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From Oceans to the Everglades and in between: Institute watches over our water

From Oceans to the Everglades and in between: Institute watches over our water

January 9, 2019 at 12:00am

By Eric Barton

Todd Crowl can remember a time a few years ago when it wasn’t so easy to qualify for million-dollar research grants.

An aquatic ecologist, Crowl said funding agencies’ requests for proposals often included requirements he just couldn’t meet. Sometimes that meant having access to advanced computer analytics or specialists in far-flung fields of research.

Now, though, Crowl rarely has to let one go. Ever since FIU formed the Institute of Water and Environment in 2016, he and his colleagues have access to specialists across dozens of fields. Located within the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, the institute makes collaboration possible among 100 FIU scientists, academics and researchers.

The wide capacity to harness top experts has expanded FIU’s influence on issues such as Everglades restoration, sea level rise and more.

“We are trying to empower the decision makers with our ability to share information and data,” said Crowl, a professor and director of the institute. “We tout ourselves as being big in addressing problems with solution-based answers.”

Over the years, staff who are today connected to the institute have on their own brought in a total of more than $100 million in research funding from grants and other sources. Now, formally connected to one another, that success is expected to grow exponentially. One recent example: a $5 million National Science Foundation grant that funds the cooperative work of aquatic chemists, computer scientists and hydrologists.

“That’s a proposal we couldn’t have written if we hadn’t created this breadth of science from many walks of life,” Crowl said. “We’re in a unique position to change policy, influence decision making and educate the public on how they can work together on water issues.”

Southeast Environmental Research

The Institute of Water and Environment
did not have to start from scratch. For the past 25 years, FIU’s Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC) has been a core solutions center for South Florida’s unique environmental challenges.

In the early 1990s, Florida and
federal regulators were at odds over the Everglades—specifically, how to fix the imperiled ecosystem. SERC was created with the goal of providing government agencies with unbiased data free of politics. Today, SERC’s research and monitoring programs are a core component of the institute.

This includes the Water Quality Monitoring Network and the Center for Aquatic Chemistry and the Environment. The former oversees quarterly sampling from sites stretching between Miami and Marco Island and south through the Florida Keys, providing data that offer a big-picture look at the health of South Florida’s coast. The latter looks at how environmental contamination affects water systems.

When the National Science Foundation established the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research program in 2000 to study sensitive areas within the Everglades, FIU was the obvious choice to serve as host. Today, faculty, students and researchers representing 30 universities, government agencies and other partners are working together.

Since launching, the program has led 
to groundbreaking research and key discoveries about the fragile Everglades ecosystem, on which a third of Floridians rely for water. Perhaps one of the most important contributions the program has made in its 18 years is the development of
a communications tool used to inform the U.S. Congress and other policymakers about the science of Everglades restoration. That has become a model for communicating information about other environmental projects in the state and as far as away as Shark Bay, Australia.

Today, scientists within SERC have even more access to data and expertise under the Institute of Water and Environment, according to Piero Gardinali, a chemist and the director of SERC.

This includes collaborations with public health experts, connecting scientists studying contamination with those who understand how it will adversely affect local populations.

“Creating the institute was one of the greatest steps we’ve taken at the university in recent years,” Gardinali said. “Now we have expertise that ranges from freshwater to open seas to the rain forest, you name it.”

Coastal Oceans Research

James Fourqurean has become an international force in the protection and restoration of seagrasses. The marine biologist and director of FIU’s coastal oceans research programs is also a member of the Blue Carbon Initiative, a collaborative comprising various international conservation organizations. The initiative’s goal is to mitigate climate change through the restoration and sustainable use of coastal and marine ecosystems, focusing on mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses. Fourqurean also oversees FIU’s marine education
and outreach programs in the Florida Keys and the Medina Aquarius Program, which houses the world’s only underwater research laboratory.

FIU assumed operational control of the Aquarius Reef Base after federal budget cuts threatened to pull the facility out of the water five years ago. It is the only place in the world where scientists can live and work underwater for weeks at a time. Since the lab’s first deployment along Conch Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary 25 years ago, work conducted there has led to the publication of more than 800 research papers that guide policy and conservation of the world’s oceans.

“Not only does Aquarius offer the opportunity to do experiments and answer questions that would be impossible anywhere else, but working there is an adventure
of a lifetime,” said Frances Farabaugh, a biological sciences Ph.D. student at FIU who spent time in Aquarius in 2016 for a research project on sharks.

Across the globe, FIU’s coastal oceans researchers are leading projects that impact conservation efforts and policy regarding coral reefs, seagrasses, sharks, rays and the overall oceans. This includes Global FinPrint, an international initiative to survey the world’s reef shark and ray populations to better inform conservation initiatives. Having received core funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, Global FinPrint has already supported a shark fishing ban in the Dominican Republic and led to the establishment of a national ray sanctuary in Belize.

International Program

Beyond endangered species, people are also direct beneficiaries of research within the Institute of Water and Environment. Its international program is focused on getting clean water to every person on the planet.
In Haiti, the FIU team developed solutions
to the country’s fractured water system, creating a water management plan that could provide a safe, reliable resource.

FIU and UNESCO earlier this year announced the establishing of the UNESCO Chair on Sustainable Water Security, which is housed within the institute and focuses on advancing water sciences and improving sustainable water management in developing countries where water is scarce. Maria C. Donoso holds the chair. Her international track record includes helping successfully improve water management and policy, build local capacity, and implement water supply, sanitation and hygiene services in Africa, Central America, South America and Asia, including a $21.9 million project to develop an integrated water system in Rwanda.

The chair was formally launched at a conference in September at FIU in which international experts gathered to address regional, national and global water and environmental security issues. It highlighted global challenges and opportunities across the planet at a time when scarcity, quality and accessibility are growing concerns.

Sea Level Solutions

At the Institute of Water and Environment, many research initiatives focus on decades of damage that have imperiled ecosystems and the people, plants and animals that call them home. But its greatest charge for South Florida may be in its newest addition—the Sea Level Solutions Center. Focused on mitigating rising sea levels, Jayantha “Obey” Obeysekera was named director of the center in May. His call to action is simple: Let’s work together.

Obeysekera believes that by joining university forces with other research facilities and government agencies, meaningful solutions can be found to help Floridians overcome the greatest threat facing their way of life today. Through their work within the Institute of Water and Environment, the faculty affiliated with the Sea Level Solutions Center has been well-versed in how to share data and work with scientists from differing backgrounds.

“My primary goal is to make sure the people who are making the decisions have the science they need to counter sea level rise in the future,” said Obeysekera, who previously served as chief modeler at the South Florida Water Management District.

Aquatic ecologist Tiffany Troxler is the director of science and focused on developing solutions that can be used today and help plan for decades to come.
On Miami Beach, Troxler worked with local officials to develop plans to solve current-day flooding issues including the raising of streets and installation of pumping stations. She
also collaborated on a recent project with FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts, hosting a series of community dialogues with historic preservationists, developers and homeowners’ associations on Miami Beach to consider how historic buildings might be impacted, and could be protected, as the seas rise.

“For some of the people in those meetings, it was the first time they had seen that kind of data on sea level rise,” Troxler said. The result was a “collaboration document” that laid out possible solutions, using the combined prowess of FIU scientists and architectural experts.

What’s next?

With a diverse team of researchers working all across the globe, the Institute of Water and Environment has a vigorous research agenda. But it is an agenda that must remain nimble. Some environmental challenges can be predicted. Others, such as oil spills and red tide, can occur without warning.

“Collaborative science is the only solution to the mounting environmental challenges facing humanity,” said Mike Heithaus, a marine biologist and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. “At FIU, we are aggressively pursuing solutions that are already making a difference. We are preparing the next generation of scientists who will develop innovative ways to solve critical challenges in ways we can’t even imagine. And through our outreach and engagement, we are inspiring the generation that will come after to be better stewards of our planet. The Institute of Water and Environment is helping to build a sustainable and inspiring future.”