Steinman Oversees Liquid Gold

June 14, 2002
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MUSKEGON — Who isn’t attracted to this area by Lake Michigan?

For Alan Steinman, that attraction goes far beyond the scenic beauty of the lake. As a scientist, Steinman wants to know about the lake’s water quality, its habitat and ecosystem, how they are changing and why, and what can be done to preserve the lake for future generations.

After all, he says, there’s only so much fresh water in the world to go around. With the growing demands for access to Lake Michigan through recreation and increasing development pressures, as well as talk about the possibility of future diversions of water to other regions of the country, the forces affecting the lake are only going to become more acute in the future, Steinman said.

He wants to play a role in addressing them.

“Water is the gold standard,” said Steinman, the new director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. “It’s of such value, I don’t think people really appreciate its value. That is literally liquid gold out there.”

Steinman took over the reins of the Annis Water Resources Institute on Aug. 15 following the retirement of long-time director Ron Ward. He joined GVSU shortly after the opening of the new $5.5 million Lake Michigan Center along Muskegon Lake that houses the institute, as well as classrooms and laboratories.

Steinman came to West Michigan from Florida, where he ran the Lake Okeechobee Restoration Program, an effort with a $30 million annual budget and a staff of 50 to restore the freshwater lake that feeds Florida’s Everglades, which, he said, “has been abused for 50 years.” After eight years, Steinman was looking to move on, wary of the politics that went with the publicly funded initiative.

“I was doing more and more administration and less and less science,” he said.

Among the positions he looked at during his job search was the directorship at GVSU’s Water Resources Institute. Steinman and his fiancée paid a visit to Muskegon and found the community to their liking.

Steinman also was drawn by the professional opportunity to run a freshwater research center that’s preparing tomorrow’s scientists, is looking to broaden its mission, and has a heritage of community outreach by taking the information it learns and applying it in the surrounding communities.

“It seemed to hold a lot of different aspects I was looking for in one place,” Steinman said. “I felt like a lottery winner. Everybody had put in all this hard work and I just walk in and reap the benefits.”

Steinman, 44, worked for a private consulting firm for a year in San Diego, Calif., before moving to Florida. Prior to San Diego, where he was project manager for a diversion project on the Tijuana River, Steinman spent six years as a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oakridge National Laboratory in Oakridge, Tenn.

Steinman holds a Ph.D. in ecology and botany from Oregon State University, a master’s in botany from the University of Rhode Island and a bachelor’s in botany from the University of Vermont.

A Vermont native who once started a recycling center in his hometown while growing up, Steinman started out as a political science major and initially wanted to become an attorney practicing environmental law. That changed while he was taking environmental studies courses, as Steinman grew uncomfortable with the lack of hard scientific data that was being presented.

“I knew I had to have a harder science to go into,” he said.

He chose limnology — the study of inland waters — an area that was understudied and an emerging science back in the late 1970s, Steinman said.

Now with GVSU, and with what the university envisions will become a premier freshwater research facility nationally, Steinman wants to elevate the Water Resources Institute “to the next level” and have it “start tackling bigger issues that will have a national perspective.”

“The question is where do we go from here,” Steinman said. “The ultimate goal is to maximize its presence.”

Achieving that goal will require the institute to reach out further to the community for support. Steinman wants to have a “very, very healthy” relationship with the business community, and plans to reach out to the agricultural community to further address issues such as runoff from farmlands into lakes and streams.

Steinman’s goal is to build on the institute’s success in providing sound data and articulating its findings to those who make public policy, so they in turn can make sound decisions on how to address issues.

“We need to provide the best and the most rigorous science the decision-makers can have in their hands,” he said.

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