June 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

OUR EDITORIAL

Editorial: Consortium dives into Great Lakes research

Higher education group smart way to help protect and improve water resources

Michigan’s greatest natural resource is water, and among its best human resources are its well-established and prestigious universities. So it’s only logical that higher education play an important role in enhancing the quality of the state’s water sources.

With that goal in mind, Michigan’s University Research Corridor — composed of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University — has accomplished some impressive work since it was formed in 2007.

The group accounted for nearly $300 million in water research, education and outreach over the past five years, according to the report “Innovating for the Blue Economy: Water Research at the URC.”

Considerable funding came from federal grants, but state and college resources were also used, notes Jeff Mason, corridor executive director.

Additionally, every year the three universities produce more than 3,400 graduates who are prepared for careers in water-related academic fields as well as in government and the private sector. About 40 percent of the graduates earn advanced degrees and 60 percent stay in Michigan to work. This is a critical factor in trying to combat the “brain drain,” where state universities educate youth but the graduates don’t remain in Michigan.

The Corridor’s primary impact involves research on the major lakes bordering the state and the inland lakes, streams and wetlands that make up Great Lakes basin. But there is also a global reach where the universities share findings and help with water systems throughout the world.

Some of the research includes Great Lakes restoration, with a focus on wetlands, fisheries, invasive species, and ecosystems; water monitoring and filtering technologies, identifying and dealing with chemical and biological agents; and agriculture-related research, ranging from dealing with drought to minimizing and monitoring runoff from fields.

There’s no doubt about the need and use of water in Michigan’s economy. The numbers speak for themselves.

Michigan ranks fourth in the nation in employment in industries involving water quality and quantity. More than 718,000 workers, or one in five Michigan jobs, are in water-related fields.

In one of our major industries, tourism generated $17.7 billion of direct spending, $995 million in state taxes and 200,000 jobs in 2011, the report stated.

Commercial fishing also is a major economic contributor, valued at $7 billion annually and providing 75,000 direct jobs. Sport fishing adds another $4 billion a year.

“URC research is varied and is helping diversify Michigan’s economy,” Mason said.

The corridor’s efforts to enhance manufacturing, particularly in the auto industry, are commendable, especially since cars and trucks are such a vital part of the state’s economy. Keeping the industry vibrant and progressive should be a priority.

But the recession of 2008 should have taught Michigan residents a hard lesson. Relying too heavily on the auto industry can be risky. So, it is particularly important for the universities to keep delving into the non-manufacturing areas of water-related research to help diversify the economy.

If handled prudently and properly, Michigan’s water resources should sustain the state for generations.