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.

Grand River, Grand Opportunity: Using the Grand River as a Living Classroom for Local Students

As a grade school student, I often struggled sitting in a classroom for hours each day. Hands-on science activities were fun and broke up the day. Field trips and going outside always helped me see the world in a different way. Growing up in Midland, MI, I was fortunate to have the Chippewa River as my backyard playground where every year on the last day of school we jumped into the river — kicking off the summer season of swimming, fishing, canoeing and exploring.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the river was much more than just my playground, it was also an outdoor classroom that quietly taught me to respect the raw power of Mother Nature and it unlocked my passion for being outdoors. While I was privileged to have this resource in my backyard, at the time I lacked the understanding to know that I could turn my passion for the outdoors into a viable career.

If someone had told me during that last summer of my senior year in high school that I could make a living fishing and playing in the river, I would have laughed at them. After all, playing with fish, clams and mud isn’t really as glamorous or as prestigious as a career in the medical field or in a law firm. Or is it?

Like the river itself, the efforts to restore and revitalize the Grand River have evolved over the last ten years and several local project partners and stakeholders have embraced the educational opportunities provided by this project. The reality is that over the last decade a number of experts from many different fields have been diligently working to define how the Grand River will look, feel, sound and function for generations to come. We have been fortunate to work with some very talented and dedicated biologists, hydraulic modelers, historians, malacologists, engineers, natural resource and conservation professionals, mayors and politicians, construction managers, teachers, nonprofit professionals, grant writers, city managers and city planners, and attorneys guiding us along this path. This project is truly a community effort.

The revitalization of the Grand River presents endless opportunities for educating our community: children and adults alike. Not only can we teach about the river and its unique history and ecosystem, but we have an opportunity to use this river to expose students to careers in conservation and natural resource management.

In a 2019 MLIVE Grand Rapids Press Article, John Helmholdt, Executive Director of Communications & External Affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), estimates that up to 80-85 percent of GRPS students in the 5th Grade have never seen Lake Michigan. Helmholdt states, “Some students in the city have barely been outside their own city or neighborhood.”

The Grand River is Michigan’s largest river and plays a critical role in the ecosystem of the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. That’s why we were excited to partner with the Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) and the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) in 2018 to launch the Grand Rapids Whitewater Summer Science and Leadership Program. Our goal was simply to use the Grand River to provide a place-based learning experience that connects students to the world around them and helps them see first-hand how their actions today can change the future of our environment. Read Little Mussel, Big City for a first-hand account of the summer science and leadership program.

We are also thrilled to see more organizations in West Michigan realizing the educational potential of this project. For example, LGROW is working with other partners in the Grand Rapids Environmental Education Network (GREEN) to provide consistent, connected, hands-on environmental education experiences aligned with the curriculum for all Pre-K through 8th grade students in Grand Rapids Public Schools.

LGROW and the Grand Rapids Public Museum are working together to pilot an 8th grade program titled The Living Grand to help students learn about the complexities involved in the process of river restoration, including river management that addresses water quality, invasive species and threatened/endangered species such as the snuffbox mussel.

LGROW also worked with GVSU-Groundswell and Brenda Perry at Kent Innovation High to develop curriculum aligned to science and social studies standards for grades 6-12 around the Grand River Revitalization. That curriculum is available on LGROW’s website at and at

Grand Rapids Public Schools, Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department and other local private funders have also teamed up in the past to bring the Canoemobile program to Grand Rapids. According to the Wilderness Inquiry website, “Canoemobile is a ‘floating classroom’ that brings students out on local waterways in 24-foot Voyageur canoes to learn about science, history, geography and culture.” This amazing partnership has put over 1,000 GRPS students on the Grand River each year. For many of these students, it is their first time in a canoe or their first hands-on experience with the Grand River.

Grand Rapids Whitewater is thankful for the many great local organizations and educators who have embraced the idea of connecting local students to their Grand River. Our investment of time and energy in these students today, will undoubtedly help raise the next generations of Grand River stewards.

Watching a young student nervously put on a pair of waders and slip into a river or stream is exciting. It reminds me of the joy I felt in my backyard river playground and the excitement of having an outdoor classroom. For those who have not been around water or wildlife growing up, it can be nerve-racking. However, it doesn’t take long before their natural curiosity helps them overcome fears and they start seeing the things that make up the world around them in a different light. The “icky” and “gross” quickly become “amazing” and “cool.”

How Grand Rapids City Residents Perceive the River Revitalization Project: A Clean Water Action Survey

If you watch the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids today, its users are primarily people on the shoreline, walking the paths, enjoying open public spaces, taking graduation and wedding pictures on the bridges and enjoying the parks along the shore. Anglers who can trailer their boats to an access point downriver can fish up to the Sixth Street dam, when the water is high enough to allow passage over the four low-head dams. Many also walk into the river and line up in front of the dam to fish, and some fish off of the floodwalls or bridges. 

We hear from many folks who are excited about the revitalization of the river. We also hear from some current users of the river who would prefer to leave things as they are, who do not really relish the thought of more people in the river.  

So, how about everyone we haven’t heard from? How do the people of Grand Rapids perceive the Grand River revitalization project? 

To find the answer, a partnership between Clean Water Action, Grand Rapids WhiteWater, Grand Valley Metro Council and the City of Grand Rapids came together (with the generous support of the Wege Foundation) to connect with residents directly through a survey. Clean Water Action chatted with 10,000 Grand Rapids residents and received 2,600 completed surveys.

Everyone surveyed was a Grand Rapids resident and 44.3% of the respondents live within a mile of the Grand River.  

The results were strong and encouraging:

  • An overwhelming majority of participants – 85.4% of respondents – visit the riverfront at least once a year.     
  • More than half visit at least 5 times a year. 
  • The group identified recreation and natural/wildlife habitat as the preferred uses of the river.
  • 76.8% are aware of current efforts to revitalize rapids to the Grand River. 
  • Support for the project is overwhelmingly positive.

  • As is the value that participants place on the Grand River as a community asset.

When asked, “What activities would you enjoy if the rapids were restored?” respondents noted that activities such as canoeing, kayaking, rafting, surfing, swimming, wading and fishing would be the most popular.

On the other hand, the survey reflects that a majority of respondents continue to be concerned or unsure about the water quality in the Grand River despite the City’s successful efforts to clean the water over the last 20 years or so. 

Sounds like a good topic for our next narrative.

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. 


Embedding Equity into the River Restoration Project

In his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the question of when civil rights advocates would be satisfied. Dr. King answered, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

What great imagery when thinking about the need to embed equity into the Grand River restoration project. The goal is inclusion for everyone, which can be achieved only by embedding equity into the fabric of the project. It’s not just the “what” and “how” that are important. The “who” matters as well.

The “what” of the project is the removal of unneeded dams and restoration of rock structure to recapture the spirit of the iconic Grand Rapids and make it a “mighty stream.”

The “how” is a design that opens the river to broader recreational use and expands fish habitat while building a more viable lamprey barrier. So often, conversations normally stop at that point. However, this project is intentional about the necessity of going beyond the usual standards.

That’s why we must thoroughly understand the “who.”

Who, indeed?

  • Who will determine all the potential uses of the river? Who will govern that use?
  • Who will do the construction? Remove the dams? Move the rock back into the river?
  • Who will benefit from the shoreline development?
  • Who will learn how to fish, boat and swim in the river? Who will teach those individuals?
  • Who will wade in the stream to connect with nature, or sense the generations of people who relied upon it for their livelihood?
  • Who will catch a walleye for dinner?
  • Who will catch a wave for the fun of it?
  • Who will quietly contemplate at the end of their day while listening to the sound and feel of water cascading through the rapids?

We know the “who” matters.

Equity, diversity and inclusion within the context of water recreation is about ensuring all people have access to clean, healthy life-sustaining waters. It is about bringing people together — a way for us to connect the pieces of our city that have been historically siloed. This is our opportunity to address recreation and inclusivity. This is a community project, creating an asset that will span generations. It is imperative that the project benefits the whole community and that every step is completed with an eye to equity.

Our work is to determine how we can reduce barriers. Far too often, water recreation is treated as a privilege for a select group of people. The time and cost, learning how to do it safely, being welcomed into recreational spaces and more are all barriers that exclude too many. This project, in the heart of Grand Rapids and within access of many neighborhoods of color, can — and will — ensure that people of color are encouraged to take part in the great outdoors from childhood on. We have a great opportunity to embed equity into the project and bring it to the people. There is no better project to use as a catalyst for change. It will have a monumental and generational impact long after the last construction truck is gone.

In its “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Statement of Intent,” the River Network declares:

All people have a right to clean and ample water that sustains life. To achieve this right for all communities, it is imperative for the river and watershed community to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive movement … Biases and disparities disproportionately burden communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities with legacies of environmental damage and ongoing harm that limit their access to healthy life-sustaining waters … Just as biodiversity strengthens natural systems, water protection work is made stronger by the contributions, experiences, perspectives, and values of different people and communities.

Through the Equitable Grand River Restoration Initiative, with help from the Kellogg Foundation,  the ultimate outcome is to eliminate racialized disparities at the community level through wealth creation for persons of color. The initiative is designed to ensure racial bias doesn’t exclude residents, entrepreneurs and businesses from distressed neighborhoods from equitable access to the jobs, contracts and training that will result from this project.

To achieve these goals, the City seeks to increase its Micro-Local Business Enterprise (MLBE) list. An MLBE Registration Program was recently launched to assist 30 to 40 construction and professional services firms to register with the City to receive more exposure during the bidding and contracting phase. While the construction is atypical, the desire is to ensure all types of firms are able to bid and contract for the work, generating wealth as the massive river project develops. Before it is done, tens of millions of dollars will be spent and more than a decade of time will have passed.

And that’s not all. The river’s restoration will serve as a catalyst for additional equitable development and access opportunities — to trails, park improvements, etc. — as envisioned in the GR Forward community plan and the regional, state and national partners in River for All.

Restoring the Grand River is just the beginning. With great partnerships and continued focus and diligence on equitable opportunity, we believe this project can provide our whole community with improved access to the great outdoors and the Grand River.

Ciarra C. Adkins, JD, Equity Analyst at the City of Grand Rapids
Steve Heacock, JD, President & CEO Grand Rapids WhiteWater

GRWW secures $4.4 million in new funding, names new CEO

“The Grand Rapids Whitewater nonprofit has secured $4.4 million in new public and foundation funding for its restoration efforts of the Grand River through the city.

With pledges of $1.4 million from Kent County, $2 million from the state of Michigan and $1 million from the Peter C. and Emajean Cook Foundation, the group has now raised about 71 percent of its overall $44.6 million fundraising goal, Project Manager Matt Chapman told MiBiz.

The announcement of the new funding came as Grand Rapids Whitewater also hired a new top executive. Board member Steve Heacock, who most recently served as senior vice president at Spectrum Health, takes over immediately as president and CEO of Grand Rapids Whitewater.”

Read more about our new funding and Steve Heacock’s new role and perspective in MiBiz’s article.

Little Mussel, Big City: David’s Blog

David Koning, teacher at nature-based STREAM School in Hamilton, MI, writes his own thoughts about teaching 9 high school students place-based learning during the 2018 Summer Science and Leadership Program.

Thanks to our partners LGROW and Grand Rapids Public Museum for all of their work on the Summer and Science Leadership Program!

Read the original post on Rapid Growth Media. All photos courtesy of David Koning.

David Koning in front of the Grand River

“Anyone donning a pair of fishing waders has automatically made some concessions to fashion and personal presentation, but the nine area high school juniors and seniors gathered at Riverside Park this past July didn’t seem overly concerned with style points — their eyes were all fixed on the Grand River.

Each one had been selected to be part of Grand Rapids WhiteWater’s Little Mussel, Big City: Summer Science and Leadership program. The river restoration project began a few years ago as a creative, perhaps even playful, idea to create a downtown whitewater park for kayakers and surfers. Like many things in life, the proposal soon grew complicated. A lot more complicated. The Grand River is both metaphorically and literally the heart of the city, and its complex history of people, economy, and nature converged like a Class IV rapid.

Summer Science and Leadership Students wading in the Grand River

Rather than abandon the idea, GR WhiteWater, its partners, and the city embraced the complexity, seeing challenges not as problems to be solved but as an incredible opportunity to create something new: a river restoration project that marks success according to sustainability and the triple bottom line:

People: Wellness, social equity, culture
Planet: Healthy ecosystems
Profits: Vibrant, diverse economic opportunity

In the past, the three were often seen in opposition or at best as a series of compromises. Better thinking sees all three as puzzle pieces to be fit together. As we rush forward in the 21st century, the problems inherent in what might be coined conquering capitalism — a system that emerged at a time when overpopulation and global-sized environmental threats were inconceivable — are at a tipping point. What actions the adult world takes now are certainly of critical importance. But it is perhaps even more important that we enable young people the opportunity to build something new: a worldview that embraces progress and growth alongside, not in spite of, social and environmental factors.

Ron Yob, Tribal Chairman of the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians, speaks to the group of students.

And so the students, strangers to each other until just the day before, stood on the banks of the Grand, huddled in a tight group ready to take a much smaller step toward saving the world: looking for federally-endangered snuffbox mussels. We were with one of the nation’s leading experts, Heidi Dunn, who explained how non-invasive freshwater mussels are keystone species that, when present, are significant indicators of healthy river ecosystems. Boundaries staked, students entered the river on hands and knees, catch bags looped over shoulders, running gloved hands through the sandy river bottom.

Each day, students gathered at our home base at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, a perfect riverside basecamp for our daily excursions. In the two weeks we spent together, students manipulated physical and digital watershed models, measured and marked fish with GVSU grad students, learned of the native Anishinaabe history and relationship to the river, explored the history of sturgeon, met local business leaders and city planners, paddled kayaks, and held a mini-session in design thinking. Walking up to four miles a day, we also made time for ice cream. Their work culminated in a creative ideas workshop, emerging from what they’d learned about the many layers involved in the river restoration project. Proudly, they shared their ideas before the mayor and the city commission on their final day together.

Place-based learning, that which takes students out of the classroom and connects curriculum to the larger world, is the most powerful gateway I know to foster deep learning and allow students to connect to something larger than themselves. In a more relaxed environment coupled with hands-on learning, there is actually more room for growth, creativity, and productivity.

Students kayak to celebrate completing 2 weeks of hands-on learning in the Grand River

After the program, students testified that “we learned to work as a real team.” Meeting community professionals (all of whom testified that their journey had been an adventure full of surprises rather than a fixed path), one student remarked, “I grew in my view of my future. I’m now considering a lot more things I can do that would interest me.” And if nothing else, “I also learned how to talk to adults and how to have a good handshake!” Students closed the program considering ways they could stay involved with the river and the river restoration project: helping with youth programs, volunteering, serving as ambassadors to their schools, and even forming a youth branch of GR WhiteWater.

Back in the water, bags were filling with mussels. These little creatures have served important historical, economic, and ecological roles from the time Native Americans first settled along a the not-so-quiet roar of whitewater rapids immediately upstream from where the public museum now stands. On this day, 16- and 17-year olds first name, measure, and then take a brief moment to marvel at each shell’s individual markings and color before properly returning it to the river. In their eyes, though, is the start of a new chapter of leadership and vision marked with intelligence and passion. In their hands is the future itself.

The Grand River is more beautiful and healthier now than any other point in modern history. With the help of these students, and the many others in their generation and the generations to come, we can have hope that the river — and this city — will be even better 100 years from now.”

Grand Rapids WhiteWater plans to run another session of Little Mussel, Big City (and perhaps two) next summer. Read more about the program and the application process here.

Restoration Project could be done by 2025

Grand Rapids citizens and visitors may not be seeing big changes in the River right now, but Grand Rapids Whitewater hopes to be making big splashes soon.

“[T]he river will look much different by 2025. That’s Grand Rapids Whitewater’s target date for the completion of  the river restoration project. It’s a project that is expected to cause a ripple effect, both literally and figuratively, on downtown Grand Rapids’ redevelopment efforts.”

Learn more about our tentative timeline for the Grand River Restoration Project in the article published by WoodTV8:

On Tuesday August 14, 2018 Richard Bishop Grand Rapids Whitewater President & CEO, in conjunction with the our partners at the City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., presented an update to the Grand Rapids City Commission. This update highlights the true public-private partnership that has developed over the last eight years as we focus on the restoration of the river corridor.

The presentation represents a long-term vision for the restoration of not only the Grand River, but also the parks and trail systems that line the banks of the rive. This vision aligns with community planning processes like Green Grand Rapids, GRForward, Grand Rapids Whitewater River Restoration Plan, and The City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Strategic Master Plan. You can view the entire city commission update below:

Economic Boost as Part of Restoration

Although the restoration of the Grand River may still be a couple more months away from launching, stakeholders in the Downtown community are already anticipating the restoration’s opportunities and positive economic impact.

In 2014, the Anderson Economic Group LLC estimated that the initiative could generate a new net economic impact of $15.9 million to $19.1 million annually.

City planners, real estate developers, property owners, and local businesses, “see significant potential for considerable economic spin-off if the plans come to fruition”.

Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer at DGRI calls the initiative the “most significant urban revitalization project” in downtown Grand Rapids in decades.

“We view (the river restoration) as one of the single largest gestures the city can make for redevelopment of the urban core and the whole area,” adds Rick Winn, president of Amway Hotel Corp.. He adds that public spaces adjacent to Amway-owned hotels could eventually become points for kayakers and boaters to directly access the river. “This will enhance tourism in a major way. We see it as an enhancement of the area as a destination.”

Read more at MiBiz’s article about the community’s view on the economic benefits of the Grand River Restoration project.