Monday, March 26, 2007

Scientists Clean Up Everything From Bad Plumbing To Bad Policy

For years, UW-Milwaukee has been scratching its collective bureaucratic head and wondering: "How can we position ourselves as a science and research center?"

It has looked westward to UW-Madison with envy, as that university campus assumed leadership and won decades of grants in biotech and other sciences.

But through inertia, or some other human tendency to overlook institutions or people already on the scene that consistently perform at a high level, UW-Milwaukee has failed to capitalize on its Great Lakes WATER Institute - - even though its staff and expertise are key ingredients in the push for conservation, water-based public health, and Great Lakes sustainability.

Around here, those are pretty hot topics.

Case in point: WATER Institute professor Sandra McLellan, an expert in water and beach quality, has found that dangerous E. coli bacteria is on Bradford Beach where stormwater pipes owned by Milwaukee County routinely deposit polluted water.

McLellan also has noted - - and it's a point consistently worth repeating - - that while polluted stormwater presents the most serious dangers to public health, the general public misperception, shaped by media, is that sewage overflows, not stormwater pollution, presents the major public risk.

So the WATER Institute affects the public understanding of issues and risk factors, and can have an impact on policies that fix problems, too.

For a university looking for greater research credibility, that sounds like a mission statement.

Similarly, McLellan helped Miller Park discover that it was inadvertantly sending human waste into the Menomonee River.

It is known among scientists and regulators that the wrong plumbing connection at Miller Park is not the only mistaken or accidental source of fecal pollution ending up in the area's rivers, streams and lakes.

Elsewhere, WATER Institute professors are bringing years of experience with the region's groundwater into the debate over water resource management, and specifically into whether possible diversions from Lake Michigan are the wisest and most sustainable activities.

These UW-M scientists have created fact sheets and power point presentations about the region's water supply, all of which helps inject top-flight data, computer models and informed opinion into the water debate.

Along with colleagues in related agencies, WATER Institute personnel are getting solid information into studies and eventual recommendations by the regional planning commission (SEWRPC) and a state legislative study committee on the Great Lake Compact.

Materials posted by The US Geological Survey, and another scientific team that works closely with the WATER Institute here are helping policy-makers interpret differently Waukesha's suggestion that it was already part of the Lake Michigan basin through what it called "tributary groundwater."

So UW-Milwaukee doesn't have to look much farther than its Great Lakes WATER Institute for a research identity and anchor.

What the school needs is a media and grant-writing strategy to better promote and utilize the experts it already has on board, and who are well-connected with a larger scientific community, but are sometimes unappreciated.

The Great Lakes WATER Institute can become the authoritative site for information and policy recommendations about Great Lakes water conservation and resource management.

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