Tiny Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City is looking to use its mighty Lake Michigan resources to become a global powerhouse of freshwater research its Great Lakes Water Studies Institute.

In 1857, prior to his becoming a Union general in the Civil War and earning enduring fame as the man who defeated General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, George Meade assumed command of a crew mapping the depths of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City. As for technology, Meade’s men simply dropped a weighted rope over the side of the boat and noted how many feet of line had run out when the rig hit bottom. They checked landmarks with a sextant to pinpoint the locations on lake maps. Today, 154 years later, in some areas General Meade’s lake-bottom data remains the best available.

Meade’s experience here is a historical curiosity that entertains at some level. But what also bubbles through is a troubling question about our understanding of the Great Lakes. In a digital and fresh-data-obsessed world, how is it that we are relying on information gained with tools invented in the early 1700’s, information that has already celebrated a sesquicentennial, to manage one of our most important resources?

Time travel forward to a July morning in 2010. The sky arcs bold and blue above, and offshore of Traverse City the Grand Traverse Bay runs flat to the north horizon in the glare of 9 a.m. sun. Hans VanSumeren, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, stands on a dock and is about to board a boat that’s bringing at least some of General Meade’s data set into the 21st century. The 56-foot Northwestern will motor north and then back south the length of the bay—like mowing a giant yard one 500-yard swath after another—to construct what will essentially be a video of the entire bay bottom. Despite the boat’s pitch and roll and vibration, the scan will deliver one-centimeter resolution thanks to 508 beams of energy bouncing detail back to the ship.

VanSumeren steps onto the Northwestern deck, and the engine revs as the captain slips the boat into gear and eases away from the dock at a studious 4.25 knots. Soon, on a computer screen in the cabin, the smooth, nearly featureless bottom of Grand Traverse Bay appears in fine relief. But VanSumeren is not the man running the equipment today. He’s leaving that up to two of his students earning associate’s degrees in Freshwater Studies. They’re training on hydro-graphic software that should prepare them to follow their dreams to work in water, or more accurately, water management, a multifaceted industry that some analysts predict will explode as water shortages proliferate around the globe in coming decades.

VanSumeren and Constanza Hazelwood, his partner in charting the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute’s future, intend to make the program an A-list freshwater studies program nationwide, if not internationally. The degree program was just formed in 2008—and four-year degrees are just becoming an option through arrangements with other universities—so the goal might sound grandiose, overly optimistic or just plain out there (how can they really compete with gigantic universities and their massive research budgets and armies of grad students?), but VanSumeren and Hazelwood seem to have the right mix of passion, vision, practicality and connections needed to put the institute on the big stage.

VanSumeren grew up in Traverse City on the shore of East Grand Traverse Bay (waterskiing, riding sheets of ice to shore during spring breakup) and spent 17 years conducting research at University of Michigan’s laboratories for Ocean Engineering and Marine Hydrodynamics. Hazelwood grew up in Colombia, South America, has a Ph.D. in education from Michigan State University, and for the last 10 years has served as a faculty member for Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She brings a network of contacts—from Chile, Peru, Argentina, Colombia and throughout South America and Central America—that will make it a cinch to lace up internships and field studies in other nations. “I believe that once you go to a country where resources are not easily available, you learn a lot about what’s possible,” she says.

As the Northwestern pushes steadily northward, VanSumeren walks around the boat, a 1969 ship bought cheap from Federal Surplus and refurbished after nearly 30 years’ service on the Detroit River. The friendly VanSumeren has a boyish face, a warm smile and a balding pate, today adorned with sunglasses propped on his head. He scans the slowly passing shore a couple of miles east, chats with the skipper and then walks over to the students manning the scanning sonar.
The students, David Bearss and Brent Goggins, are in the first class to pursue the Freshwater Studies associate’s degree and typify the kinds of students the program targets. David Bearss is 23 and has lived within three miles of the Grand Traverse Bay his entire life. He’s simultaneously working on a bachelor’s degree in natural resources at Grand Valley State University, but he’s counting on the real-world experience built into the Freshwater Studies program to give him a leg up on other grads. “I’m hoping this can get me into the job market,” he says. “It gives me something to put on my resume.”Goggins is 30 and signed up after getting laid off from the auto industry. He loves the water, grew up water skiing, loves to fish. “We’re involved in everything here,” he says. “Plus we’re in charge, directing the work, ensuring the quality of data. It’s a quality experience.” His goal: get into hydro-graphic survey work. “I’d love to work in the Gulf [of Mexico] in the next few years,” he says.

In addition to building a Freshwater Studies associate’s degree program, VanSumeren is developing two technician programs—Marine Technician and Coastal Brownfield Technician—after talking with employers in summer 2009. He asked them a couple of plain questions: What are you looking for in a new hire? How many people do you need? “I made a laundry list. I focused on a set of competencies,” he says. The idea is to help students crack into the job market after just two years’ study and then move up the career list or into a four-year program. “Sure, the market needs people who can do research and development, but even more we need people who can do the work when a product is developed,” he says.Case in point, hydro-graphic scanning expertise: If offshore wind power is developed in the Great Lakes, energy companies will need hydro-graphic surveys of bottom lands to help them determine where and how to anchor windmills. More near term, the National Park Service is conducting hydro-graphic surveys of shorelines along all Great Lakes parks, starting with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Park managers at Sleeping Bear are searching for clues that might help them stop outbreaks of avian botulism, which incubates in thick beds of cladophora on lake bottoms. Round gobies eat the infected cladophora and in turn, birds eat the infected round gobies—a sequence that has killed thousands of birds in recent years. The hydro-graphic study will pinpoint where the cladophora beds are growing and identify the distribution and volumes of the goby. A Freshwater Studies student interned at Sleeping Bear to help with the study. “I’d like to have an intern at every national park in the Great Lakes,” VanSumeren says.

In talking with VanSumeren, it’s difficult to imagine a person more ideally suited to his work. First, there’s his lifelong love affair with the Great Lakes (ice floe surfing noted). Second, he’s a gear geek, as evidenced by his work at the University of Michigan, where he began as a freshman, continued on to earn his master’s degree in naval architecture and then stayed on as a researcher and teacher. In his marine hydrodynamics lab in Ann Arbor, his research focused on a towing basin, a tank 22 feet wide and 360 feet long in which he’d propel model ships and predict how they’d perform at full scale. How much resistance would they create? How much fuel would they use? Outside on the real water, he mastered piloting remote-controlled submarines to work in dangerous or deep water environments. He guided subs to inspect shipwrecks, investigated ocean-side glaciers at the Bering Glacier, studied inland lakes on the North Slope.

When VanSumeren discusses three buoys in Grand Traverse Bay that measure waves, currents and temperature all the way to the bottom of the lake, he sounds as proud as a parent. But more important, he finds the data startling. “In August ’10, the mid–Lake Michigan surface temperature was 26C, compared to 18C to 20C in the 80’s. That’s an extremely dramatic increase in a short time,” he says. The well-chronicled increase helps reveal the results of global warming and eventually could be used to guide policy decisions nationally and internationally. “A big goal is getting the Feds interested in the Great Lakes again,” VanSumeren says. “We’re concerned that after the big oil spill, it’s going to be all about the Gulf of Mexico now.” The data that Freshwater Studies students gather could help make the case.

When VanSumeren and Hazelwood arrived at Traverse City’s Northwestern Michigan College in 2008, they quickly displayed a talent for connecting existing assets to create a quality degree program right out of the gate. They had the bay right outside the classroom windows, a river a few blocks away, boats that Northwestern Michigan College already owned. They had an entire maritime program to lean on. They drew upon the gold plated set of water experts in the community to speak to students. They pulled in water-related classes already taught at NMC—watershed science, oceanography, climatology. The pair even looked up in the air—to the NMC aviation program. “What if we put sensors in lakes and used the aviation students to do it from float planes, so they’re doing more than just landing the plane, they’re doing science.” In a seaplane, aviation instructors and students checked out 14 lakes in one day. “It would have taken weeks if we were pulling a boat and trailer around,” he says. “And there’s no extra cost because you are already flying the planes.”

At a university, “the first two years are spent trying to figure out which of the engineering programs you want to sign up for,” VanSumeren says. “Here we can focus in on powerful delivery of high end programs,” getting students on the water, doing research, right away. “Nobody is positioned the way we are.”

Here’s a future that VanSumeren and Hazelwood envision: A student begins with the two-year program, heads off to finish a bachelor’s degree at a university, afterward enters a graduate program, but instead of basing grad work at the university, the student works remotely, based at the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute. Having grad students in-house would infuse graduate-level thought, quality and vision into the undergraduate program here, with natural overflow into the community. How many such students might stay here to grow a freshwater industry hub—say, manufacturing water monitors, assembling freshwater submarines, forming consulting companies? Is it too grand to envision a kind of Silicon Valley of Freshwater, with the institute as genesis, nexus, nurturer?

Flip forward to late afternoon, December 1, 2010. Outside the Freshwater Studies classroom in the Hagerty Building, summer’s blue sky and flat water has been replaced by charcoal gray clouds scudding on a north wind, a whitecapped bay smashing waves against the breakwall and snow drifting onto the Maritime Academy ship rocking at the dock. NMC’s fall session is nearing its end, and students are presenting term projects. Students range from people who just graduated high school, like the girl in a navy-blue hoodie periodically checking text messages, to a couple of men pushing 60, like the farmer with a gray ponytail and ball cap.

Hazelwood and VanSumeren required students to split up into seven teams and make Internet sites called Wiki’s with information about great freshwater lakes located around the globe—Lake Titicaca, in South America, Lake Victoria, in Africa, Lake Baikal, in Siberia, and others. They’re showing the results today.

In addition, Hazelwood has arranged a capstone event for today’s class. Two researchers from South America—Peruvian Javier Bojorquez and American Heather Williams—will beam in via Skype (internet video teleconference). They’ll add on-the-water perspective about Lake Titicaca, the highest-elevation great freshwater lake on the planet. Waiting for the connection, Constanza reminds students about a Spanish-language boot camp for students heading to Costa Rica next spring on a water field study. “For people who can’t say anything other than hola,” she says, and laughs.

Eventually Heather and Javier appear on Skype. The video cuts in and out, but the audio runs solid. Constanza translates seamlessly for Javier as he explains the need to work with local people to gather water data, even though they may not be able to read. “It’s a new strategy,” he says, “starting with the grassroots rather than from the top down.”

Heather adds that there’s an American corollary. Decades ago water activists recruited rural Alabamans to gather river data to reveal how badly degraded their rivers were. Scientists said the rural folk were too backward to get it right, but the data came to be one of the most convincing river data sets in the nation, and helped change water law.

The South American researchers keep talking, and the class runs long. Students start shoving books into bags, check phones for texts once more, pull on their coats. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, early winter night has darkened the bay. Hazelwood says adios to the video guests. Eventually, students in this room could be going to Lake Titicaca to intern with the Skypers.

Later Hazelwood explains, “We wanted them to explore thematic connections with freshwater sites around the world. You will learn more about your own region by looking elsewhere.” She has taught 35 years, but she says, “I have never heard a student say, ‘When this semester is over I want to work on this project more because it needs a little more work,’ but two of our groups are already saying this, ‘We are not proud enough of this Wiki yet.’ That is the benefit of making the conversation broader.”

And that student passion is the thing that keeps VanSumeren and Hazelwood themselves motivated. “Students come to us highly motivated. They want to learn about water,” Hazelwood says. “They love water. They love to fish. They love to swim. They appreciate the resource.”

Smart Buoy!

For scientists, the two data-gathering buoys in Grand Traverse Bay are a water nerd’s dream. The buoys, sponsored by University of Michigan, Michigan Sea Grant and the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, spew a steady stream of bay information: wind speed, wind direction, wind gust speed, wave height, wave period, current speed and direction, solar radiation, and water temperature, measured at 3-meter increments, all the way to the bottom. But the world of water enthusiasts—fishermen, sailors, powerboaters, kayakers—has made fast use of the data too. Because the data is auto-fed, real time onto the Internet, the general public can check in any time. “So, say a fisherman wants to know if what he heard on the morning TV weather is accurate, he can just go on the web, check wave height and wind speed and know how comfortable he’s going to be out on the bay right now,” VanSumeren says. Search Google: National Data Buoy Center and use the map to navigate to Grand Traverse Bay.