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Alan Steinman stepped down in August after 21 years as director of the Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. Alan Steinman stepped down in August after 21 years as director of the Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. COURTESY PHOTO

Steinman steps down as GVSU Annis Water Resources Institute director to pursue research

BY Wednesday, October 19, 2022 03:39pm

MUSKEGON — Alan Steinman, who helped grow Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute in size and prominence within the Great Lakes region during his 21 years as director, recently stepped down to focus on research full time.

Steinman officially left the position on Aug. 5, more than two decades after taking the helm of the Muskegon-based research facility. In that time, the Institute has expanded from one to three buildings and grew its staff from about 15 to 70 people. 

It also has emerged as a highly respected center on Great Lakes basin research. Its home base in Muskegon played a key role in the process to soon delist Muskegon Lake from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Areas of Concern list. As well, the Institute expanded outward to assist cleanup efforts at several other West Michigan lakes, including White Lake, Lake Macatawa and Mona Lake, to name a few. 

Under Steinman’s leadership, the Annis Water Resources Institute grew from a “glorified consulting company” into a “bonafide research institute,” Steinman said. The Institute was considered a base of administrative professionals instead of a formal academic unit at GVSU.

“My first priority was to turn it into more of a bonafide academic institute,” Steinman told MiBiz. “That required changing the way we were perceived by the university so we could be professors and faculty members. That was not a trivial exercise. It took three to four years to be approved. … It’s a very different institute in many respects.”

After a major capital campaign to bring the Institute to Muskegon, Steinman said the organization felt a “sense of responsibility to the community,” which included long-term monitoring of the health of Muskegon Lake.

“That helped us inform the restoration process. A lot of activity focused on our own backyard,” he said.

In addition to the hard science, Steinman said the Institute has “developed a sense of partnership and trust” with the community and other organizations, including the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.

“That was really critical,” he said. “Once we started doing that kind of work and showed capacity around all of those (scientific) elements that go into a restoration program, other entities showed an interest. People were recognizing that, one, we’re honest brokers and don’t have an agenda. And two, that we’re competent at doing it.”

Steinman added that other Great Lakes researchers approaching the Institute for research projects shows a “sign of respect among our peers and recognition that we do good work and are good collaborators. It’s humbling and reassuring.”

Everglades to Great Lakes

Steinman came to Michigan in 2001 after nearly eight years as director of the Lake Okeechobee Division of the South Florida Water Management District, a position that oversaw the high-stakes implications of development in the Florida Everglades and the area’s restoration.

It was a “litigious, aggressive environment” that included armed guards at public meetings and a death threat. 

“The decisions we made were responsible for affecting billions of dollars and people’s livelihoods,” Steinman said.

He soon found a more hospitable environment in West Michigan, where an initial presentation involving Spring Lake ended with a standing ovation.

“I was absolutely shocked and thought, ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore,’” he said. “I appreciate the people here so much — not just their philanthropy, but their kindness and generosity. The vast majority of people want to do right. That was one of the reasons I stayed, honestly.”

Perhaps ironically, Steinman currently spends some of his time back in Florida as part of a National Academy of Sciences project studying the Everglades’ progress. 

His biggest takeaway after leaving Florida more than 20 years ago: “Science doesn’t dictate policy, it informs policy. That’s a recognition I think all scientists need to know. If you expect science to do an immediate translation into policy, you’re on a fool’s errand. You need to work with policymakers. Science is important and needs to be communicated in language that people really understand.”

The lesson remains evident in Steinman, who communicates his and others’ research on the Great Lakes and inland lakes in digestible and clear language.

“Some of that is intentional. I could use lots of jargon, but what good is that going to do? Some of it is intuitive and comes naturally,” he said.

His career in water resources management has also spanned decades of turnover in political administrations.

“My goal has always been to be nonpolitical when it comes to the science,” he said. “I think that shows, and it’s why I’ve been able to garner respect on the Republican and Democratic side. They know that if they come to me, they’re going to get objective science. That’s always been a constant.”

Steinman will now focus his professional attention full time on both technical water research as well as “water policy-related activities.” He wanted to step away from some of the administrative duties and, in the process, bring in new leadership. He is also a recent grandfather and aims to spend more time with his family.

“Twenty-one years is a long time to be a director, and if you include 10 years I was directing ecosystem restoration in the Everglades, more than 30 years managing people. That’s a lot of time to be doing that,” he said. “I wanted to focus more on research and active research in the lab, but not be diluted by the need to run the Institute.”

Since Steinman’s departure, Mark Luttenton — who has more than 30 years of experience at GVSU and a longtime affiliation with the Annis Water Resources Institute — has served as interim director.

“With Dr. Steinman as the director, AWRI has been able to advance our understanding of water resources in the region and improve those resources,” Luttenton said in a recent AWRI monthly newsletter. “I plan to fully support the continued growth and success of AWRI.”

Though it predated his time at the Institute, the decades-long effort to delist Muskegon Lake from the federal Areas of Concern list serves as a fitting capstone to Steinman’s leadership. He described it as a “real sense of success,” but noted that “the problems facing the lake are not all going to go away magically,” citing climate change and invasive species as ongoing challenges.

“The vigilance needs to continue,” Steinman said.

Steinman, 65, says he’s now old enough to retire, “but I don’t want to. I love the job. I love that every day brings new challenges.”

“We’ve been very fortunate in Muskegon for the last 21 years in that the university has treated us with benign neglect: They trust us not to do anything stupid, and the neglect is to not micromanage,” he said. “That’s exactly how I wanted to be treated. That has allowed us to succeed.”

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