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River awareness

Every 10 years, an educational and recreational event takes place on the Grand River — all 200-plus miles of it. Meanwhile, two men and a legion of supporters have secured a promise from the Downtown Development Authority for a feasibility study geared to returning the rapids to the river.

By Patrick Revere
Photography by Michael Buck

Sixth century Greek philosopher Heraclitus described the inevitability of change by asserting “No man ever steps into the same river twice.”

To whatever extent they may believe this to be true, river enthusiasts statewide will embark July 14 on the third part of a once-per-decade journey to chart changes to the Grand River’s plants and wildlife, adjacent land usage and water quality.

“The most telling factor of any river or stream is its diversity,” said Doug Carter, riverologist and chairman of Expedition 2010. “It’s constantly changing — a changing ecology through its mix of depths, speeds, direction and wildlife.”

The 12-day float will begin after a foot tour of the river’s headwaters in northern Hillsdale County. About 200 people will float each day, totaling about 2,000 people for the length of the 225-mile stretch. The Grand River is Michigan’s longest river, running through 18 counties and 158 townships. Its natural water basin spans 5,570 square miles.

“We will observe and talk about how the river flows and changes as it goes out to Grand Haven,” Carter said.

Several experts — whether bird watchers from the Audubon Society or local historians — have been recruited to discuss the details of their particular community’s relationship with the river and its habitats. But the foremost topic will be the water.

In the mid- and late-19th century, many natives and settlers alike were halted by the roaring rapids at the site of what would become the city of Grand Rapids. Soon, crossings were built. The river was used to float logs and operate grist mills, and, in July 1880, Grand Rapids became the first city in the country to harness river power for municipal electricity.

To look at the entire length of the river under such an intense microscope every 10 years, and compare it against what was found during previous trips, offers a tremendous picture, said Rita Jack, director of clean water programs for Sierra Club in Lansing. “It shows us not only how conditions are, but how they’re likely to progress, given certain factors.”

She believes positive results have manifested since the expeditions began in 1990.


Andy Bowman

“For instance, the EPA’s clampdown on storm runoff,” she said. “It started with larger municipalities, but since then, they have progressively worked down to medium-sized and smaller municipalities. During this year’s expedition, I anticipate we should see the payoff from these activities.”

The float will land in Grand Rapids on Day 10: July 23. When paddlers arrive, they’ll find a host of locals dedicated to returning the Grand River to its former vitality. Suzanne Schulz, planning director for the city of Grand Rapids, has been engaged in a river naturalization project that has many aspects, including possibilities for restoring its banks.

“There are a variety of types of riverbanks right now, from the natural to a combination of rock and wall, to the sheer concrete wall and railing systems seen in the middle of downtown,” Schulz said. “We need to ensure we have banks that will keep the (downtown) Riverwalk as accessible as possible, but if we can install more boulders and natural vegetation, it will help cleanse the water and provide more aesthetic appeal.”

Andrew Bowman, planning director for Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, has been organizing the efforts for the lower Grand River portion of the expedition. Volunteers will be on hand at Canal Street Park, he said, to help tired paddlers safely off the river. There will also be lunchtime presentations about the river, including one by Grand Rapids Whitewater, a local group of outdoor enthusiasts who would like to see the rapids return to the waterway (see, page 41).

Bowman said the separation of sewage and storm water systems in Grand Rapids has dramatically reduced the overflow of human waste into the river, which had been a primary source of E. coli and other harmful bacteria. However, the separation project also has resulted in some direct runoff from city streets that receive less day-to-day filtration. The storm water runoff is something GVMC, the city and other organizations have continued to address on a point-by-point basis.

“There are always challenges, but overall there has been good progress,” Bowman said. “The fish population has improved. For instance, sturgeon have been moving farther upriver, which is a sign of habitats on the mend.”

City data shows that the water tested at eight sites in the metro area most recently is at or near the highest quality levels since testing began in the mid-1980s. Still, none of the tests during that 25-year period show excellent water conditions.

“The No. 1 goal (of the expedition) is river awareness and education,” Bowman said. “We will have young people at stops along the way to do presentations and also to see community presentations. There is a recreational-education component to Expedition 2010 that will work well for youth groups involved in organizations such as the scouts, YMCA and churches.”

The final part of the run, from Nunica to Grand Haven, will include a visit by a research vessel from the Annis Water Institute near Muskegon. The visit typifies the interest organizers have seen in the expedition.

“Fundraising has been difficult this year, and maybe that’s a sign of the times,” Bowman said. “But something that parallels that has been an increase in people wanting to give time and be more involved. It’s an interesting balance that will help this thing go well in the end.”

The expedition will end with the final flotilla being escorted past the river bayous and out the Grand Haven channel to Lake Michigan for a rendezvous southeast of the pier head.

Sierra Club is adamant that the Grand River is safe for floating and even swimming in most stretches, said Jack. The 10-year tests of the river, she said, are important for river lovers to ensure progress continues in abating contamination.

“I used to be so blissfully ignorant about what’s been going on with the rivers, and having learned more, I feel there’s nothing better that we could be doing with our time than to restore and protect the waterways,” Jack said.

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who pined about life’s metaphorical river, also said “Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.”

Riverologists retain hope that this may hold true for the betterment of Grand Rapids residents and the river they admire. GR

Patrick Revere is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids.


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