UIX: If you live in West Michigan, these are the people keeping your most valuable resource alive

The river is crossed by hundreds of thousands of people every day, on their way to work, school, and just passing through town. Likely few of them are fighting for control of it, but then again, they may not realize its significance. Here are the stories of those who do.

Natural resources are valuable. Valuable enough to fight over. The Grand River is no different.


The first humans to see the Grand River wind through West Michigan arrived during the Upper Paleolithic, more than 11,000 years before it was ever traversed by a blue bridge, diverted by a fish ladder, or decorated by a floating dragon. They built their lives around the river, and they fought to sustain it.


The Ottawa and Potawatomi fought each other for control of the river, and together fought to keep it out of the hands of the Europeans. Chief Noonday and the triumphant Ottawa were eventually overwhelmed themselves, however, and the river would see both French and British planted alongside its banks until an entirely new nation was incorporated.


A few years later, Michigan was outlined in what was previously called the "Northwest Territory," and soon after that, Grand Rapids was founded, born out of a thriving lumber industry, supported in no small part by the river. Logs forded down the Grand River into mills were eventually formed into furniture and office environments.


Just as the river has built businesses and industry, it has fed people, through fishing and irrigation. It's also kept them apart from each other. During Grand Rapids' industrial revolution, most all of the working class was kept on the west side of the river, in neighborhoods that cropped up around factory districts. Wealthy owners, meanwhile, built their Victorian painted ladies on the hillside to its east.


Ottawa, Potawatomi, French, English, and many other cultures yet remain in the Grand Valley, and though today our perception of the river's importance may have changed, local reliance on it has not. Logs are no longer forded down the Grand, workers no longer ferried across. And, though even its rapids have since been supplanted, the city that was named after them continues to grow alongside it.


Elaine Isely and WMEAC


Today, the river is crossed by hundreds of thousands of people every day, on their way to work, school, and just passing through town. Likely few of them are fighting for control of it, but then again, they may not realize its significance. Elaine Sterrett Isely is one who does, and as Director of Water and LID (Low Impact Development) Programs of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), is helping make sure others do, too.


Elaine Sterrett Isely"I cross the river multiple times a day to get to work and to take my son to school," Isely says. "We bike and hike on riverbank parks and trails, and paddle on the Grand and its tributaries. Being so close to the Grand allows us to see and appreciate the many species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish that make their home here in West Michigan."


Isely lives in Grand Rapids' Westside neighborhood near John Ball Park Zoo, but it's from WMEAC's office in Cherry Hills that she handles the work of riparian restoration.


WMEAC has six full-time staff members, four part-time contract employees, and 11 interns. In her role, Isely leads a team of three interns, and collaborates closely with the Director of Environmental Education, who has access to an additional three contractors to aid in building out the organization's water-based programming.


"This summer, we also have a dedicated part-time contractor working on planning and managing the 15th Annual Mayors' Grand River Cleanup," Isely says. "Our Community Engagement Coordinator and Executive Director are also involved in water and stormwater based projects, and we have a very active volunteer Policy Committee that helps us organize and advocate for water-related policy issues."


Working for a small nonprofit organization requires a bit of multitasking, Isely says, adding that her background has fit that requirement well.

Isely received her undergraduate degree in Finance from the University of Maryland. During law school at Wayne State University, she focused on business law and litigation, and practiced law for 10 years before returning to school at Grand Valley State for a master's in biology, with a focus on water policy. She began working in the nonprofit sector in 1996, when she moved to West Michigan to work at Legal Aid of Western Michigan's Grand Rapids office.

"I was the first to graduate from their new biology masters program," Isey says. "My graduate project was looking at how municipalities along a designated Michigan Natural River could coordinate their efforts for more consistent management of the shared natural resource."


Since graduating from GVSU, Isely has worked for the Great Lakes Commission, in Ann Arbor, GVSU's Annis Water Resources Institute, in Muskegon, and the West Michigan Strategic Alliance and WMEAC, in Grand Rapids.


A common target of WMEAC's Water Programs, and one of the biggest issues the community faces, Isely says, is polluted stormwater runoff. It's a leading cause of poor water quality in the Grand River. Isely and her team, along with a number of key partnerships and stakeholders, aim to reduce the amount of stormwater that enters the Grand and its tributary streams through advocacy, education, and demonstrations.


"The City was built with the river running down its center, Isely says. "We — WMEAC, the City, and its partners — are working with many other partners to help improve the river's water quality, and to help increase opportunities for access to the river.


"There are still a lot of misconceptions about the health and water quality in the Grand. With the City's complete separation of Grand Rapids' storm and sanitary sewers, the water quality is good on a normal day."


To put the stormwater impact in perspective, it helps to understand how much water is actually flowing through the Grand River. According to average flow statistics from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Grand River slows to just over 1,700 cubic feet of water per second in the summer months, and puts out more than 8,000 cubic feet in the spring. Within each of those measurements is the runoff from all of 31,650 acres, every neighborhood, and every individual living in West Michigan. On occasion, that runoff has resulted in e. Coli and biota outbreaks in tributaries to the Grand River, as well as the river itself.


Isely and WMEAC are working to protect our waterways from such outbreaks, and partner with a number of local and regional organizations on water quality and stormwater based projects. Among them:

  • The City of Grand Rapids

  • GVSU. Trout Unlimited (Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative)

  • Plaster Creek Stewards

  • Seeds of Promise


  • GreenHome Institute


Wendy Ogilvy and the Grand Valley Metro Council


There are many other organizations and individuals who further WMEAC's river preservation and stormwater efforts, as well, including a 1,300-member list of volunteers who take part in a yearly Grand River Cleanup project. A common link between all of their work is the Grand Valley Metro Council, an alliance of governmental units in West Michigan that facilitate planning and development for community, economic, and governmental issues. The Metro Council oversees the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW).

Wendy OgilvieThe GVMC, though not recognized as a 501c3 like WMEAC, is responsible for issuing stormwater permits throughout Kent and Ottawa County. The Metro Council is also contracted to make sure each of the 23 communities in the two counties are in compliance with those permits, the purpose of which is to reduce pollutants entering the river through stormwater.


"Any stormwater rush off or rain just goes directly into the catch basins, directly into the river. It does not go to a treatment facility," says GVMC director of environmental programs Wendy Ogilvy. "We help the communities implement practices to reduce the pollutants. We are able to work with all of those communities to develop one public education plan one elicit discharge plan.


"They're really working together because all of this stormwater obviously discharges to the Grand River."


Ogilvy earned her undergraduate degree in forestry from the University of Michigan, after which she got involved in watershed planning and environmental consulting, later pursuing a master's in resource development. About five years ago, she made the move to the Grand Valley Metro Council, where she started up the environmental programs department.


"I come originally from the D.C. area, on the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers," Ogilvy says. "Being on the coast, water was always really important to me. So, just coming to Michigan and experiencing so much water in the Great Lakes, and working in watershed management, I've come to know how much land activities affect water."


Here in West Michigan, Ogilvy is helping local municipalities work out township or city-level clean water plans. She often connects them to grant programs through the GVMC. The municipalities, in turn, reach out to residents interested in implementing green infrastructure practices on their own properties.


One such method is the LGROW Rainscaping Program: Treating Stormwater Naturally, which targets homeowners, landscapers, and contractors with education and assistance in installing rain barrels to collect stormwater from rooftop runoff; rain gardens that collect, filter and store runoff; curb cuts that divert runoff from streets to rain gardens; and other enhancements.


The GVMC deals primarily with municipal policy making, but LGROW, one of the council’s environmental programs, is connected to several grassroots organizations, including Groundswell, which recently landed an $8 million grant to remove sediment and restore habitats along the upper and middle Grand River watersheds, and Grand Rapids Whitewater (GRWW).


Matt Chapman and Grand Rapids Whitewater


"Restoration of the Grand River is a true public-private partnership," says GRWW's Matt Chapman. "While Grand Rapids Whitewater has been the nonprofit organization spearheading this vision, we couldn’t do it without the support of our private and public partners."

Matt ChapmanGRWW works with the GVMC and LGROW, along with the City of Grand Rapids, Kent County, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Founders Brewing, and many other individuals and organizations to coordinate restoration projects along the Grand River. Private investment has been essential to many of the group's efforts, though governmental assistance has come in since the Grand River was designated one of just 19 Urban Waters Federal Partnership locations in 2013.


That designation connected GRWW to 14 federal agencies, each committed to the restoration of urban waters, including:

  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

  • Michigan Department of Natural Resources

  • Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

  • Great Lakes Fishery Commission


Like others working to "restore the rapids," Chapman has strong ties to water, too.


"I grew up in Midland and was fortunate to have the Chippewa River in my backyard," he says. "It was my playground for fishing, swimming, and canoeing every day in the summer."


When he moved to Grand Rapids decades ago, he initially thought it was underutilized, "for a number of reasons." Thanks to GRWW and a lengthy list of others, that story has changed.


"The Grand River has a bad reputation but there has been a significant effort underway for many years to clean it up," Chapman says. "Those efforts are paying off and there are sections of the Grand, just minutes away from downtown, that make you feel like you are in a remote backcountry wilderness.


"Regardless of if you ever want to get into the river or not, the Grand has something to offer for everyone."


One of the river barriers to be removed. Chapman has spent the last 12 years working in the nonprofit sector and says he enjoys helping grow and develop small nonprofits to achieve their mission. With a bachelor's degree in advertising and public relations and a graduate certificate in nonprofit leadership from Grand Valley State University, he's been able to serve GRWW through grant writing, fund development, and assisting with the general day-to-day operations of the organization.


"My role involves a lot of public presentations and outreach along with the need to coordinate among multiple project partners and stakeholders," he says. "Our goal is to create a river that everyone can be proud of and feel welcomed to visit."


The GRWW's mission consists of four distinct initiatives:

  1. Removing five aging dams, including the Sixth Street dam, thereby revealing the regionally rare bedrock rapids in the upper reach of the project area currently submerged.

  2. Restoring the lower rapids and restoring a more natural river flow by installing boulders and substrate.

  3. Constructing a new operable structure at the upstream end of the project (north of Leonard Street Bridge), providing increased public safety and flood control, and preventing non-native Sea Lamprey from spawning upstream, allowing fish passage, and providing recreational benefits.

  4. Improving habitat for fish and other aquatic species by restoring historical spawning areas for threatened Lake Sturgeon, increasing opportunities for fish passage and connectivity, and improving the quality of habitat for federally endangered mussels.

According to administrators for the U.S. EPA Region 5, which covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and 35 Tribes, several years of public engagement and community visioning have helped with forming these initiatives. It will take approximately five years to complete these plans, leaving Grand Rapids with more riverfront development, enhanced public parks and open spaces, non-motorized trails, and other amenities. More importantly, this work will provide environmental, social, cultural, and economic benefits to the City of Grand Rapids.


There are a number of reasons to favor environmentally friendly practices over less responsible ones, especially in an area where any sort of pollution is not more than one rainfall away from entering the water system. The Grand River is just as much a vital artery of the communities that live along its shores as it was thousands of years ago. You may find fewer people gathering at the river to find food or clean drinking water, but those gatherings still occur, and they're growing with each passing year.


Fighting for this resource is all a part of the territory.


"Without the Grand River, our city and region would not be what it is today," Chapman says. "The river provided the resources for the native people and was instrumental in developing Grand Rapids as the furniture capital of the world. This development has not always been positive for the Grand River, but with intentional thought and conservation now, we can ensure the Grand will continue to support future generations."

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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