HRWC’s Response to COVID-19, keeping staff and volunteers safe, healthy and supported. The river will play a vital role in our region’s recovery.

It may be an understatement to say that a lot has happened since my last stream of consciousness. Just days after the Spring Huron River Report hit mailboxes, the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Michigan. We all know what has transpired since early

HRWC Executive Director, Rebecca Esselman
Rebecca Esselman with her family at River Givers 2018.

March, and how the past three months have been unlike any we have experienced in our lives. 

I want to share a little about how HRWC has responded to this crisis and how we are preparing to weather the longer-term consequences of the pandemic.  

My first priority is to keep the HRWC staff safe, healthy and supported.  We shifted immediately to a virtual office and learned our way through online meeting platforms with the rest of the world. Now, dogs, children and spouses regularly make appearances at our meetings. While we miss the office banter and the view of the river, we know this is where we need to be right now, and we look forward to cautiously returning to the office as restrictions are lifted. 

The impact of the pandemic on nonprofit organizations has been heartbreaking: lost staff, lost pay and in some cases, doors have been closed. HRWC is heading into this economic recession in good shape thanks to diverse funding sources, an established rainy-day reserve, and funding through the Paycheck Protection Program Loan as a part of federal relief efforts. Several of our funders are stepping up too. The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation awarded us general operating funds in early March, and other funders are providing flexibility as our work has been postponed or changed. I am certain that we will have to hustle harder and work with less in the coming months as the economic impact of the pandemic will remain for many years, but I am committed to keeping our staff on board and able to work on HRWC’s increasingly important mission. 

Summer is busy and fun for us. We typically bring on dozens of interns and host events with hundreds of volunteers, who help us collect the data that are essential to understanding the health of the river. This field season will look very different. We are monitoring federal and state guidelines, and the team is developing creative solutions for collecting data while socially distancing. Visit our website and watch your social media—we will be posting ways you can volunteer or observe us in the field remotely.  

While we deal with much uncertainty, some things are clearer than ever.  

Access to clean drinking water is critical. Residents without water are extremely vulnerable to the virus as basic hygiene and hand washing practices are harder to adopt. Further, if the water we do have is contaminated with toxins, we are more vulnerable to the virus.  PFAS, for example, suppresses the immune system and has been shown to decrease the efficacy of vaccinations. It has been heartening to see environmental justice and water advocacy groups come together to demand clean affordable drinking water for all.  

Nature is a part of the solution. As people shelter in place, one thing is abundantly clear, our region’s parks, paths, forests and streams have been a salve to many. The river will play a key role in our personal, social and economic recovery. Outdoor spaces will be the first places we gather again. As businesses reopen, those that are situated near our parks and paths will benefit. Economic vitality is a pillar of our Huron River Water Trail work with our Trail Towns. HRWC will play an important role in the recovery of local businesses. 

I’d like to close by saying—we miss you! Our community of volunteers and partners is our family, and it is in no small part due to you that HRWC is able to weather this storm. We continue to develop creative ways to stay connected so that you may safely continue to support HRWC’s mission. Please continue to check in here at our website,, for updates on projects, activities, and events. 

Wishing you strength and health, 

— Rebecca Esselman, HRWC Executive Director 

Follow me on Twitter:  @natureiswater

This blog post was originally published June 1st in the Huron River Report, Summer 2020.