Michigan Coastal Research Reserve Would Boost Science, Attract Visitors


Above: Maps of the collection of drowned river mouths encompassed in the proposed West Michigan coastal research reserve along Lake Michigan from the St. Joseph River north to the Platte River. (Graphic/Megan Mader)


Michigan would get its first site in a national estuarine research reserve program if the federal government embraces a proposal submitted by the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University and the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports the proposed reserve.

With support from Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the proposal has begun its journey from west Michigan to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which administers the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) program. There are 29 reserves in the system, with four others moving through a review process. There are two NERR reserves in the Great Lakes – Old Woman Creek in Ohio and the Lake Superior reserve, based in Wisconsin.

The proposed reserve would promote scientific research of a unique string of drowned river mouth estuaries from the St. Joseph River to the Platte Rivers along Lake Michigan.

The proposed reserve would promote scientific research of a unique string of drowned river mouth estuaries from the St. Joseph River to the Platte Rivers along Lake Michigan. Drowned river mouths were formed following the glacial retreat of approximately 14,000 years ago, when rebounding sand dunes trapped melting rivers trying to reach the newly forming Lake Michigan.

The reserve’s headquarters and visitor center would be based in the Muskegon area.

Estuaries are typically areas along ocean coasts where tributary fresh water mingles with salt water, but the NOAA program also includes freshwater sites where inland and Great Lakes waters with different chemical and physical characteristics comingle and create unique ecosystems with high biological production. These freshwater sites provide many of the ecosystem services and functions that brackish estuaries do, including natural filters for runoff and nursery grounds for fish and other animals, and are popular destinations for recreation and development.

These freshwater sites provide natural filters for runoff and nursery grounds for fish and other animals, and are popular destinations for recreation and development.

The proposed Michigan NERR would include habitat critical to a wide range of fish and wildlife, and to Michigan’s economy, its proponents say. “In proposing this NERR, we share with the NERR System a vision of creating a unique ‘living laboratory’ where scientists, educators, and community partners use science-based information to create distinct educational resources, to inform and facilitate natural resource stewardship, and to support the local economies based on our remarkable estuarine-based natural resources,” proponents add. 

Grand Valley State University’s Alan Steinman is one of the original proponents of the coastal reserve.

Alan Steinman, the Allen and Helen Hunting Research Professor at the Annis Water Resources Institute, is one of the original proponents of the West Michigan NERR.

“This natural gradient of drowned river mouths, ranging from pristine sites at the northern end to more impaired systems at the southern end, provides a perfect environment to ask and test questions about the ecology, biology, chemistry, geomorphology, and socio-economics of these locations,” Steinman said. “and provide answers to the local stakeholders about how to maintain, protect, and where necessary restore, these systems. There is no other system on the planet like them.”

“This natural gradient of drowned river mouths, ranging from pristine sites at the northern end to more impaired systems at the southern end, provides a perfect environment to ask and test questions,” said Alan Steinman. “There is no other system on the planet like them.”

In her letter to NOAA Under Secretary Richard Spinrad, Gov. Whitmer said the research associated with the Michigan site would “produce research information and education that will quickly make it a focal point in the NERR system and show how science-based decision-making leads to better land management and high-quality waters in our Great Lakes.”

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