Anthony Arnone | October 30, 2023

Restoring the Great Lakes

A 15-year-long monitoring program offers students and faculty the opportunity to take part in research to protect and improve the health of the Great Lakes.

Students on a boat catching fish for research in Lake Ontario

The Great Lakes are the world’s largest freshwater system, accounting for nearly 20% of Earth’s surface freshwater. With fears of a global water crisis on the horizon, it is paramount to maintain a healthy ecosystem for the Great Lakes.

What made us (SUNY Brockport) special from other applicants is that our department had specialists in all of the areas they wanted to monitor.
Douglas Wilcox

In 2010, SUNY Brockport, led by Professor Emeritus Douglas Wilcox, partnered with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through Central Michigan University on the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program (CWMP). Prior to the program, research was often conducted on a smaller scale, focusing on a single lake during a single period of time. The CWMP recruited a large group of researchers to use a standardized set of procedures to take a comprehensive approach to sample and assess all major coastal wetlands throughout the Great Lakes Basin.

“The program monitors birds, amphibians, fish, macroinvertebrates and plant communities, and water quality in wetlands of the Great Lakes area both on the United States and Canadian side,” Wilcox said. “What made us special from other applicants is that our department had specialists in all of the areas they wanted to monitor.”

Funding for the program flows in five-year cycles, with the current cycle spanning from 2020 to 2025. The data gathered by the University are categorized by several methods, including the Index of Biological Integrity, a scoring system used to measure strong responses to human disturbance or pollution in wetlands.

“The numbers we gather can tell us the condition of the wetlands and provide a baseline to try and restore them,” said Associate Professor Kathryn Amatangelo, who now leads the program. “We can see how the numbers change over time and the hope is, as we continue to do restoration projects, things will get better.”

Rachel Schultz (right) gathering samples with students in the wetlands of Braddock Bay.

Rachel Schultz (right) and students gathering research samples in the wetlands of Braddock Bay.

The EPA utilizes the research to publish the State of the Great Lakes, which reports on the current condition of the Great Lakes and the projects done to restore and protect them. It also answers common questions such as is the water drinkable, are the fish safe to eat, and are the beaches safe for swimming?

“The report that gets put out by the EPA gives a health check record of each of the Great Lakes and how they are doing,” Associate Professor Rachel Schultz said. “One of the lakes we work the most on is Lake Ontario and their latest report indicates it is showing improvement.”

The University has been awarded over $3.5 million from the EPA dating back to the first cycle. The funding allows faculty and staff from the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology to conduct research and hire graduate students to take part in both the field and lab.

“The money provides funding for four graduate students, one for each aspect of the Great Lakes,” Amatangelo said. “Having a vibrant community of graduate students conducting research and us going into the field with them creates a lot of positive energy and excitement that keeps students connected to the research.”

The money also funds the work of six undergraduate students who work alongside graduate students as assistants in the field. Then, once the undergraduate students gain hands-on experience, they can discover what areas of research they are interested in and continue to pursue similar opportunities throughout their time at Brockport.

Kathryn Amatangelo helping a student conduct research ... Kathryn Amatangelo helping a student conduct research on an invasive plant species in our on-campus greenhouse.

Investing in the Future

Throughout the 2022-2023 academic year, the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology had more than 20 active research projects that amounted to millions of dollars in funding. The projects extend beyond the Great Lakes to major biomes including the Finger Lakes, Genesee River, and even cross state lines.

  • $1,147,000: Continuation of the Great Lakes CWMP – Kathryn Amatangelo, Michael Chislock, Rachel Schultz, and Matthew Altenritter
  • $248,990: Restoring wetlands in Central and Western NY through the removal of the invasive grass Brachypodium sylvaticumAndie Graham
  • $198,481: Do lake trout eggs and free embryos require thiamine during development in wild populations? – Jacques Rinchard
  • $158,363: Monitoring of U.S Lakes Ontario Coastal wetland habitat in support of adaptive management – Rachel Schultz
  • $155,614: Migration ecology and demographics of eastern mallards throughout the full annual cycle – Jacob Straub
  • $114,565: Acoustic telemetry data characterizes movement behaviors of Lake Sturgeon within the Genesee River – Matthew Altenritter
  • $89,188: King Rail distribution and habitat use in Missouri – Kristen Malone
  • $22,873: Seasonal and long-term trends in phytoplankton community structure and water column characteristics in Conesus Lake – Michael Chislock
Jacques Rinchard in the fishery on campus

Research that Makes a Difference

Interested in taking part in research that makes a difference? Reach out to Jacques Rinchard, Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology about our research opportunities

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