The Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute

20 Years of Preserving and Enhancing our Freshwater Resources
- by Mary Isca Pirkola

Toxic sediments, invasive species, water diversions and wetland destruction have been recent hot topics in local, state and national news as they pose threats to natural resources. Many of the actions being taken to address these and other environmental issues are the result of research being conducted by faculty and staff at Grand Valley's Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute.

While many people are aware of the institute, located at the Lake Michigan Center in Muskegon, few realize the breadth and depth of its activity. Since its creation 20 years ago, the AWRI has evolved into a major applied research organization. The institute's commitment to enhance and preserve freshwater resources is actively making a difference in the sustainability of the environment.

In 1965, when Indianapolis businessman D.J. Angus donated his 50-foot power cruiser, the Angus, to Grand Valley, little could he have realized the profound and lasting impact of his action. Moved by his love of the Great Lakes and a desire to protect them for future generations, his donation provided a floating classroom and laboratory that served for nearly 20 years.

Annis was instrumental in ensuring that Grand Valley would be able to utilize the vessel when his good friend Angus died in 1966. His own financial support for the vessel and equipment for a growing biology department encouraged funds from others. Annis' support extended beyond finances. In the late 1960s, he started a tradition of sponsoring an annual weekend science trip to Grand Valley for a group of Indiana students who were science fair winners.

By 1986, when the vessel was deemed undeniably outdated, it was replaced by the newly retrofitted D.J. Angus, designed specifically for aquatic science research and instruction. That year, Grand Valley formally established the Water Resources Institute, the university's first applied research organization. As an independent unit within the Division of Science and Mathematics, the institute drew faculty and student participants from biology, geology and health sciences. Its mission to this day harks back to that of D.J. Angus - to preserve, protect and improve water resources.

Rising from a basement

Associate research scientist John Koches vividly remembers his first day as program manager at the institute. This was before moving into their "office" in the Science and Math Division Machine Shop, located in the basement of old Loutit Hall.

"They put me outside Director Ron Ward's office, at a table and chair they had set up in the hall," said Koches. "People would walk by all day, introduce themselves, smile, and then ask, 'So, what is it you do?' Growing pains aside, there was an energy, a feeling of enthusiasm from everyone that we were doing something important, something that was meant to last."

The institute's only other staff members were Tonya Cnossen, who began that year as the half-time secretary, and one student employee, Kurt Thompson, who is now a research associate. Though Ward retired in 2001, the other three original staff remain today.

While the institute shuffled locations for more than a few years, one constant was the education and research being done aboard the vessels. From 1986-96, the D.J. Angus welcomed more than 31,000 students and visitors on board. The program's resounding success led to a capital campaign to build and endow an additional vessel, the W.G. Jackson, named after lead donor William Jackson. It was placed in service in 1996.

Since the education and outreach program began, more than 100,000 passengers have been aboard the two vessels, including visitors from Japan, Poland, China, Brazil and other countries. The Jackson has visited 30 ports of call in Lake Michigan with its annual "Making Lake Michigan Great" tour. Yet, the vessels are only one aspect of the program, which also provides instructional workshops for educators, conducts classroom programs for K-12 students, and sponsors conferences such as Lake Michigan: State of the Lake, in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1997, the institute was renamed the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute, in recognition of the long-term support and encouragement of the Indianapolis scientist and businessman. In the summer of 2001, the institute moved from the Allendale Campus to its new home at the Lake Michigan Center on Muskegon Lake. Al Steinman was hired as the new director. The newer facilities include classrooms, conference areas, research and analytic labs, ship dockage, support and storage.

"I was encouraged to come to Grand Valley with the strong show of support by the administration and the surrounding communities," Steinman said. "Two immediate enhancements that were made were to double the number of principal investigators, which increased our research capabilities, and the installation of mesocosm tanks." Each of the dozen tanks is capable of handling 350 gallons of lake water to facilitate experiments under controlled conditions.

Ecological research is another major program at AWRI. It consists of environmental biology and environmental chemistry groups, and addresses questions about water resources, land use change, pollution prevention, fisheries and other water-related issues. A glimpse at three of the many current research projects provides a mere snapshot of the institute's work:

  • Bopi Biddanda of AWRI and researchers from other institutions found a sinkhole about 300 feet below the water's surface in Lake Huron. A result of the dissolution of Paleozoic bedrock that is about 400 million years old, the sinkhole creates a unique ecosystem with biological organisms that are different from the surrounding lake environment. Further research includes a focus on how this ecosystem operates and the impact on the rest of the lake.
  • Research conducted by Rick Rediske of AWRI 10 years ago identified toxic sediments in Ruddiman Creek and recommendations for restoration. Perseverance prevailed as the necessary support and $10 million in funding was secured. In 2005, about 80,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments were removed.
  • The Great Lakes have lost more than 50 percent of coastal wetlands since the 1900s. Research led by Don Uzarski of AWRI pinpoints how that loss is impacting the natural environment by increased erosion and the loss of macro-invertebrates and a host of different fish communities.

The information services center is the third major program of AWRI. The ISC conducts environmental research projects through an emphasis on Geographic Information System technology. ISC staff members collect, process and analyze GIS data to draw conclusions and recommendations about how a system is functioning, specifically at the watershed level. ISC staff members are researching visualization software, which enables researchers to create digital images of what a community might look like in the future. This will help planning and zoning officials make development decisions that factor in information about natural resources. 

As the institute has grown, its mission has expanded to include an emphasis at both the regional and national levels. AWRI has become a resource for scientists, policymakers, citizen groups, regulators and the general public.

AWRI faculty teach both undergraduate and graduate classes. With the recent addition of a master's degree in biology, graduate students have the option of choosing a master's of science degree with an emphasis in aquatic science.

In 2005, the Lake Michigan Center hosted nearly 100 events and AWRI faculty and staff gave more than 80 presentations. As testament to the importance of furthering its work, more than $850,000 in grants and contracts were awarded to AWRI faculty and staff last year.

What started in the basement of the old Loutit Hall has grown to a multidisciplinary research organization committed to the study of freshwater resources. Integration of the institute's programs allows research findings to be applied to education efforts in classrooms and onboard the vessels, in communities striving to maintain and improve the quality of their environment and natural resources, as well as to the halls of local, state and national government, where decisions are made based on their findings.

"Our growth is a testament to the visions of people such as Ron Ward, Don Lubbers, Doug Kindschi, D.J. Angus, Bob Annis, and Bill Jackson, as well as to the incredible support we have received from communities in the west Michigan region," said Steinman. "Today, our enhanced programs, combined with the unique ability to blend our research, education, and information findings, allow us to make a real difference in the sustainability of our environmental resources."

Page last modified July 22, 2011