It’s difficult to be optimistic about the future of the Grand during these last few weeks of winter, but I’m trying.
First comes the story of 2 million gallons of sewage being dumped into the river just a short distance from where the Grand empties into Lake Michigan. Consider this disaster while absorbing reports that the Trump Administration’s first proposed budget for the Environmental Protection Agency contemplates cutting funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million to $10 million.
To be fair, these cuts have not been implemented but simply proposed. It’s not hard to envision, however, a scenario where the “all government spending is bad” crowd reduces the proposed cuts to only 50% of last year’s total and the environmental community responds passively in light of what might have been.
Next comes the Administration’s stated desire to eliminate the Waters of the United States rules implemented towards the end of the Obama Administration. These rules granted the federal government the power to define and regulate (read: stop the polluting of) waters that connect to navigable rivers such as the Grand as well as the navigable rivers themselves. The rules are currently suspended while a federal court considers numerous legal challenges.
Before the Waters of the United States regulations were enacted, the Environmental Protection Agency had the power to stop pollution from being dumped directly into a river but could not always stop the fouling of some non-navigable waters that empty into a navigable river like the Grand. (A navigable river is a river one can ply with a boat of some sort; in our case, a canoe.) What sense does that make? If fertilizer, for example, runs into a small stream and then into the Grand, it still gets into the river – and does the same amount of damage – as would be the case if the fertilizer were to run directly into the river.
Oh, and let’s not forget that the Environmental Protection Agency itself is how led by a climate-change skeptic who – in his former position as Oklahoma’s Attorney General – frequently sued the EPA over regulations intended to protect the environment. How’s that fracking working out for you, Oklahoma? Any chance those earthquakes might be somehow connected? Hey, don’t be so sensitive; I’m just asking.
So what grounds for optimism? Prior to 2013, heavy rainfall frequently caused Grand Rapids’ municipal sewage system to overflow. The resultant sewage spilled into the Grand made the 2 million gallons of sewage recently spilled in Grand Haven/Spring Lake look insignificant. We are talking billions of gallons over the years. Under pressure from the federal government acting under authority of the Clean Water Act, and with additional pressure and some financial assistance from the state government, Grand Rapids has eliminated 99.5% of its sewage overflows.
I was also interested to learn about a development in Minnesota which seems effective and reasonable in keeping fertilizer and manure run-off out of streams and rivers there. It’s as simple as requiring farmers to maintain a strip of grass along stream and river banks. This grass acts as a filter to reduce the amount of fertilizer and manure fouling the waterways of that state. Yes, there will be some small expense and a figurative taking of a small portion of a farmer’s land in the sense that he or she will no longer be able to plant the stretches along a stream or a river. But the waters of the rivers and streams belong to all of us, so requiring that a strip of grass be maintained by the farmer responsible for the offending run-off seems reasonable. We love our farmers, but we love our rivers, too.
I remember paddling around a bend in Jackson County – between the Loomis Rd bridge and Vandercook Lake, I think – and coming upon a small herd of cows grazing at the river’s edge. It was a fun and unexpected encounter – a bucolic scene – but I remember thinking that the manure would run into the river the next time there was rain. A strip of grass, required now in Minnesota, might be an inexpensive solution to a very real environmental problem.
Looking forward to getting back on the river soon! The Jackson-based Grand River Environmental Action Team is sponsoring a paddle in April and we plan to participate.