5 Questions: Q&A with Hans VanSumeren

Hans VanSumeren is the director of

the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute

at Northwestern Michigan College,

a program started in 2004.

BN: Water has really risen to near the top of NMC's priorities. Why?

HV: Water represents one of our region's major underpinnings in terms of future development and in terms of the challenges we're going to face in the Great Lakes and around the globe. We want to be leaders in education and research. We also see new industries and hundreds of thousands of jobs focusing on water. It's a resource we just can't create. So, we developed the nation's first associate's degree in freshwater studies. Other schools offer bachelors or advanced degrees, but our niche is that entry level, and then we can collaborate with all those other institutions as well.

BN: Your organization is partnering with others to survey the bottom of the Grand Traverse Bay. That's got to be fascinating.

HV: Absolutely. Last summer we started the first year of the Grand Traverse Bay Hydrographic Survey using advanced sonars looking at the bay in ways it has never been looked at. If you're a boater on a boat, you're using a chart from 1939, which was created back then with lead lines and a sextant. So this process will be incredibly valuable from that standpoint. And, it will tell us for possible future offshore wind uses, where are areas that would not threaten sensitive habitats.

BN: I've heard stories about sunken cars, ships…

HV: Lots of those stories have come out of the woodwork. We actually did uncover a ship wreck, the Lauren Castle, which sank in 1980. The first round of surveying didn't allow us 100 percent coverage…only certain strips. This year's coverage will be pretty complete. Who knows what we'll find. Did you know there were aircraft carriers in bay in the 1940s for training? They tested unmanned aircraft here.

BN: How at-risk is the bay? Would a diver fifty years ago notice major changes today?

HV: The impact of many different things has been enormous. Even twenty years ago we'd see a virtual snowstorm on the bottom with no sunlight and many bottom fish. Today, you go 200 feet deep and you still see sunlight. We rarely use our lights down there. The dust is gone, and those little, shrimp-like animals are a few percent of what they used to be. The biggest risks of course are high levels of nutrients, which can be man-induced or from invasive species.

BN: You've got a very cool job.

HV: Yes, I do. How many community colleges have research vessels? And a

maritime academy, and an aviation program with float planes? And we're 100 yards from the Boardman River and right on the doorstep to the Great Lakes. This place is a perfect learning lab.