Lady Bird Lake: A Reclaimed Waterway Success Story in Austin, Texas

I wasn’t born in Grand Rapids. In fact, until about 9 months ago, I had never set foot in West Michigan. I mean, I graduated high school in Illinois, so the Midwest wasn’t totally foreign to me, but it was certainly a big change from the home my wife and I had built over the last decade in Austin, Texas. 

And yet, because there are so many similarities between the two places, it isn’t a total shock to the system. Both communities share a creative energy and optimism focusing on the future while being grounded in local tradition. Both communities are friendly, social, and welcoming despite being the anchor cities for a much larger metro area. And, Austinites and Grand Rapidians love being outside even when the temperatures reach extremes – albeit on totally different ends of the thermometer. 

Both places have found ways to connect their urban environment to the natural world through hiking and biking trails and world class parks systems, but there is one place where the two diverge – their rivers. Both Cities have a river as a defining attribute of their urban core, but at the moment they’re seen in entirely different ways. 

In Grand Rapids, you can walk along the river downtown in a few short segments – and you might occasionally see someone with a fishing pole casting a line in the water – but ultimately the waterway feels mostly like something to “look at” and navigate around. Most older buildings downtown face away from the river, and I got a distinct impression that over the years the river had been seen as something to be controlled instead of enjoyed. 

To be clear, what exists in Austin today is better defined as a lake. The Colorado river running through downtown was dammed off in the 1960s to create a cooling reservoir for a power plant needed to generate energy for the growing city. And for the first decade after the dam was constructed, the river was simply an obstacle to those travelling north and south. Then, in the 1970s, the community and the city came together and decided it was time to invest in transforming what was being treated as an industrial resource into a true, natural community asset. 

These days, Lady Bird Lake, as it’s known, is a key attraction for locals and visitors alike. It has a 10-mile hike and bike trail loop that is used for recreation and as a way to connect neighborhoods upstream and downstream to the city’s core. Kayaks, paddle boards, rowboats, and river cruises can be seen nearly every day as people take advantage of the numerous boat launches and park put-ins. It has even spawned restoration and revitalization along key tributaries. Barton Creek – already world famous for its natural springs – is a key connection to the river, and the newly completed Waterloo Greenway was a project that integrated stormwater control, 35 acres of greenspace (with an amphitheater), waterway restoration, and 1.5 miles of trail that connects the center of the urban core to the river. 

None of what I experienced in Austin was an accident. It took effort and imagination. It was all part of a coordinated effort between private and public partnerships – guided by a community of engaged residents – focused on creating something that would benefit everyone, and accessible by all, regardless of who they are or where they live in the city. 

So, I was excited shortly after moving to Grand Rapids to learn about the “River For All” initiative currently underway. This monumental undertaking is the coordinated effort between the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids WhiteWater, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., among others. It is this coming together of dynamically different organizations that has the power to re-engage Grand Rapidians in their essential and foundational waterway, providing equitable access to a natural resource shuttered long ago by damming and logging.

Together, the River for All participants have a vision of a vibrant city that appreciates its main waterway once again. The GRWW’s Grand River Restoration Project seeks to return the river’s calm waters to their former zeal, a vital initiative that will serve as a catalyst for riverfront projects that increase access and attract residents and visitors to the water for decades to come.

I’d encourage everyone to explore the project – and the various pieces – to learn how you can be involved. This is generational work and it needs the voices of the people to make it a reality. I like to think of “River For All” as the aspiration, but it will take the community’s imagination to make it a reality. 

It can be hard to envision the future when it’s so far away but, trust me, reclaiming the river from its former managed state and returning it to the community as an asset which can be enjoyed by everyone is totally worth it. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it, and there are few things better than floating down the river past the skyline on a hot day, smiling and waving at unknown neighbors, as families picnic on the banks, joggers trot along the trails, and people – from all walks of life – enjoy the heart of the City as a community.

About the Author: David Green

A career government communicator with more than 25 years of experience, David is the Director of Communications for the City of Grand Rapids. A retired soldier, David joined the City of Grand Rapids in 2020 following his stint as the City of Austin’s Media Relations Manager.

He possesses a high cultural and generational IQ, which allowed him to develop and lead diverse communications teams through challenging situations in more than eight countries across three continents. Riots, bombings, mass casualties, and natural disasters; David is no stranger to crisis and has been lauded by leaders at the highest levels of government for his steady hand and calm under pressure. 

He is perpetually curious and has a passion for digging into complex topics with a knack for making them easily understood. From tech to defense and economics to politics, he gets a kick out of helping people navigate the world in which we all live. He specializes in hacking bureaucracies and closing the distance between people and government.

He holds a B.A. in communications from Thomas Edison State University and a M.A. in Human Dimensions of Organizations from the University of Texas. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife of 20 years, Karyn, and their two dogs. He spends his free time reading, watching Youtube videos about ancient human civilizations, and chasing his goal of finding every remix of Blue Monday by New Order.

Grand River Water Quality: Ongoing Improvements Have Created a Safer, Cleaner Waterway

Many people wonder about the quality of water in the Grand River. They wonder whether it is safe to play in, and why the water looks brown and dirty?

Most of the year, the water quality in the Grand River is safe to play in. The river is largely fed by runoff from nearby lands, including streets, fields and yards. The naturally-occurring sediment in the runoff gives the river its brown color, but the sediment doesn’t mean it is unsafe to play in. Occasionally, storms can create runoff which does cause spikes in bacteria, but those concentrations are usually short-lived.

Key initiatives around water quality monitoring, sewer improvements and green infrastructure have all helped improve the quality of the water in the Grand River — ensuring its safety and cleanliness.

Water Quality Monitoring

For more than 40 years, the City of Grand Rapids has sampled water from the Grand River. The City samples river water at multiple points and measures many variables such as pH, dissolved oxygen and E Coli. These measurements are combined into a weighted equation which produces a rating on a scale of 1-100. We call this the Water Quality Index.

A good water quality rating is 70 or higher. In 2019, the average water quality index in the Grand River was 73.

As you can see from the graph below, over time, the quality of the water in the Grand River has increased thanks in part to a community effort in reducing runoff. 

See where Water Quality Index measurements are collected.

As the community continues to put an emphasis on activating the Grand River corridor and installing green infrastructure to improve stormwater management, the City saw the need to have increased frequency of water quality data. Therefore, in 2019, the City also partnered with the United States Geological Survey to install a new river level gage and water quality monitoring sonde on the North Park St. bridge to monitor turbidity, dissolved oxygen, specific conductance and temperature. This sonde allows the City and the general public to have water quality data in almost real-time instead of monthly or quarterly data. You can find that USGS data here

Sewer Improvement Projects

Perhaps the biggest change to improving water quality was the completion of the City’s sewer improvement project. This initiative eliminated all Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) points in the City’s sewer system. 

Combined sewers carry both sewage and stormwater. Engineers designed overflow points to protect sewers from being damaged by heavy flows during large rain events. In doing this, however, overflow points allowed raw sewage to be carried into the river. In 1969, 12.6 billion gallons of raw, untreated sewage flowed into the Grand River.

The initiative, started in 1991, separated storm and sanitation sewers and installed 119 miles of new pipeline throughout the city. The result?

In 2014, zero gallons of raw, untreated sewage flowed into the Grand River.

Green Infrastructure

As part of the sewer improvements, the City also made other green infrastructure improvements, installing: 

  • Rain gardens (bioswales)
  • Porous pavement
  • Hydrodynamic separators to remove sediments
  • Underground storage and infiltration systems

The green infrastructure allows the rainwater to soak into the earth rather than creating runoff. As water soaks into the ground, it cools the water and naturally filters the water. Without these features, rainwater would flow directly into the river, carrying with it road salts, oil and grease and fertilizers. This influx could cause erosion and temperature changes as it hit the river all at once. [Source]

Looking Forward

Through a grant by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and funding from the Downtown Development Authority, the City of Grand Rapids, the Grand Valley Metro Council and other partners are working to develop a water quality notification system. The Wege Foundation funded a study by Clean Water Action in 2019 where they conducted conversations with more than 10,000 Grand Rapids residents. This survey found that the biggest barrier for people to recreate in and along the river was the water quality.

Therefore, this team has set out to break down this barrier by providing real-time data in an easy-to-understand format. Much like the flag system at the beach, this system would interpret real-time flow and water quality data and provide a green, yellow or red notification at several access points to the river. This will provide the citizens with a higher trust in the water quality, breaking down the barrier for them to use the river.  

As we continue this journey of restoring the Grand River, it’s important to see that the work the City of Grand Rapids has been investing in for many decades is coming to fruition. Separately, projects like the sewer improvement projects, green infrastructure and water quality monitoring are beneficial but, together, significantly shape the future of our community.

Meet the Team: Janet Korn

Janet Korn is Senior Vice President at Experience Grand Rapids and a Grand Rapids WhiteWater Board Member. During this video introduction, she discusses her support of the project and what it could mean for the city as whole. As part of Experience Grand Rapids, she understands the need for destination landmarks that set Grand Rapids apart and can be marketed to the rest of the world. The Grand River is one of these unique assets and its restoration brings endless possibilities that invite visitors to experience Grand Rapids in a fresh, new way. She is excited to be part of two organizations who focus on the beauty and natural assets offered by our city.

Watch Janet’s introduction to learn more about how the river can be used to further benefit Grand Rapids.

Note: This is one in a series of video interviews spotlighting the many people involved in the river restoration project.

Meet the Team: Mayor Rosalynn Bliss

City of Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss has been involved in the river restoration process for over a decade. She believes the project will make Grand Rapids an even more exciting place to live, work and play, while also highlighting much of the environmental work the City has already accomplished. She is proud of a project that has such a commitment to the environment and hopes to see restored rapids before her tenure is up.

Watch the entire interview with Mayor Bliss here.

Note: This is one in a series of video interviews spotlighting the many people involved in the river restoration project.

Meet the Team: Dale Burkett

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission was created with three objectives in mind: cooperative fishery management in the Great Lakes, sea lamprey control and the use of scientific evidence to back the need for the first two. Sea lamprey are not native to the Great Lakes and are considered a predator, feeding on salmon and lake trout. Currently, the Sixth Street Dam keeps the sea lamprey at bay, but as plans include removal of the dam, Dale Burkett (through his work at the Great Lakes Fishery Commission) is working closely with Grand Rapids WhiteWater to plan a better path for controlling and blocking sea lamprey.

See more of Dale’s interview here.

Note: This is one in a series of video interviews spotlighting the many people involved in the river restoration project.

Meet the Team: Kyle Shour

As a consultant from AECOM, Kyle Shour is tasked with creating the Environmental Impact Statement for the Grand River revitalization project. In this Meet the Team interview, he sits down with Grand Rapids WhiteWater President and CEO Steve Heacock to give insight into the work done to determine the opportunities, obstacles — and possible alternatives — of urban river revitalization.

See Kyle’s full interview here.

Note: This is one in a series of video interviews spotlighting the many people involved in the river restoration project.

Spotlight: Alan Campo’s “Anishinaabek” Mural

Native Americans and their Relationship to the Grand River

In honor of Native American Day, which celebrates the cultures and contributions of Native American tribes, we’re showcasing Alan Compo’s mural on the Grand River, “Anishinaabek.” 

Visit the mural, painted on the tunnel and retaining walls of the Pearl St. bridge, on the west side of the Grand River.


Created and installed in 2018, Alan shared in his artist statement:

Being a part of The First people of this area will always be a huge part of my art, as well as who I am. “Anishinaabek” is a piece that has been stuck in my head for many years, waiting for the perfect place to make itself known. This is not only my story, but a part of everyone in this areas story.

Inspired by the many I grew up with and how I remember them is how I create. Mother Earth, her waters, and everything we are Blessed with is where all our stories begin.  Everything is connected within these Circles. We are all apart of this beautiful world, and the many lessons within.

Creating my piece “Anishinaabek” was a very humbling experience. I cannot speak before my elders or for others. This is my version of stories and how I remember. I am Blessed to be but just a tiny part of such a Great People, humans. Painting, and thinking about all that has gone on along the shores and within this mighty Grand River is surreal. To think about what continues, and what has been forgotten is a huge undertaking to respectfully paint. My hope for this piece is that it has the viewer feeling the same incredible awe that I do as I live among such stories and do my best to allow them to flow in a good way.

This mural is only one story of a plum orchard which grew along the River long ago. A natural Native garden for the Anishinaabek, where the kwek (women) would go.  To think about the beauty and the scenes of life that played out here is incredible. Stories within stories that continue to move into today. I hope that this paint I’ve put on these walls will help bring the viewer into that place of wonder and beauty that I try to see and feel myself. Miigwetch for allowing me to create in such a beautiful spot.

Throughout this entire mural I included the tiny round plums that were said to have grown along the Grand River. There were circles of trees of yellow, red and purple plums. My plum trees are a bit abstract, but I wanted them to stand out, and for people to see them. On the river side of the tunnel I did my best to continue the water line as if the river could be seen thru the walls. The women painted in blues behind the floral pattern, on the bottom represent the kwek, women of the past, who have shaped us today. The dancers in color in the front of the bottom floral, represent the ability to be ever present and moving forward with our traditions, and culture. I did my best to represent as many clans as possible throughout. Family clans such as the Crane, Bear, Turtle, Sturgeon, Martin, Deer, and Loon. I myself am Turtle clan which is part of the Fish clan. We use the clan system to help determine were someone might come from and consider others in your clan family.  Many stories and amazing history come from these teachings. Most of the Anishinaabek life is learned through being and listening to the stories while being in the moments.  

Being apart of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians I feel a deep connection to the Grand River. It was how our people lived and traveled. Much respect was and is paid to how amazing it truly is. I had to paint the man moving down the Grand in his birch bark canoe. I could think about all the canoes that have traveled along this River, and all the meeting spots that were on these banks. Meeting spots for all Three Fires Nations, and others as well. Marriage ceremonies, funerals, or visiting friends and those that had passed made this River a busy place. Many Natives would bury their loved ones along the banks for the ease of being able to come pay respects later, and to include them in the many ceremonies and gatherings of the many tribes that took place here. Grand Rapids was a huge meeting place for the people of the Three Fires to meet. It was the perfect place to come in from Lake Michigan and all directions. It was a central spot.  

Within this mural I tried to place many stories. I painted the muskrat, and hints of our creation story. How this animal, so thought of as being so lowly and weak, was the one who went down to the bottom of the waters and fetched a tiny morsel of land to help recreate the land on top of the turtle. In doing so he gave his life. I think about the many lessons learned in many of these stories and how beautiful and connected they are. I see the many flood stories in all the other Nations around the world and know that we are all connected to Mother Earth. I like to show the many gifts of Mother Earth, and the ways that I see the Anishinaabek use, such as sweet grass, birch bark, and the quills of the porcupine. I remember and see the baskets in my mothers’ cabinets that were used and traded by my Great Grand Mother. Using all-natural elements, she would weave incredible designs taught to her by her mother, and family. Traditions continue, and develop, and its just my way of using art to keep that line of tradition going. I come from artists.

There are so many stories within this mural. I like to hint at many of the Nanaboozhoo stories, who was a bit of a trickster, but would always seem to somehow learn or create something in life. I love the stories of the Thunder Bird and Water panther, and how many stories that may seem to end in tragic ways, are learning experiences. I love to depict Mother Earth, many times I will do so with a turtle, and strawberries. The strawberry is always that first little flower and fruit we see in the spring. Like the plum garden, many Native gardens grew naturally with the Earth. Everything was only used when needed and always gathered with respect for what was being taken. The plants, the animals, all are living in this world too, and we depend on them for so much.

Music plays a huge part in my work. I love to incorporate the drum, singing, and dancing in everything I can. To me, it helps to tell the story, but also to pay respect to all that is given to us from the Earth. We only have one home, one Earth, and it provides us with everything that we need to live. We are all so Blessed and I don’t want to forget that. I want to remember to see the beauty around us; In the River, in the plants, walking, flying, swimming among us, and say Miigwetch KithciiManitoo for such life.

We must be caretakers of this beauty. We must respect the gifts we are given. Everything has a story and lessen to give us. We must see it, look for it, remember it, and learn from it. 


Meet the Team: Wendy Ogilvie

Wendy Olgilvie serves as Director of Environmental Programs for the Grand Valley Metro Council. Wendy has spent her life improving watersheds and has a passion for people having access and being able to recreate on the Grand River. Wendy talks with Steve about the process to get the Lower Reach of the river restoration project moving.

Watch Wendy’s full introduction here.

Note: This is one in a series of video interviews spotlighting the many people involved in the river restoration project.

Meet the Team: Mike Staal

Mike Staal serves as the river restoration Project Manager for the City of Grand Rapids. In this role, he focuses on the potential impacts of the project, ensuring access on and off the river and other technical aspects. Mike shares some background on the City’s green infrastructure initiatives to improve the water quality of the Grand River watershed.

Watch Mike’s full introduction here.

Note: This is one in a series of video interviews spotlighting the many people involved in the river restoration project.

Meet the Team: Kristin Pfauth

Kristin Pfauth is an Engineering Project Manager for the City of Grand Rapids. She also oversees capital projects for the City (“everything that’s not a road or a sidewalk”), including the river restoration. Kristin “represents the engineering department to ensure users are properly following all guidelines and working with the [appropriate] officials” and project designs meet all requirements.

Watch this interview to learn more about Kristin’s role in the project.


Note: This is one in a series of video interviews spotlighting the many people involved in the river restoration project.