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November 8, 2006
Posted online November 16, 2006

Boat, facilities aid SIUC research on rivers

By Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale are increasing their ability to study the rivers surrounding Southern Illinois.

Scientists are using a research center on public land near East Cape Girardeau that affords them ideal conditions to study floodplain wetland habitat and related factors. At the same time, the University this spring expects to take delivery of a new 25-foot, state-of-the-art research boat, which will greatly increase researchers' range, safety and comfort as they conduct surveys and experiments on the Mississippi River.

Taken together, the developments underscore the University's commitment to leading research on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, two cultural and economic treasures of Southern Illinois, said John A. Koropchak, vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate school at SIUC.

"We have two of the biggest rivers in the United States on either side of us here," Koropchak said.

"They are part of our heritage and our responsibility, and this will allow us to continue our leading research. If we're not in a position to do this research, no one should be."

A matching funds grant from the University, in conjunction with funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is paying for the $175,000 boat, which researchers in the Fisheries & Illinois Aquaculture Center will use to navigate the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and perhaps beyond.

Currently, researchers use large, open johnboats to traverse the river's unforgiving waters. James E. Garvey, an associate professor in the Fisheries & Illinois Aquaculture Center, said the new boat is a huge improvement.

"The main thing is safety," Garvey said. "This boat will provide a much safer working environment for us. It will also allow us to keep our electronic equipment inside instead of exposed in an open boat."

Garvey said the new boat's range makes it possible to conduct research as far south as New Orleans, if necessary. The boat, which is being built in Washington and includes a heated cabin and foam safety collar around the hull to prevent sinking, also will make SIUC more competitive in pursuing research dollars.

"It will help us get further grants," said Garvey, who was instrumental in obtaining the grant for the boat. "It puts us in a position where we're pretty marketable as a research organization."

The University will store the boat in a large metal building at the Middle Mississippi River Wetlands Field Station, a facility near East Cape Girardeau that the University manages under an agreement with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The 1,400-acre site, which includes shoreline, consists mostly of restored floodplain that previously had been drained and used for agriculture use.

Matt R. Whiles, associate professor of zoology at SIUC, said students and researchers from several fields are using the site for research.

"We are managing it as a research, education and demonstration facility for wetland restoration and sustainable floodplain use," Whiles said.

The pole barn structure currently on site provides storage, some laboratory facilities and modest overnight accommodations for researchers. Whiles said the facility holds great potential.

"Eventually, we'd like to do some renovations and build a few more buildings, dorms and classroom space," he said. "It can be a focal point for large river and floodplain research. Having facilities like this makes us very attractive to students and visiting faculty looking to work in this field."

Koropchak said one source of revenue for those future upgrades might be the fees the University collects from barge owners who tie up along the property. He said the facility lends itself heavily to interdisciplinary research, which granting organizations look at closely.

"The Middle Mississippi River is unique, and there has been less research done on that area,' Koropchak said. "This gives us a unique opportunity to explore this part of our Southern Illinois heritage."

Identifying, pursuing and obtaining new sources of external grant and contract funding and enhancing and developing new centers of research, scholarship and creative activity excellence are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

© 2005 The Cairo Gate