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Flint Water Crisis: an HRWC perspective

Capitol Building

Michigan State Capitol, Lansing

The Flint Water crisis is on everyone’s mind.  We can’t get over that it happened, the long-term impacts, the tragedy, and where we go from here.  At HRWC we are saddened and angry, but not that surprised.  Over the last year many environmental debacles point to a serious threat to clean water and a safe environment.  Starting with Volkswagen’s admission of cheating on emission testing to the natural gas leak in California, and now to the Flint drinking water contamination, they all highlight a lack of trust, judgment, and oversight on human health and safety issues. What shocks me the most though, is the lack of accountability and regulation.  I shouldn’t be surprised given Michigan’s recent derision of regulation, budget cuts to environmental protection, and a focus on shrinking government.  Michigan ranks 50th among state in government transparency.

In the U.S., drinking water regulations were first enacted by the federal government in 1914 addressing the bacteriological quality of drinking water. This regulation was later strengthened in the 1960s as it became clear that industrial processes were threats to clean water and human health. Local governments were to provide clean water and safely dispose of waste. Oversight of local governments and industry was an expected role of state and federal government.

Despite dozens of statewide environmental disasters (Enbridge oil spill, the Pall Gelman contamination, industrial clean-up sites), the State of Michigan has been shrinking the budgets and staff of the oversight and regulatory departments. In 1995 Governor John Engler split the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) into the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and MDNR.  The DEQ mission is to promote the wise management of Michigan’s air, land, and water resources to support a sustainable environment, healthy communities, and vibrant economy.  Governor Engler said the split secured more direct oversight of state environmental policy, but then he reduced the number of state environmental employees through budget cuts.  A year later, oversight for drinking water protection was transferred from the Michigan Department of Health to the MDEQ.  In 2009, Governor Jennifer Granholm briefly merged the MDNR and MDEQ again as the DNRE.  In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder’s first-ever executive order, Executive Order 2011-1, split the DNRE, returning DNR and DEQ into separate agencies.

Additionally, the MDEQ’s budget and resources have been dramatically reduced.  In the past 15 years, the general fund contributions to the MDEQ have been cut by 59% and the full-time equated positions have been cut by 25%. 

The impacts of these cuts and the general disdain for regulation is prevalent in MDEQ leadership and has led to a minimalist approach by most staff.  It is clear that the primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the MDEQ, despite the Governor’s efforts to spread the blame. MDEQ failed in its responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan and, again, in its dismissive and scornful tone toward residents’, health care professionals’, and scientists’ discoveries and concerns. Worse yet, the blatant misrepresentation of facts and manipulation of data to cover for bad policy decisions at the cost of children’s health suggests an agency well off the rails of its stated mission.

I see these problems regularly in our mission to protect and restore the Huron.  Permits are quickly issued with little review. Corporate and municipal self-reporting with little, if any, review is common. The pursuit of scientific understanding and application is given low priority. The MDEQ staff that regulate inland lake and streams are overwhelmed with permit reviews and enforcement activities resulting in rubber stamped permits that rarely get more than a cursory review (see HRWC’s winter newsletter for an example).  HRWC receives dozens of calls annually from citizens impacted by poor permitting and design, natural resource destruction or pollution violations that, having called MDEQ staff, want some help. Without our staff reviewing the problems, making site visits, and/or making phone calls and using our connections and influence, nothing would happen. Even the most well-intentioned and competent MDEQ staff are only able to respond to the most pressing problems, and much pressure is put on them to get out of the way of economic development.

What can we do to avoid these same disasters from happening again?  We need to remind the Governor about MDEQ’s responsibility to ensure clean water and push him to restore budgets, add staff and training, and support staff who serve that mission.  Providing clean drinking water is a series of steps, a chain of events and actions starting with the source water. We need to empower citizens and agency staff to speak up and advocate effectively.  We need to use science and water quality monitoring to develop policy and action.  Finally, we must listen to the disempowered, to continue to take their concerns seriously, ask the questions and not take it for granted that expertise, good judgment and oversight are a matter of course.

 

 

A Watershed Moment

HRWC 50th Logo SlugThis year HRWC celebrated our 50th anniversary with music, recreation, food and drink, and poetry. Thank you for marking this milestone with us.

For the past 50 years, we’ve been working hard to improve our watershed and we are seeing great results.  More people are enjoying the recreational opportunities that our river provides.  Their experiences are possible because of the improvements we’ve made in clean water, access, fish and bird diversity, local, state, and regional protections and laws, strong master plans, enforcement, restoration, and parks in river towns! Some of the signs of a vibrant and healthy ‘shed are the busiest canoe livery in the state, thousands of acres of protected high quality natural areas, a reputation as the cleanest urban river, active trails and trail towns, a national Water Trail designation, phosphorus reductions and a statewide phosphorus ban on residential lawn fertilizers, and some forward-thinking stormwater protection ordinances and rules.

That’s not to say our work is done.  We have a lot more to do and the HRWC board and staff have developed some guiding principles to get us there.  As our accomplishments have shown, HRWC protects and restores the river for healthy and vibrant communities.  Our vision is a future of clean and plentiful water for people and nature where citizens and government are effective and courageous champions for the Huron River and its watershed.  To achieve that, we:

  • work with a collaborative and inclusive spirit to give all partners the opportunity to become stewards;
  • generate science-based, trustworthy information for decision makers to ensure reliable supplies of clean water and resilient natural systems; and
  • passionately advocate for the health of the river and the lands around it.

So, what is next?  We will be out in the watershed monitoring our river and streams and natural areas.  We will use that information to engage stakeholders and partners in taking actions to protect and restore the watershed.  We will use that information to prioritize our outreach and education and other programs.  Finally, we will inspire others to get to the river, enjoy the river, have a new experience, love it as much as we do, and care about its future.

We also have a few key opportunities we need to seize upon:

  1. As more people engage with the river, we need to instill a river stewardship ethic and provide clear options for action;
  2. In order to develop a collaborative environment that encourages different ideas, perspectives, and experiences, we need to attract and retain volunteers, members, and stewards that represent the diversity of socioeconomic, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation that are representative of the watershed; and
  3. We need to celebrate innovative and effective solutions that are coming from the bottom up and work to build strong local leadership in support of them.

We have far-reaching goals and we need you to get them done.  Please reflect on what inspires you to be a part of HRWC and where you can have an impact.  And then join us as we all jump in to make the next 50 years as successful as the past 50.HRWC_hi-res06

My Huron River (upstream of Hudson Mills)

At Dusk

At Dusk
credit: J. Lloyd

One of my favorite spots to visit on the Huron is just downstream of the Flook (Portage Lake) dam and upstream of the old Bell Road bridge on the main stem of the river.  The Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority (HCMA) opened a fishing access site on Dexter-Pinckney Road about 10 years ago.  This section of the river is noted for it’s exceptional smallmouth bass fishery, but I love it for the gravel and cobble bottom, the shallow depth, and the clear, cool water.

Rocks and Riffles

Rocks and Riffles
credit: J. Lloyd

It’s an perfect place to visit on a warm summer day for some wading and swimming.  You must wear some footwear to protect the soles of your feet (the zebra mussel shells are pretty sharp!).  But my family simply wades in and walks upstream and downstream exploring the rocks and riffles and the occasional plunge pool.  It’s a popular spot for anglers but when I’ve visited it is relatively quiet and you feel like no one is around.

HRWC is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year!

Tell us your favorite watershed spot HERE.

Connect and share river ruminations or captured moments with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Use #huronriver50 to mark your posts!

Appreciate the River, Sunday July 12, by joining HRWC for some fun or heading to YOUR favorite spot with friends.

At 50 years, HRWC is looking back and forward

MEC award

An award (vase) honoring our 50 years of work from the Michigan Environmental Council

This year, HRWC is developing a new strategic plan in 2015 coinciding with the organization’s 50th year.  As part of that process, we held a focus group of staff and board members and a core group of advisers to review and provide input into a new organizational mission, vision and core values earlier this year and at the recent annual meeting the HRWC Board of Director’s approved the new missives.

Mission

The Huron River Watershed Council protects and restores the river for healthy and vibrant communities.

Vision Statement

We envision a future of clean and plentiful water for people and nature where citizens and government are effective and courageous champions for the Huron River and the watershed.

Core Values

To achieve that, we do the following:

We work with a collaborative and inclusive spirit to give all partners the opportunity to become stewards;
We generate science-based, trustworthy information for decision makers to ensure reliable supplies of clean water and resilient natural systems; and
We passionately advocate for the health of the river and the lands around it.

 

Please let me know your thoughts or comments (lrubin@hrwc.org).

Next, we will engage in a visioning process with the staff this summer that will define and document a vision of success for the organization. With common vision in hand, the staff and board will have the foundation for identifying strategic goals, outcomes, and metrics. A proposed strategic plan will be presented for review to this Board at the October 2015/January 2016 meeting.

Our First Paddle Trip: Saturday, May 16th

There is no wi-fi on the river but we promise you a better connection!

Saturday, May 16, 8 AM

Paddling Bird Watch, Bruin Lake Chain

Join Dea Armstrong and HRWC staff on the first HRWC Summer Recreation paddle of the year. This birding-focused paddle will be guided by expert paddlers Barry Lonik and Ron Sell.  If you need a canoe or kayak Hell’s Canoe and Kayak Rental is donating boats.  Please let us know if you need a boat.

Experience the quiet waters of the Huron River with expert paddlers Ron Sell, Barry Lonik, and the HRWC staff.  The trip includes discussion regarding the river’s water ecology, history, and unique features.  In addition to watercraft, bring your own gear, food, drinking water, binoculars, and appropriate clothing for the weather. Every paddler must wear a flotation device – bring your own.

Full Moon Paddle 1

To register, please fill out this form.

For a Paddler’s Safety Checklist click HERE.

All paddlers must register in advance.

A inspiring excursion to the river in the cold

credit: John Lloyd

credit: John Lloyd

This letter came from my father-in-law yesterday.  I hope it inspires you to get out and enjoy the river and it’s natural beauty even when the weather is bitter.  Bundle up!

Dear Laura,

This morning Bella (a golden retriever) and I walked down to Gallup and the river.  The weather was bitter cold, especially when we faced the wind.  The sun was shining at an angle onto the snow.  The ducks, geese and swan were sitting comfortably on the river where the stream has not yet iced over. All around, the trees, benches, trash barrels and even the grills silently stood out in the snow, wanting to be noticed.  Bella and I saw only one other walker-and she or him only from a distance. Otherwise the entire scene was our own. Time was standing still, it seemed.  As I continued to gaze at this winterscape two words kept rising to the surface of my mind: how magnificent.  As Bella and I approached the end of our walk together, I felt that she and I had been lifted up in a moment of ecstasy and awe. The bracing cold, even the wind chill, had become our friends, inviting us to return soon.

Were I a Robert Frost or Mary Oliver, I would be at this moment writing a poem. Instead, I wrote to this note to thank you and your staff for all you do to make such moments possible.

Love,

Chuck

 

Protecting Water Under the Clean Water Act

We needy our help to bring protections back to our wetlands and small streams.

We need your help to bring protections back to our wetlands and small streams.

Wait, what?  The Clean Water Act doesn’t protect clean water?  How can that be?

Well in 2001 and 2006 there were 2 Supreme Court Decisions that confused the implementation of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and placed many wetlands and streams out of protection and at risk.

Earlier this year, the U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers released a very important draft rulemaking. This draft rule clarifies which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act.  This rulemaking will fundamentally influence our work to protect or restore our watershed.

Please comment on the draft US EPA rule on Clean Water Protection (aka Waters of the US) Rulemaking

Comments on this important rulemaking are due October 20, 2014. We encourage river lovers (YOU) to speak up! If you haven’t been following this issue or need a refresher, please check out this link.

Your comments can be as simple as, “Clean water is important to me. I want EPA to protect it for my health, my family, and my community” or as specific as, “I support the agencies proposal to define “waters of the United States” in section (a) of the proposed rule for all sections of the CWA to mean: Traditional navigable waters; interstate waters, including interstate wetlands; the territorial seas; impoundments of traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, including interstate wetlands, the territorial seas, and tributaries, as defined, of such waters; tributaries, as defined, of traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, or the territorial seas; and adjacent waters, including adjacent wetlands. Waters in these categories would be jurisdictional “waters of the United States” by rule—no additional analysis would be required.”

Thank you!

Paddle and Pedal the Huron this Sunday

We have a paddle trip for people looking for adventure and an interest in trying their skills at biking and paddling.  This Sunday, September 21st, at 1:00 we are hosting a paddle trip from Hudson Mill Metropark to Dexter-Huron Metropark with a bike to the beginning along the recently completed border to border trail.Huron River Watershed Council

Ron Sell and Barry Lonik, experienced paddlers (and bikers), will be leading this trip down a beautiful stretch of the river in the Natural River’s zone.  Elizabeth Riggs, HRWC’s River-Up Manager will be on the trip too, adding her expertise and knowledge of RiverUp! and Huron River Water Trail improvement projects within this section of the river.  Join the fun and learn about the river and try your skill with paddling and pedaling! Register here.

Suds on the River

The BIG tent!

The BIG tent!

Thank you to our Sponsors and Supporters, many River Revelers and River Guardians, our hard working Host Committee, and our hosts Walt Weber and Iva Corbett for helping us celebrate the river at our 2014 Suds on the River.  Last Thursday night, we welcomed over 350 guests under a big tent at Walt and Iva’s house in Ypsilanti Township on Ford Lake.  With 7 breweries, 6 chefs, 28 restaurants, and a spectacular view, river enthusiasts were treated to a lovely evening eating, drinking and socializing. We always say “we cannot do it without you” and this year 127 volunteers helped manage registration, two parking lots, 6 shuttle buses, food deliveries and pick-ups, cars and traffic and the clean-up after everyone goes home, to make it come together so beautifully. Thank you to everyone for making this Suds such a great success.

Matt Turner arriving at Suds from a kayak!

Matt Turner arriving at Suds in a kayak! Now that’s alternative transportation.

The Big Melt

Soon, your stormdrain could look like this!

Soon, your stormdrain could look like this!

The sun is brighter, the birds are more active, and the temperatures are warming. I even got showered by puddle water as I walked home yesterday on N. Main St.!

The record snow fall will turn in to stormwater with the potential for flooding and back-ups.  In the past 2 weeks there have been numerous news articles about flood warnings and predictions.  I won’t look in to my crystal ball but I will pass along some solid suggestions from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on steps you can take to minimize flooding impacts.

Basically, as the weather warms, make sure you take these precautions at home:

  1. Clear stormdrains, catchbasins, or any kind of detention or yard drains you have from debris, ice, and litter;
  2. Check that any sumps or back-up generators are working;
  3. Clear gutters and downspouts of leaves, debris, and ice to expedite drainage

Yeah, you might be sore on Monday, but you’ll be drier in the weeks to come!

For more information about flooding risks, please visit the State’s website.


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