2017-04-23 / Insight

Flint River advocates: Water is fine; just needs greater public access

BY PHIL FOLEY
810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com


For the past 15 years, volunteers have helped to clear the Flint River of debris each spring. 
Photo by Phil Foley For the past 15 years, volunteers have helped to clear the Flint River of debris each spring. Photo by Phil Foley LAPEER COUNTY — It’s been three years since the City of Flint began treating water from the water source it abandoned 50 years ago in favor of getting water from what’s now known as the Great Lakes Water Authority.

During those three years, the Flint River has become synonymous with lead contamination and sick children, but members of the Flint River Watershed Coalition (FWRC) say that’s a bum rap.

The FRWC began a benthic monitoring program in Genesee and Lapeer counties in 1998 and volunteers have been checking the river and volunteers have been keeping an eye on the health of macroinvertebrates with spring and fall surveys ever since. Macroinvertebrates form the foundation of the river’s food chain and they aren’t very tolerant of pollution.

The FRWC’s Executive Director Rebecca Fedewa, said, “The Flint River Watershed Coalition is appalled at the condition of the city’s (Flint) drinking water, and dismayed that the local, state, and federal agencies that are meant to protect our citizens and our drinking water failed so completely.” But she added, “It’s not the river.”

She said two decades of benthic monitoring at Flushing Township Nature Park in Genesee County has seen water quality increase from fair to good. Over the past decade, volunteers at the dozen monitoring sites in the Lapeer County section of the river have shown consistently high water quality indicators.

Fedewa noted that volunteers have consistently found at least two of the “pollution intolerant” species of macroinvertebrates at 20 of the group’s 35 monitoring sites and often find as many as five.

Joe Leonardi, who’s been a fisheries biologist with the state Dept. of Natural Resources for 33 years, said, “The river has actually improved” during his career in its 142-mile run from its headwaters in Lapeer County to where it joins the Shiawassee River.

The Shiawassee, in turn, joins the Tittabawassee River to form the Saginaw River, which flows into Saginaw Bay.

Leonardi said the Flint River is home to between 80 and 90 species of fish. While most of those species are minnows, the Flint River offers some of the best small-mouth bass fishing in the state. He added anglers will also find northern pike and channel catfish.

Sondra Severn, FWRC’s project manager, added, the Flint River has one of the state’s three best walleye fisheries.

“The river itself is fine,” Leonardi said. “The problem with Flint was not the river, it was the transport system. The lead didn’t come from (the river) water.”

Fedewa said FRWC staff has conducted lead tests on water from three sites in the river and sent samples to Merit Labs in East Lansing and none of the samples have shown detectable levels of lead.

In Lapeer County, Leonardi said, the biggest issue is agricultural run-off. But, he said, he’s been encouraged by the increased levels of stewardship by property owners along the river.

Homeowners, he said, have shown more awareness of the fertilizers they use. The drain commission has improved its techniques for cleaning ditches and has encouraged farmers to plant vegetation buffers.

Leonardi and Peter McCreedy, who’s been the ecology director at Chatfield School in Lapeer for 20 years, agree that the biggest issue facing the Flint River in Lapeer County is access.

Since 2002 the pair have led groups of volunteers to clear log jams in the river between Lapeer and Columbiaville to keep it open to small boat navigation.

Scores of volunteers have removed hundreds of tons of fallen trees and they’ll be back at it sometime in May. While Leonardi gets a DNR crew to work on the river through the state game area, he stressed, “It’s not a DNR project.”

But, he said, it’s an important project that has made the river accessible for a growing number of canoe and kayak enthusiasts. The last few years has seen a growing number of the original volunteers retiring or leaving the area. “We need leaders,” Leonardi said.

Next summer, he said, will likely be his last field season as a fisheries biologist. “If others don’t step up, I don’t know what the future holds,” Leonardi said. “But I have to remain positive.”

Severn is working on getting National Water Trails System status for 68 of the river’s 142 miles. The designation would help make funding requests for projects in Lapeer County easier.

“We want to make the river more user friendly,” she said. FRWC has plans to install mile markers along the river from Lapeer to Montrose Township in Genesee County and put signs on bridges to help paddlers better navigate the river.

McCreedy expects to see a new canoe/kayak launch on the river in Lapeer’s Rotary Park. The launch will be a series of wide steps, allowing people to easily get their boats in and out of the water regardless of the water level.

McCreedy has been working with the county to put in a parking lot and canoe/kayak launch on a small piece of county owned property on Saginaw Road, but that project has been moving a lot slower like than hoped.

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