Once a main link for industry and communities, the Grand River is now a recreational destination for tourists and a backyard ecological paradise for countless homes and businesses dotting its riverbanks.
Although much work has been done through the years to clean up the river that runs through our city, the Grand still has a long way to go before it reclaims its former pristine status.
Look to the past
“The river is fairly young,” Grand Valley State University environmental chemist Rick Rediske said. “It came into play when the glaciers receded years ago.”
As the glaciers receded and the river formed, forests and wetlands grew along the riverside — a stark contrast to the farm fields, golf courses and homes seen along many parts of the river today.
For many years, the river was left to its natural state. In 1837 a Grand River Times reporter called the river “the most important and delightful to be found in the country.” It was described as having clear water that winds “its way through a romantic valley.”
“It was certainly a forested river, and then agriculture and logging came along,” Rediske said. “The river changed dramatically.”
The riverbanks became stuffed with mills and factories, and the water was jammed with logs and dams.
In 1889, Grand Rapids resident Everette Fitch described the river as a sewer, and wrote that it was “covered with a green odiferous scum, mixed with oil from the gas works.”
In the many years that humans and the river have coexisted, historian Wallace Ewing said that it was in recent history that some of the major pollution occurred.
“Clearly, the worst polluter would have been the leather tanning companies,” he said.
Tanneries dumped much of their industrial byproducts directly into the river.
Other businesses contributed to the problem, pouring industrial pollutants upstream in the Grand Rapids and Lansing areas.
After decades of pollution, the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 limited the amount of chemical and biological waste that could be discharged into surface water.
Yet these contaminants linger. Results of a series of Environmental Protection Agency studies in the early 2000s found that the Grand River is the largest tributary source to Lake Michigan for lead, DDT compounds and atrazine, and the second largest source for mercury.
The present day
Local environmental experts say that despite longstanding contamination and recent flooding, the Grand is on the upswing.
“You can look at it from a lot of different points of view,” said Dan O’Keefe, an educator with Michigan Sea Grant. “The bottom line, from what’s going on in the Grand River, is positive.”
The key is less sewage going into the river.
This is because officials in Grand Rapids cleaned up the city’s act, O’Keefe said. The city has spent millions of dollars in the past decade to improve its wastewater treatment and sewer systems.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes noted that prior to Grand Rapids’ improvement efforts, the city released 6-12 billion gallons of raw sewage and storm water per year into the Grand River. That is enough sewage to fill up to 18,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The city’s plan — developed in 1988 before the federal policy was issued — set the goal to completely eliminate sewage overflow by 2019.
There is still much work to be done to meet that goal.
Grand Rapids released about 49 million gallons into the Grand River in 2011 and 34 million gallons in 2012. That’s a more than 99 percent reduction in sewage overflow during the past two decades.
Recent flooding, however, tested the city’s sewage capacity and systems. In the past few weeks, the city released up to 300 million gallons into the Grand River. This led to the issuance of a no contact advisory, which means people should avoid contact with the river because of the potential presence of harmful bacteria.
“A lot of it is a human health issue with the sewage,” O’Keefe said.
Randy Rapp, an environmental health supervisor at the Ottawa County Health Department, said he believes the river has an unfair reputation.
“Especially when it rains,” he said. “I think that there are some misconceptions.”
Some of these misconceptions include the color of the water — a brown tinge that Rediske said is more a result of runoff and plant material than it is about sewage.
Despite challenges, county experts said results of e.coli tests – which indicate the presence of fecal matter – have actually been low in the river.
E.coli tests during the summer of 2012 resulted in yields of less than 100. An acceptable count is less than 300.
“The major crisis, from my standpoint, is we’re getting much more runoff from urban landscapes,” Rediske said. “That is causing big changes in what we call the hydrology.”
This means that the river responds much more rapidly to precipitation events since rain immediately drains into the river, rather than soaking in.
“If you turn back to pre-settlement times, trees sucked up all of the water,” Rediske said.
The way to improve river quality now is reducing runoff from urban areas and farmland.
The Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds group has created a management plan aimed at doing just that. The plan calls for the use of infiltration techniques in urban areas, and working with farmers to improve tilling techniques and creating buffer zones.
Ottawa County Commissioner Matt Fenske said local farmers do what they can to protect the river environment.
By using a combination of trees, shrubs and grasses, water quality can be improved by removing sediment and chemicals before they reach the water. Buffer zones are also known to moderate flooding, recharge groundwater supplies, prevent erosion, and preserve wildlife habitat.
“Certainly, it is really important in Ottawa County because we’re the No. 2 agriculture producer in the state of Michigan,” Fenske said.
He said that alternative tilling reduces the amount of soil churned up during planting, and livestock farmers are being more careful about animal waste disposal.
“For farmers, they have to get rid of waste, and they have to be careful in how they do it,” Fenske said.
Efforts paying off
Grand Haven resident Kathy Kremer said work to improve the river’s quality is clearly delivering results.
“Between Grand Rapids and Riverside Park, I see people all of the time, much more than I did in 2007,” she said. “People realize what a valuable resource it is and it isn’t the river that it was 40 years ago.”
Kremer, an avid kayaker, said people have realized the importance of river quality.
“There are issues, but it is improving,” she said. “The situation today compared to 10 years ago is night and day.”
Others who live along the river also noted improvements, but said more still needs to be done.
Grand Haven Township resident Ken Larson expressed concerns about the recent discharge of untreated sewage and runoff caused by flooding.
“Prior to the flooding, the Grand River watershed was a positive biological system that has come about in the last 40 years,” he said. “Given time and, after the flood waters recede, the river will rebound to a safe and healthy state.”