Community buy-in in West Michigan is improving water life

Miles apart in West Michigan, two projects are aiming to improve one of the region’s most valued assets: water.

The efforts — one to restore river rapids in downtown Grand Rapids and the other to reduce pollution in Lake Macatawa — differ markedly in what they address. But they share characteristics that include millions of dollars in private support, a quest to reverse what history has brought, and the initial and ongoing push of individuals committed to seeing change.

Take Chris Muller and Chip Richards, mountain biking friends who shared an interest in bettering the Grand River, and several years ago began talking to “anybody who would listen” about how the river “could be grand,” Muller said.

Discussions gained traction amid a city planning initiative called Green Grand Rapids, which focused on the importance of green infrastructure, sustainability and quality of life and included a look at river-related opportunities like creating whitewater features and a kayaking course.

In 2009, Muller, founder and president of M Retail Solutions, a retail real-estate brokerage and consulting firm, and retired photographer Richards formed Grand Rapids Whitewater, a grassroots nonprofit that is spearheading what’s now a projected $34-million effort to improve a 2.2-mile stretch of the Grand River and return the rapids. The rapids disappeared in the mid-1800s as dams were built to aid log transport for the timber processing industry.

It wasn’t a new idea; restoring the rapids had been talked about for years.

“But it wasn’t really until Chip and Chris got involved that there was liftoff in advancing that idea, putting the rapids back in the river,” said city Assistant Planning Director Jay Steffen. “They’ve been champions, they’ve been leaders, and their support and persistence is helping to drive the project. It’s kept it as a focus for the city.

“The city has now adopted their vision, they’ve ensconced it in their plans and they’ve assigned staff to help with it.”

The plan for the river stretches between Ann Street at the north and Fulton Street at the south — two points between which the river bottom drops 18 feet. The project includes removing five dams and restoring the flow of the natural drop; exposing a limestone shelf to increase spawning habitat for lake sturgeon and other native fish; placing 200,000 tons of rocks, boulders and gravel in the river, creating whitewater rapids and improving habitat for fish and other aquatic species; and installing a hydraulic barrier that will help control upstream water levels and block sea lamprey.

The effort has involved numerous players. Among them are foundations and businesses that have provided money and support; the city, in roles that include applying for permits, bidding construction work and working with others to identify public funding sources; a city commission-established steering committee to provide guidance on efforts associated with the restoration of the river and riverbank and help to assure a common and coordinated vision moving forward; and buy-in and assistance from organizations like the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

While Muller and Richards are volunteers, Grand Rapids Whitewater has grown to one full-time employee and three contract workers. It has raised about $5 million from contributors that have included the Wege Foundation, the Steelcase Foundation, the Frey Foundation, the Dyer-Ives Foundation, the CDV5 Foundation, and Founders Brewing Co., Muller said.

The money has helped pay for initial work such as hiring Colorado-based engineering and planning firm RiverRestoration to assist with planning, permitting and project implementation; legal assistance from Warner Norcross & Judd LLP; and consultants who have conducted economic impact and scientific studies that evaluated the river bottom, sediment, water flows, wildlife and other factors.

Federal involvement

One milestone came in May 2013, when federal officials designated the Grand River to be included in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, a multi-agency government initiative to collaborate with community-led revitalization efforts.

The designation was the result of efforts led by Grand Rapids Whitewater and assisted by others including city representatives, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and members of the business and foundation community. Among them was Mark Van Putten, a former National Wildlife Federation president and CEO and at the time a Virginia-based consultant to the Wege Foundation.

Van Putten, who now heads the foundation, was Wege’s lead in working with Grand Rapids Whitewater on various areas, including the federal designation. He helped the nonprofit arrange meetings and navigate the Washington scene.

“It just was happenstance that I spent a significant amount of my career in Washington, D.C., and had a sense of some of the federal agencies and who some of the key people were,” Van Putten said. But, he said, “it was the project on its own merit that convinced them to designate it.”

Van Putten said he is “just one of many people who have been inspired by Chip and Chris’ vision, who have wanted to help where they can.”

Muller said that when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others announced the river’s inclusion as one of 11 new project locations in the federal initiative at a news conference at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on the banks of the Grand River, it was a national recognition of accomplishment and a “double win. We not only were designated, but we also were able to host.”

An economic impact study, commissioned by Grand Rapids Whitewater and conducted by East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group LLC, estimates that expanded recreational use of the river and riverfront, including kayaking, other paddle sports and fishing, could generate $12.9 million to $15.5 million in direct new spending and a total annual economic impact of $15.9 million to $19.1 million.

The June 2014 study says the project will draw “locals and visitors to enjoy being in, on and near the river,” in turn generating spending at restaurants, hotels, shops, and other Grand Rapids venues. Additional benefits cited include the creation of a desirable environment for property development adjacent to the river, and enhancing the vibrancy of the downtown city core — an impact that strikes a chord with longtime project supporter Founders Brewing.

Even before Muller and Richards launched the nonprofit, they would come into Founders and talk with friends Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, brewery co-founders, about their idea and what it would do for the city, Founders events coordinator Samantha Hendricks said. It’s a relationship that has brought monetary support to Grand Rapids Whitewater, and Stevens and Founders Executive Chairman John Green to spots on the nonprofit’s board.

“For Founders, we genuinely believe that restoring the rapids would help the city, would continue revitalization right in our backyard,” Hendricks said. The brewery is on the south side of Grand Rapids’ downtown.

When Founders’ KBS bourbon barrel-aged stout is released once a year, proceeds from tickets, which allow people to later purchase the beer at the brewery, go to Grand Rapids Whitewater, as do beer sales at Founders-sponsored events that include the nonprofit.

And September brought the first of what is likely to become an annual major fundraiser for Grand Rapids Whitewater — an event along the river that included bands, a beer-themed dinner and silent auction. The Founders-organized Tribute on the Grand raised $200,000, with dining tables costing $2,500 each selling out in a week.

“We didn’t know what to expect in the first year, we knew that there was community support out there, but it was an overwhelming amount of support,” Hendricks said.

Kristopher Larson, president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., said the river effort is significant not only in restoring the city’s namesake rapids, but as “an important early stage project in a much larger vision about how our city can grow.” The quasi-public organization provided about $150,000 to Grand Rapids Whitewater to support initial scientific and engineering work and has stood by the effort “in every opportunity,” Larson said.

The project folds into a new strategic plan that has the Grand River overall as a critical piece. The GR Forward plan for the downtown and river corridor, developed from an 18-month public engagement effort facilitated by Downtown Grand Rapids, the city and Grand Rapids Public Schools, among other things incorporates land use that responds to a restored river condition, Larson said.

For example, it looks to reinforce and build off of the Grand Rapids Whitewater project through design of the river’s edges, integration of new trails and open spaces that capitalize on the enhanced public activities on the river.

Wendy Ogilvie, director of environmental programs for the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council and a member of Grand Rapids Whitewater’s planning team, said the potential benefits of the project go beyond city limits.

“This is going to be the largest rapids in the lower peninsula in an urban setting,” she said. “We’re really hoping it can be an economic draw for the region.”

Ogilvie has done community outreach and presentations on the river restoration project, and the Metro Council is working with the city and others to help identify and procure grant funding. Grand Rapids Whitewater is looking to raise a mix of public and private funds from local, state, federal and national sources and hopes in spring 2017 to launch an official fundraising campaign for the remaining $29 million needed.

The city’s Steffen said work is underway on an environmental impact statement that will be prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and could be completed in 18 months. During that time, Muller said, the project will be determining when it will apply for a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permit that could ultimately clear the way for construction. A conservation plan for the river’s snuffbox mussels, an endangered species, also must be approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Muller said project construction, which he hopes could begin in 2018, depending on fundraising and permitting, will take place over three years.

A new life for Lake Macatawa

At another West Michigan water-restoration project, there’s also a multiyear timeline. Project Clarity, at its start a $12 million effort to reduce sediment, nutrient and bacterial pollution in Lake Macatawa, near Holland, seeks to reverse degradation in the Macatawa Watershed, a 175-square-mile area in Ottawa and Allegan counties.

The watershed encompasses land over which water drains to Lake Macatawa. It’s an expanse that over the last century has lost 86 percent of its wetlands to agricultural and urban development, leading to increased water runoff into tributaries and the Macatawa River that flows into the lake.

“Lake Mac is the symptom, but the problem is the watershed,” said Travis Williams, executive director of the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway, a nonprofit education and conservation organization in Holland that is managing Project Clarity. “And everybody who lives in that 175 square miles, which is about 110,000 people, has to take ownership in this issue.”

Among those who have are business leader Dick DeVos and his wife, Betsy, who several years ago were out on Lake Macatawa for an early morning trip on their stand-up paddleboards and looked down upon a green algae bloom in the water. “Betsy said, ‘I hope neither of us falls in,’” DeVos said, and the two talked about the need “to do something about this, about this lake. We can do better.”

DeVos, former Amway Corp. president and now president of Grand Rapids-based investment and management firm The Windquest Group, placed a call to friend and community leader Jim Brooks. Brooks connected them with Williams and Steve Bulthuis, executive director of the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council.

The Holland-based council of governments had for years led implementation of a watershed management plan to reduce phosphorus, after the state Department of Environmental Quality in the late 1990s determined the lake did not meet water quality standards and set a target for phosphorus amounts. The plan included public education strategies, agricultural practices and stormwater management.

The council, which has worked with landowners, municipalities and stakeholders, also did demonstration projects like installing rain gardens with plants that absorb pollutants in stormwater runoff, wetlands restoration, and mitigation of highway runoff.

Led by the Outdoor Discovery Center, talks ensued that got the ball rolling on what would become a larger-scale effort: Project Clarity.

The DeVoses and Brooks, along with his wife Donna, engaged supporters, including through social gatherings, informational events and calls, and helped raise funds to support a $500,000 study begun in March 2011 to determine where sediment and nutrient runoff was coming from. DeVos and Brooks said it was important to know the scope of the problem, and what it would take to fix it.

“We really wanted to deal with this in a serious manner, in a reasonable number of years,” said Brooks, former chairman and CEO of Beverage America Inc. and current chairman of Brooks Capital Management LLC, a Holland investment company.

The 18-month study, guided by the Outdoor Discovery Center, the Macatawa council and Hope College and assisted by Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute and Michigan State University, found that the majority of runoff was coming from agricultural land, but there were also urban sources, Williams said.

‘Not a silver bullet thing’

The findings led to consultations with water quality experts on actions to take and the June 2013 launch of Project Clarity, a multifaceted remediation plan to improve water quality and reduce sediment, nutrient and bacterial pollution in Lake Macatawa by 70 percent.

The plan includes acquiring land to restore wetlands; instituting land features like buffer strips of vegetation that provide a permanent water filtration barrier, ditches that hold more water at high flows and “cover” crops that are planted at the end of the growing season and kept on the field until spring, reducing nutrient and sediment losses and increasing soil health; and community education and outreach on water quality and best practices.

“It’s not a silver bullet thing. It’s quite a comprehensive campaign,” Brooks said.

Bulthuis said that while there have been efforts “throughout the history of the watershed,” a distinguishing factor of Project Clarity is its financial scale, the “ability to help garner the resources, the size of the resources.”

Property donated by Holland-based Haworth Inc., southeast of its headquarters, was the first piece of land in Project Clarity to be restored to its former wetland state. Haworth donated 70 acres, 42 of which in October 2015 were restored to a wetland. In addition to the environmental benefit of collecting and storing water, the land could generate future revenue for Project Clarity as a wetland mitigation bank, in which “credits” are sold to other state-approved projects that impact wetlands.

Haworth CFO John Mooney said the land donation meshed with Haworth’s commitment to sustainability, and valuing and being engaged in its community. Additional Haworth-owned land is leased to a farmer practicing methods like planting crops in a way that minimizes soil disturbance and impact on the land, making it less susceptible to runoff.

“It’s a best practice illustration for the rest of the farmers in the community,” Williams said.
He said some of the money raised for Project Clarity will be used to support other such agricultural practices and projects, disbursed to farmers by farmers that comprise a Project Clarity agricultural committee.

Williams said Project Clarity work will probably take up to 10 years to complete, and it’s not possible to anticipate when the lake will reach its 70 percent reduction goal.

“We told people this was a long-term project and it would take a long time to reverse the damage,” Williams said. The Annis Water Resources Institute is monitoring progress on water quality conditions throughout the watershed, including at project locations and in tributaries and Lake Macatawa.

Williams said Project Clarity has raised a little over $11 million and he expects the initial money to leverage additional funds. Contributions have come from individuals, corporations, local units of government and foundations, including the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which has pledged $2.5 million with $1 million still to be paid, and the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area.

Mike Goorhouse, the community foundation’s president and CEO, said its $250,000 contribution is the largest grant the foundation has ever given and it speaks to both the opportunity to tackle a community priority “in a meaningful way” and the leadership and ability to make it happen.

“You had a nonprofit with the capacity to deliver, philanthropists with the resources to come behind it, science to address this issue, so we said, ‘We’re all in,’” Goorhouse said.

The foundation manages a Project Clarity endowment fund targeted to reach $3 million and provide money for future maintenance on projects and management of restoration efforts.

Goorhouse also sits on a Project Clarity advisory board helping to provide long-term guidance and financial oversight of the initiative. The board is co-chaired by Brooks and DeVos.

DeVos said Project Clarity “is not only exciting for Holland and the Holland community, but serves as a great example to other communities that if they have environmental issues that impact a community asset, they can, if they band together... change things.”

About The Author

Amy Lane

Amy Lane is a former reporter for Crain's Detroit Business, where she covered utilities, state government and state business for many years.

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Comments

George
Mon, 11/14/2016 - 7:49am
Thank you to the visionaries that are spearheading both projects. And to the deep pockets that help fund them.
Matt
Thu, 11/17/2016 - 10:00am
Yah the picture looks really cool and I'd love to try it if it does, but is this really going to work as advertised? Will it be worth the real final cost? Is there a similar thing like this that can be seen? Don't bring up South Bend IN, It didn't look like this when I saw it. If this only works as advertised during occasional high water events ... save the money and skip it. Smells like a lot of unintended consequences.
Mary
Sun, 11/20/2016 - 10:35am
When will we learn that wetlands serve a useful purpose and should not be destroyed. We really need to be better stewards of our planet.