Lake Superior State University’s Richard & Theresa Barch Center for Freshwater Research & Education Takes Shape

Taking shape next to the east end of Cloverland Electric Cooperative’s historic hydroelectric plant is a stunning, modern 18,000 square foot building soon to open as the Richard and Theresa Barch Center for Freshwater Research & Education (CFRE). As a major expansion of Lake Superior State University’s (LSSU) former Aquatic Research Lab (ARL), CFRE offers the opportunity for high school and college students, plus the community and beyond to learn about Great Lakes ecology.

Designed to be a complete educational and informative experience, every detail of this modern space has been carefully planned for multiple purposes of research, education and community engagement. Upon entrance to the Barch CFRE building in Sault Ste. Marie, visitors will view rain gardens that are aesthetically pleasing, but also use natural landscaping to control storm water. In addition, signage will provide an educational tool for the community to learn about green infrastructure projects.

CFRE team on the balcony of their new facility: Ashley Moerke (director), Kevin Kapuscinski (associate professor & assistant director of research), Roger Greil (hatchery co-manager), Neil Ashton (hatchery co-manager & assistant professor), Kierstin Loomis (coordinator of operations), Jesse Wesolek (research technician), Ross Gay (research technician), Drew Heckman (research technician), Beth Christiansen (outreach & education specialist), Alejandro Molina-Moctezuma (research associate), Shelby Mackie (administrative assistant); not pictured: Jon Doubek (assistant professor) and Scott McLeod (CTE instructor).

Beyond modern entrance doors, visitors will be greeted by a welcome station inviting visitors to become stewards of the Great Lakes. Visitors can explore five themed pods within the Dr. Constance Baker Great Lakes Discovery Center that encompasses the bright and open first floor: fisheries management; coastal wetlands (featuring a symphony of wetlands birds and insects); a lake sturgeon touch tank; invasive species; and watersheds and the working river.

“Our vision is inspiring our community, sustaining our Great Lakes and our mission is to build partnerships to better conserve freshwater resources and protect them for future generations,” says CFRE’s Director, Dr. Ashley Moerke. “We want to be a regional asset by training students and the community to be better Great Lakes stewards.”

Upstairs, there are CFRE partner offices and a conference space for hosting community workshops and a Great Lakes seminar series. In a large lab overlooking the St. Mary’s River, CFRE will host a career technical education (CTE) program in natural resources to enable high school students to learn in a hands-on environment. There are ample opportunities for other regional schools to bring classes in where students will be guided by outreach specialists in place-based learning activities in the state-of-the art science laboratories.

Moerke explains that CFRE already secured $3 million in active research and education grants, including three projects that are training high school teachers how to incorporate Great Lakes science into their classrooms, as well as research addressing how to improve management of invasive species in the river and how to recover threatened lake sturgeon populations. They plan to build upon these programs so visitors of all ages will recognize CFRE as an asset to our region.

“It’s designed to be open and transparent so students can peer into the labs, see science on display, and interact with LSSU and visiting scientists daily,” says Moerke enthusiastically. “It’s a true benefit to our r community to build the next generation of Great Lakes scientists, educators and stewards!”

Neighboring the iconic 119-year old hydro plant, CFRE’s modern design may seem to be a striking contrast of historic and modern, yet a partnership between LSSU and Cloverland pre-dated the building. The partnership dates back to the late 1970s when LSSU began the ARL within the hydro plant of Edison Sault Electric (now Cloverland).

Housed in a small two-story section at the east end of the hydro plant, the continual flow of running water creates an ideal location for a fish hatchery. LSSU students are responsible for day-to-day operations and receive a unique experience in freshwater research and fish culture. With the support of Cloverland and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, they conducted freshwater research and raised and released approximately 30,000 Atlantic salmon into the St. Mary’s River annually for the past nearly 40 years.

The idea for expanding CFRE originated in 2004 when Moerke and her colleagues recognized that without a teaching space to engage the community, the ARL had limitations for growth. Sound is also a barrier at the hydro plant as the noise of the 74 turbines spinning creates a continual hum making it difficult to speak over.

As a freshwater scientist, Moerke also saw the potential for learning in a community with prime geography nestled in the Great Lakes since students could be trained in a hands-on environment. Plans for constructing a building began in 2007 and the first donation from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust for $450,000 launched the project that would take 14 years to come to fruition. The building gained momentum when they were awarded nearly $9 million in funding from the State of Michigan and LSSU’s current Assistant Director of Research, Dr. Kevin Kapuscinski joined the team.

Architects for CFRE recognized the challenge to build next to such an iconic hydro plant facility that runs a quarter mile in length. Rather than mimic its historic Romanesque architecture, designers used a neutral color scheme with a modern design so the building could stand out on its own. The flow and functionality of the facility is designed to connect the interior with the outdoors.

A pathway will connect Barch CFRE building and the CFRE hatchery, which will remain in the hydro plant, but visitors will best experience the activities of the hatchery from the exhibit featuring the live “fish cam” with activity of the Atlantic salmon in the hatchery. Likewise, visitors who wish to learn more about hydroelectricity can view an interactive Cloverland exhibit demonstrating how the working river supports 30 percent of energy generation for the cooperative’s Eastern Upper Peninsula (EUP) service territory.

The CFRE facility was funded from $9 million from the State of Michigan to increase capacity in training students in freshwater education and science. Fundraising by the LSSU Foundation exceeded its initial goal of $4.85 million thanks to the community and generous donors yet fundraising continues to cover cost increases due to pandemic related delays. Over 100 major donors from the EUP community and many outside the area recognized the importance of CFRE’s mission and conservation of the Great Lakes.

When construction costs grew since the time of initial planning, the CFRE team secured $1.5 million in federal grants to cover costs of external design features. A grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration allowed CFRE to acquire equipment housed within the building to conduct water testing and aquaculture research. Another grant funded the St. Mary’s River green stormwater demonstration project that uses green infrastructure to increase runoff infiltration and pollutant removal, create wildlife habitat in a unique riparian area, and provide community education opportunities on the importance of sustainable stormwater management. CFRE will engage students and the community and lead the development of rain gardens, pollinator habitats and treescapes that will include approximately 50 new trees, 400 shrubs and more than 4,000 native flowers planted across the CFRE property.

Located at the site of the former Union Carbide facility, this project returns a former industrial and contaminated site into a natural area to sustainably manage stormwater runoff, protect the water quality of the St. Mary’s River and teach the community about preservation of the Great Lakes.

“It sets an example of how to develop the waterfront and protect the natural resources we all enjoy,” says Moerke.

Given the unique location at the nexus of the Great Lakes, CFRE is poised to play an important role in increasing scientific understanding and education of Great Lakes issues. Transformation of a park that has been empty for decades is nearly complete after nearly two years of construction. CFRE is set to open to the public December 10.

For more information visit cfre/

By: Allie Brawley