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Reclaiming our name: Mayors' Grand River Cleanup's history of environmentalism & uniting community

In two weeks, more than 1,000 volunteers will congregate at the Sixth Street Bridge Park to clean up the riverbank, gathering with a community that, for years, has worked to improve the Grand River. Before the Mayors' Grand River Cleanup, Rapid Growth explores the increasingly popular event's history, and what it means for the future of the body of water that gave our city its name.
Around the country, and especially here in Michigan, with the Great Lakes, more than 11,000 inland lakes and the Flint water scandal in our state's most poverty-ridden city, water quality is at the tip of everyone's tongue this election season. Here in Grand Rapids, water is particularly at the forefront of conversation as most of us cross, walk along, fish in, work, or live near the Grand River every day.

Among efforts to beautify the riverbank and re-create the rapids that once existed, and gave the city its name, is the annual Mayors' Grand River Cleanup. An event that began with Mayor George Heartwell 13 years ago will this year be led by newly-elected Mayor Rosalyn Bliss, demonstrating the city's continued dedication to keeping its source of pride clean.

In 2004, Heartwell took office for his very first year as Grand Rapids mayor. Soon after, he was approached by a local steelhead fisherman about the condition of the Grand River riverbank. “‘Mayor, you're spending a lot of money to clean the water going into the Grand River, and that's a good thing,’” Heartwell of the fisherman's plea. “‘But have you ever looked at the river banks?’”

“With that, he pulled out a sheaf of photos showing trash littering the banks. That was enough for me,” says Heartwell. Working with the Grand Rapids Young Professionals (GRYP), an organization that provides networking and community-building opportunities for professionals ages 21 to 40, and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), Heartwell hosted the first Mayor's Grand River Cleanup in the fall of 2004. Later moving the apostrophe (Mayor's to Mayors') to account for the joining of Mayor Carol Susan Sheets of Wyoming, Mayor Jim Buck of Grandville and Mayor Rob VerHeulen of Walker, the cleanup event continued to grow each year.

"We are grateful for Mayor Heartwell – and the fisherman who approached him about the need to clean up the river banks – for launching the Grand River Cleanup," says Bliss. "This is a wonderful community event that brings together mayors, other leaders and citizens of the cities along the river. I look forward to working alongside community volunteers and fellow mayors, and I am grateful for their shared commitment to take care of this natural wonder.”

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss

Increasing in size and impact with each passing year, the cleanup added its latest community, Plainfield Township, in 2011. As of 2015, the cleanup area included 40 miles of riverbank. Volunteer involvement has increased as well. With just 270 volunteers in 2011, the event grew to partner with 1,000 community volunteers last year, concerned and passionate citizens who have picked up 182,000 pounds of trash along the riverbank in just over a decade.

"Everything you take from the river banks you keep from eventually ending up in the river," says Carrie Rivette, wastewater/stormwater maintenance superintendent for the City of Grand Rapids. Coordinating city staff for the event, Rivette notes that the city collects the trash at no charge, preventing solid, manmade materials from ending up in Lake Michigan and poisoning West Michigan's vital drinking water.

Carrie Rivette

"The Grand River is an important part of our community’s sustainability, and making sure its banks are free from trash and other health dangers keeps our citizens and visitors safe,” Bliss says. By having volunteers participate in the cleaning process, WMEAC and the city are provided with a rare opportunity to educate everyday citizens on the items that are harming the Grand River and the Great Lakes, such as excess sediment, litter and street runoff, notes
Ondrea Spychalski, water programs outreach coordinator for WMEAC.

In addition to actually cleaning up the riverbank, the cleanup also connects the community with this vital waterway, and to each other. "It's a great opportunity for community members, organizations, businesses and school groups to gather as teams to help keep the Grand River grand," says Spychalski.

“It also provides an opportunity for volunteers to interact with their watershed in a way they perhaps have not been able to before, by allowing them to walk along stretches that they may not have known existed and interact with the nature they come into contact there," she continues.

An annual event that has made a substantial impact in GR, the Mayors' River Cleanup also plays an important role in GR Forward, the city's 10-year strategy designed to facilitate growth downtown. “The cleanup is key to our community’s plan to transform the waterfront into a 10-mile river edge recreational trail that reconnects citizens to the riverfront," says Mayor Bliss. "This transformation will provide substantial community benefits, including improved flood protection, stormwater management and water quality.”

With a section of the plan that specifically focuses on Grand River restoration, GR Forward details integrating art, education, infrastructure and ecology; enhancing neighborhood access to the river; reinforcing the Grand Rapids whitewater initiative; and establishing Grand Rapids as the hub for a regional trail system, among other goals. GR Forward was officially approved as an amendment to the City Master Plan on Dec. 15, 2015, and Matt Chapman of Grand Rapids Whitewater and Jay Steffen assistant planning director of community engagement are currently ushering the project through the permit process, according to Tim Kelly at Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. (DGRI).

In two weeks, more than 1,000 volunteers will gather at the Sixth Street Bridge Park to clean up the riverbank, gathering with their community in continuous improvement of the Grand River. While simply picking up pieces of trash, volunteers are contributing to a city-wide effort to restore the river that gives our city its rightly earned name.

The 13th annual Mayors’ Grand River Cleanup will be hosted on Sept. 10 from 8:30am to 1pm. Founders Brewing will be handing out beer to volunteers who are 21+ and live music will be provided by Big Dudee Roo during lunch. For more information about the event, including a detailed schedule, please go here.

Photography by Adam Bird
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