Sea Grant 50th Anniversary: Celebrating the work of our Extension educators

Katy Hintzen is excited about projects and partnerships developing in the Saginaw Bay area.

Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator Katy Hintzen works with youth at the Saginaw Bay Fishing Camp. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator Katy Hintzen works with youth at the Saginaw Bay Fishing Camp. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

In 2016, the National Sea Grant College Program celebrates 50 years of putting science to work for America’s coastal communities.

Sea Grant is a federal-state partnership that turns research into action by supporting science-based, environmentally sustainable practices that ensure coastal communities remain engines of economic growth in a rapidly changing world. There are 33 programs across the country working to help build and grow innovative businesses along America’s oceans and Great Lakes, protect against environmental destruction and natural disasters, and train the next generation of leaders.

Established in 1969, Michigan Sea Grant, is a collaboration between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. We offer research, education and community outreach on topics such as aquatic invasive species, coastal development, commercial and sports fishing, and environmental stewardship for youth. 

Our MSU Extension educators live and work in coastal communities around Michigan. We celebrate their hard work and take this opportunity to introduce each of them during this anniversary year.

Katy Hintzen, housed in Bay City and serving Arenac, Bay, Tuscola, Huron and Sanilac counties, has been an extension educator for one year. Before joining Sea Grant, she worked in policy and communications with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, working with cattle ranchers to reduce deforestation in the Amazon watershed. Katy has a master’s degree from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment with a focus on environmental policy and environmental justice. She received her bachelor’s degree in history from McGill University with an emphasis in environmental history.

When she’s not working Katy loves camping, kayaking, and trail running her way through Michigan’s amazing nature. She grew up a mile from Lake Michigan and always feels a little claustrophobic in landlocked places.

What made you decide to be an extension educator?

I’m really interested in how local communities can play a more active role in natural resource conservation and research projects. Sea Grant is incredibly effective at this. Because Sea Grant works with universities, government agencies, and community stakeholders we are uniquely positioned to foster partnerships based on common conservation goals. Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Great Lakes I saw a lot of Sea Grant’s work first hand so when an opening came up to join with the Extension program I jumped on it.  

How has Michigan Sea Grant made a difference in the Saginaw Bay area?

Two big areas that Michigan Sea Grant has made an impact on in the Saginaw Bay region are environmental education and community resiliency.  We support innovative environmental education initiatives such as a recent project with 150 students from across six different schools and youth groups to reduce runoff pollution by bringing rain barrels to their schools and the Saginaw Bay Fishing Camp, which educates young anglers about the science, skills, and ethics behind good fisheries stewardship. In addressing community resiliency, Sea Grant led an effort to survey close to 300 decision makers across the watershed gathering information on community preparedness for extreme storm events.

What challenges does your area of the state face as you look to the future?

The Saginaw Bay watershed is the largest watershed in Michigan covering more than 8,700 square miles. That means a land area larger than the state of Connecticut drains into one relatively shallow warm bay. Like Western Lake Erie or Green Bay in Wisconsin this results on some water quality challenges. Runoff from both urban and agricultural areas all ends up in the bay and brings with it a variety of contaminants including excess nutrients, bacteria, sediment, and heavy metals.

Habitat conservation is another major issue. The counties around Saginaw Bay have seen some of the largest rates of historic wetlands loss anywhere in the state. Despite that, the region still contains the largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetland system in the country. Saginaw Bay wetlands support a world class walleye fishery and a host of diverse bird species.

Finally community resiliency in the face of both natural and economic stressors is an important concern. The Saginaw Bay region is home to a diverse mix of urban and rural communities. These communities share a common vulnerability to natural stressors such as extreme storms and lake level fluctuations and economic stressors such as population loss and unemployment.   

How will you and Michigan Sea Grant help?

Michigan Sea Grant is involved in some exciting projects related to all of these issues. In water quality we are working as part of the outreach team on developing and testing a forecasting tool to help farmers and agri-businesses make informed decisions about their nutrient inputs on the land to reduce runoff that impacts our waterways and Great Lakes. We are also partnering with the East Michigan Council of Governments to bring stormwater management and green infrastructure workshops to the region.

Sea Grant is developing partnerships with a variety of communities and economic development leaders across Michigan to advance sustainable natural resource based tourism such as kayaking and birding tails. This will help conserve valuable habitat while also bringing new economic opportunities to struggling coastal economies.

We are also continuing work on our Saginaw Bay watershed extreme storms project using feedback gained from our survey of decision makers to inform new outreach and education projects aimed at improving community resiliency to extreme storms.

Do you have any advice for students who might want to pursue a career with an environmental focus?

What I love most about the environmental field is how interdisciplinary it is. Science skillsets like ecology, biology, geology, or hydrology are incredibly important but we also need economists, lawyers, anthropologists, and communications specialists. Take every opportunity you can to partner with diverse teams from across different specialties. 

If you could get people to follow just one piece of conservation advice what would it be?

Get engaged in the decision-making process. It’s one of the most impactful conservation actions you can take. A small number of people make the majority of decisions about how our Great Lakes and coastal resources are used. The Great Lakes are one of our nation’s most valuable resources. They belong to the public and we have a responsibility to make sure that while we are benefiting from and utilizing Great Lakes resources we are also preserving them for future generations.

Join a local watershed council or citizen’s advisory group, research and comment on proposed regulations, attend public meetings in your area, contact your elected officials and tell them what conservation issues are important to you. There are lots of options to get involved.