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WMEAC: Environmental change begins with the trickle of a small spring

• Jul 20, 2018 at 3:00 PM

The Grand River’s 252 miles span nine counties. Its watershed, an area’s water that flows into a river, spans 18 counties. Its 5,572 square miles extend from Mecosta County in the north to Hillsdale in the south, from Livingston in the east to Ottawa in the west.

A baker’s dozen of major creeks and rivers trickle into the Grand River. So do stormwater and groundwater. All this water, and anything it picks up, flows into the Grand River. The river carries it to Lake Michigan.

Grand Haven sits at the junction between the major lake and river. Anything the Grand River picks up from its start at a spring in rural Hillsdale County onward can be dropped off at its end.

More than a quarter of the land along the Grand River is urban. Sewer overflows and industrial waste can be swept up by stormwater or dumped into Michigan’s longest river.

As of 2010, 17 miles of river around Jackson was above pollution of phosphorous. It made the river susceptible to algal blooms, which can kill off fish and toxify the water.

Bacterial pollution was wiping out a 12-mile stretch near Lansing. Mercury fallout from coal-fired power plants was contaminating fish, making some species dangerous to eat.

More than 50 percent of the land along the Grand River has been developed for agriculture. Pesticides can throw off a river’s chemical balance. So can phosphates and nitrates in fertilizers, leading to algal blooms.

In rural Kent County, 16 miles of the Grand River had high sediment levels, a clear indication for decreased water clarity and increased pollutant problems.

In the Spring Lake area, seeping septic systems could be the perpetrator behind bacterial growth near the river’s mouth.

Just 20 percent of land along the Grand River is undeveloped and left natural.

The watershed’s flat land is ideal for wetlands, which in turn are ideal for a clean and safely moving river. A wetland’s thick flora purifies surface water of sediments, waste matter and high chemical levels. Its vegetation dampens river erosion and flooding, and the vegetation’s waste makes for excellent fish food.

The southern half of the Grand River watershed is home to some of Michigan’s largest wetlands, yet more than half of the river’s wetlands have been bulldozed. Flat land without wetlands make for more floods and soil erosion.

This is just the Grand River’s immediately adjacent areas. Excessive sediment in tributaries like Indian Mill Creek or bacterial pollution in the Red Cedar River pollute their own sub-watersheds before flowing into the Grand River’s.

The Grand River has come a long way. A history of saw mills, foundries and coal plants prompted the Grand Rapids Evening Press to predict in 1905 that the river would become a sewer by the 21st century.

The river has defied its old expectations thanks to pacts of scientists, environmentalists, lobbyists, nonprofits and concerned citizens through recent decades. It’s now become a go-to spot for kayaking, fishing and leisure.

Problems remain, though, partly due to the river’s defiance of human boundaries. It can be difficult to remember that a decision in a Gratiot County township can affect quality of life for people and nature alike in Ottawa County. It seems backward to think that development in Shiawassee County could end up hurting more people than it helps.

It’s difficult, too, as a person living along only one point of a river, to think that something can be done in another part of Michigan to prevent damage to miles and miles of the Grand River. But something can be done. It starts with education.

Once Michigan residents know that the things they see every day — farms, industry, development — can harm people and the environment across the state if those things aren’t properly placed, built and maintained, future decisions will have the Grand River watershed in mind.

Once we know fish are poisoned with mercury, we can rethink coal production. Once we know sewer overflows can contaminate groundwater, we can rethink city stormwater systems.

In the time of the Flint Water Crisis, we know that our environment is intrinsically connected to our health. We just need to know that something is harming health first.

Like a river, environmental change from education starts as a small spring’s trickle, then builds and builds until it becomes a rush.

About the writer: Beau Brocket is working as the journalism intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council this summer.

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