2018-05-20 / Insight

A River Runs Through It

Flint River has always been important to Lapeer County
BY PHIL FOLEY
810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com


Illustration courtesy Flint RiverWatershed Coalition Illustration courtesy Flint RiverWatershed Coalition LAPEER COUNTY — Compared to the Mississippi, America’s longest river at 3,902 miles, by comparison the Flint River is a hydrographic blip. At just a shade longer than 142 miles from where the North and South Branch merge near Columbiaville to where it empties into the Shiawassee River, the Flint River isn’t even in the state’s top 10.

But, the river drains 1,358 square miles stretched across seven counties, including much of Lapeer County. The watershed is home to more than 600,000 people living in 20 villages and cities and 58 townships.

The Flint River watershed is part of the Saginaw River basin which drains much of the Thumb and central Michigan into Saginaw Bay.

The original inhabitants along the river, the Sauk, Onottoway and later Chippewa and Ottawa Indians, called it the Pewonigowin or “river of fire stone.” French fur trappers later called it la pierre, which means “flint” or “flint stone,” which English speaking settlers corrupted into “Lapeer.”

Although the river has become the Rodney Dangerfield of Michigan rivers in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, environmentalists insist the river is in much better shape than headlines like Bloomberg’s “Flint’s River of Poison” would suggest.

While some sections of the river, especially in Genesee County, were heavily impacted by industrialization, Joe Leonardi, a fisheries biologist with the state Dept. of Natural Resources, said overall the river is in much better shape than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

He noted there are some fairly pristine tributaries in the headwater reaches. In recent years increasing numbers of bald eagles have been found nesting along the Holloway Reservoir and on the North and South Branches of the Flint River. This is significant since bald eagles nest only near healthy waterways.

Farther downstream as many as 100,000 walleye from Saginaw Bay migrate up the Flint River to spawn in a stretch of river that winds through the city of Flushing in Genesee County.

For more than a decade Leonardi and a group of devoted volunteers have worked to keep a 15-mile section of the South Branch of the Flint River between Lapeer and Columbiaville open to small boat navigation. Each spring and summer volunteers spend hundreds of manhours cutting downed trees and pulling them from the waterway.

Keeping the river open for small boats is a daunting task. Leonardi explained the geology of the river basin and the large number of dead ash trees along its banks means every time there’s a heavy rain, more trees fall into the river. “It will stabilize someday,” he said, “but that’s not going happen any time soon.”

Anyone interested in getting involved in river clearing efforts can email Leonardi at LeonardiJ@ michigan.gov.

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