Biology professor’s research examines Great Lakes wetlands

Posted October 27, 2015

A UW-River Falls professor is participating in research about the Great Lakes funded by a $10 million grant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As part of the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring program, Joseph Gathman, associate professor of biology at UWRF, is among researchers from several universities and agencies studying the wetlands along the coast of the Great Lakes.

The grant is a renewal of a previous one that covered five years of work by Gathman and his colleagues. The renewal is worth $10 million for five years, but Gathman said that UWRF’s portion is around $250,000.

“The first one was intended to cover all of the wetlands around the Great Lakes in five years,” Gathman said. “In fact, that was an underestimate. It turns out there’s more separate wetlands than we thought initially, so we couldn’t cover all of them.”

Gathman’s work with the project is based in Canada with Jan Ciborowski of the University of Windsor. Their crews cover the coast of Lake Erie on the entirety of the Canadian side and most of the U.S. side, as well as part of Lake Huron. They visit 30 wetlands every summer.

The researchers use a system called an Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI) to measure the health of the wetlands. There are different IBIs for different living things in the systems. The IBIs allows the researchers to compare wetlands numerically and calculate which are the most in need of restoration.

The project started small, but in 2010, the White House launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). As part of the initiative, Congress puts a certain amount of money each year toward research and restoration of the Great Lakes. The GLRI helped the project grow from a small operation funded by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to a large work order funded by the EPA.

The EPA estimates that there were more than 220 million acres of wetlands in the continental U.S. in the 1600s. More than half of that has been drained for other uses. Gathman said that this is due to human activities such as building factories and cities on shorelines and draining wetlands for farming purposes.

“That’s why the EPA is focused on trying to do something about that now,” Gathman said, “because people have been ignoring them for a long time.”

Gathman said that initially getting the research approved was difficult because some of the members of Congress wanted results through restoration of the wetlands, not just data.

“What they don’t understand is you can’t restore something if you don’t know enough about it,” Gathman said. “How do you know which sites could be restored or could be helped if you’ve never gone out and looked at the data?”

Different teams conducting the research have made efforts to collaborate with local agencies and conservation organizations that are interested in protecting the wetlands in their areas. Gathman said that when a partnership is formed, that wetland gets benchmarked and the team revisits the site every year.

During the next five years, Gathman’s teams will revisit the same wetland sites from the first round of research to build up a database that tracks changes in the different areas.

“The idea is that this would be an ongoing thing indefinitely so you would have this measure from five year period to five year period of what’s been changing,” Gathman said.

The data from the first round of research are currently being analyzed at the University of Minnesota Duluth. After the data has been analyzed, Gathman said that it will go into an online EPA database for the public to access.

Bradley Caskey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UWRF, said that having a faculty member involved in a big project like this benefits the university through financial gains and recognition for faculty.

“It helps out with us because a person becomes more well-known,” Caskey said. “Students hear about them and then we get people coming to campus because they want to work with someone like Dr. Gathman.”

So far, there have been no current UWRF students directly involved with Gathman’s research. He said that working in Canada requires a work permit, which can be complicated for students to obtain. He did bring one of his recent graduates during the first year of his research, but finding a place for her to stay became an issue.

“We didn’t put money in the grant to pay for someone like her, so we had to figure out a way for her to stay somewhere pretty cheap, and that was tricky,” Gathman said. “She was kind of hit with sticker shock because everything in Canada costs a bit more.”

In planning the grant for the next five years, Gathman has included money to allow for a student to accompany him for a short time. However, he said that it would have to be the kind of student who can handle the pressures of working hard every day and being away from home.

“I think it’s a pretty big challenge for most undergraduates to think of doing that, unless I know they’ve had that kind of experience before,” Gathman said. “So we’ll see. It might happen.”