Volunteers sought to protect our lakes, rivers
Written by Oakland Press   
Monday, 07 March 2005 11:34
Legislators are asking for the public's help in protecting the state's water quality by proposing an "adopt-a-watershed" program.

Much like the current adopt-a-highway program, it would encourage volunteer groups to clean and maintain lakes and rivers. The program would be implemented jointly by the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality.

"That's a great idea, too. That's a great contribution," said Jo Latimore, science coordinator for the Huron River Watershed Council's Adopt-a-Stream program. "It's a good way to get people involved and aware of the streams that run through their back yards."

Jessica Pitelka Opfer, executive director of the Clinton River Watershed Council in Rochester, said the group already is battling trash along the river with annual cleanup efforts.

"It's a great opportunity to raise awareness among the public," she said. "Roads are great, yes, we see a lot of trash along the roads, but what about our rivers?"

State officials are hoping the adopt-a-watershed program will help raise awareness of water quality.

"Having citizens take part in water quality is a program we can support," said Patricia Spitzley of the DEQ.

"If we get volunteers, the state doesn't have to put that time into cleaning it," said Sen. Gerry Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores. Van Woerkom sits on the Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, which is considering the bill.

Brad Jensen, executive director of Huron Pines Conservation Committee in Grayling, said most local communities with initiatives to protect their watersheds already have done so by forming local government and nonprofit organizations.

"We do have other areas with not as much people or funding that could benefit from adopt-a-watershed," said Jensen. "It's a good program and something to look into, but I don't think there's any need for it here."

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency runs a federal "Adopt Your Watershed" program in many Michigan communities. The programs generally assist larger watersheds that weave through more than one city, including Grand Traverse Bay, Saginaw Bay, the Huron River, Rouge River and the Kalamazoo River.

Despite these federal programs, there are smaller, more remote watersheds that are neglected.

"There are areas of the state where there is no group that is active. ... I think this would be great for areas like that which would need the assistance," said Opfer.

Van Woerkom identified some of the watersheds that need care such as Mona Lake in Muskegon, the Muskegon River and the Manistee River. He lives on Mona Lake and often sees litter from boaters wash up onto his property.

The local Adopt-a-Stream programs are more focused on monitoring to track changes in the health of rivers than on cleanup.

"I think what we are doing, and Huron River and Huron Pines, is going beyond that to get people to be stewards of their rivers," said Opfer.

"The next step is to get people out there and monitoring, assessing whether there are declines or not in the health of their river."

The Huron group has a database of information that stretches back about 10 years from some sites. It annually does two aquatic bug counts in the spring and fall at about 70 sites in Oakland, Livingston, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

"When you're looking from a watershed standpoint, as opposed to a single creek or even a single site on a creek, you get a better picture of what's going on," said Latimore. "If we can look at an entire watershed, we can look at land use changes or problems in the stream upstream, not just where we're noticing problems."

The adopt-a-watershed bill, which was introduced by Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, died last year because of debate over the definition of a "watershed" and whether volunteers would have permission to perform cleanups on private property. The new version requires that property owners be notified if a cleanup is going to take place.

The bill defines a "watershed" as the drainage area of a body of water, typically a lake, river or stream.

"For the good of the watershed, people will take personal responsibility, much like they do with our highways," said Van Woerkom. "Adopt-a-highway has made a big difference."

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