If you have not had a chance to read Charlie Mackesy’s book The Boy, The Horse, The Fox and The Mole, I highly recommend it. Described as “a book of hope for uncertain times,” the author presents vulnerability, kindness and hope in a beautiful, easy way.
(e.g. “I’ve discovered something better than cake.” “No, you haven’t,” said the boy. “I have,” replied the mole. “What is it?” “A hug. It lasts longer.”)
Like the boy on the horse, I can report that while Grand Rapids WhiteWater has a long way to go, we have also come a long way. It has been over a decade of work happening in the form of permitting, project management, research, collaboration with local partners, collaboration with engineers, regulatory agencies, local and statewide fishing agencies, tribal councils and city, state and federal governments. The work has been extensive. And the work has been worth it as we achieved major milestones in 2020.
These are just a few of the things we celebrate as achievements as we reflect on 2020.
The river restoration project is a catalyst for the City of Grand Rapids equity work and for the community’s contemplation of its future. We spend a considerable amount of time thinking about our relationship to our river, to nature and — most importantly — to each other.
We presented to more than 100 businesses of color and increased Micro Local Business Enterprise registrations
Contracting is being pursued with equity principles
This year, despite COVID-19, we have continued with extensive public outreach and presented virtually to over 500 people. This includes expanded environmental education which reached K-12 classrooms on virtual platforms.
As we continue working to reach more people, our most current communications have been focused on increasing awareness of the project on digital platforms.
Email – There are currently 448 individuals signed up for the monthly e-newsletter communication, and growing
LinkedIn – We went from 0 followers to 187 and a regular posting cadence.
Instagram – Pre-2020 displayed only two posts on our profile. There have been 68 posts since July 2020.
Facebook – 2019 saw only four posts. There have been 76 posts since July of this year and our followers are up 10%.
Website – Traffic is up 45% and referral traffic from social platforms is up 4,000%. Of that traffic, 28% of visits are going to view our Status or reading The Plan. We are also successfully converting 45 new subscribers to our email list and growing that each month.
Blogs – Since inception, we had only updated content on our site 18 times. In 2020 alone, we have added 18 posts.
Our staff has been working with local agency Highland Group and Kennari Consulting to more comprehensively develop plans for the public campaign once EGLE (the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) officially accepts our application.
Grand Rapids WhiteWater and the City of Grand Rapids meet regularly with state and federal regulatory agencies for both the Lower and Upper Reach portions of the river project.
Much work has been done regarding the Environmental Impact Statement for the Upper Reach:
Collection of sediment characterization, bathymetry, and bedrock profiling data
Drafting EIS metrics framework
Dam risk assessment
Distribution of 30% designs, models and reports for project team review
River Restoration coordinated with the Army Corps of Engineers and included a 30% grading plan for in-river features in the Upper Reach to be included in the ongoing EIS process
The AHS design plans submitted to the Corps were greater than 30%
With respect to the Lower Reach (Bridge to Fulton), we have reached the following milestones in 2020:
The revised Biological Assessment was submitted to the USFWS on June 9, 2020
Following a 135-day statutory review period, the USFWS issued a Biological Opinion on October 22, 2020
The WPP/EA was submitted to the state office of the Natural Resource Conservation service on September 21
A revised WPP/EA addressing the state office comments was submitted to the state for submission to the National Watershed Management Center on November 13, 2020
The Joint Permit Application package was submitted to EGLE on October 30, 2020
We are already responding to their list for more information
A complete set of construction drawings and impact drawings were finalized as part of the Application package
Completed 2020 mussel, macroinvertebrate, fish and habitat surveys
GRWW & the City continue to hold bi-weekly meetings with the RPT to manage the project
The City of Grand Rapids is currently negotiating the Construction Management contract with AnLaan Corporation as well as a Professional Design Services contract with River Restoration
GRWW was actively involved in the development of those contracts prior to negotiations with the individual parties
All construction QA/QC will be coordinated through River Restoration
THE WORK FLOWS ON
We currently have commitments of 71% of the private sector funding goal (over $13 million) and a total of 90% of the original $45 million goal.
This investment in our project is immensely important as the work that we are doing is being incorporated as a major part of investment planning in the future of Grand Rapids and Western Michigan.
Even under COVID-19 related challenges, project timelines have largely been adhered to thanks to hard work and collaboration.
No matter what next year brings, we have a lot of work to do and we are prepared to make it happen. We look forward to a big year to come, and we hope you stay tuned to our project status forums – on social media or our website – as we share exciting progress to come. Forward, to 2021!
*Thanks to Jay Steffen for his compilation of accomplishments.
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.
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.
As part of the sewer improvements, the City also made other green infrastructure improvements, installing:
Rain gardens (bioswales)
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]
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.
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.
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.”
Thanks to Fox 17, you can read about how GR Paddling and Grand Rapids Whitewater go together. We’re striving to restore the Grand to its natural state, all while making sure that conservation efforts are kept in line so the river will remain clean for everyone to enjoy.
“The efforts to improve the Grand River’s water quality are a shining example of the types of wildlife conservation and management that will ensure the state’s forests, waters, and wildlife are protected and preserved for generations to come.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s a big difference between learning science abstractly and learning it first hand right along side experts. This is an opportunity through the Grand Rapids Whitewater program that has become much bigger; it’s now about a river restoration project.
– David Koning
Local students taking part in Grand Rapids Whitewater’s 2-week Summer Science and Leadership program learned more about mussels in the Grand.
Students collected and identified mussels at Riverside Park in an attempt to further understand how important mussels are to the ecosystem.
The students were excited to be apart of the research and learn more about the River. Vian Abdulqader, Forest Hills Northern High School student, said “Gathering samples, numbers, information, that way it can lead to information about, ‘Hey these aren’t supposed to be here, or we need more of these’, therefore, we can be like, ‘We need to make these changes to the river to restore it to what it was, the beautiful rapids it used to have,'”.
GRWW organizers launched The Summer Science and Leadership program as a 10-day pilot program to provide students with hands-on opportunities to learn about the many aspects of the Grand River Restoration project. Students will meet a handful of community leaders, environmental educators, and project stakeholders as they explore their own connection to the Grand River. At the end of the 10-day program, students will present their findings and talk about their experiences at a “Gallery Walk” event being held Tuesday July 24 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum from 5:oo-7:30p.m. This year’s program hosted nine students. The goal is to expand the program in the future to a diverse group of students from around the county and region.
If you didn’t, don’t worry! You can see the story and front page feature here.
On Sunday June 3, 2018, the Grand Rapids Press published articles about the permitting and design process, how far the river restoration project has come, the natural habitat and creatures living in the River, fundraising, public participation, and the steps we still need to take.
Thank you to everyone who has supported us so far. This is a complex project and we are excited about the momentum we have to bring the rapids back to the Grand for everyone!