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Issues of the Environment: Marking 50 Years Of The Huron River Watershed Council

Apr 15, 2015

Credit Huron River Watershed Council / hrwc.org

The Huron River Watershed Council is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. David Fair talks with Executive Director Laura Rubin about the past, present and future of the organization in this week's 'Issues of the Environment.' 


Overview  

*       The Huron River Watershed Council is celebrating its 50th anniversary, having been formed in 1965. 

*   On April 22, 2015 Earth Day is celebrating 45 years of bringing awareness about climate change and sustainable initiatives for the environment to billions across the globe.

*   This year’s theme is focus on leaders who actively make changes in their domains, and the Huron River Watershed Council (active since 1956) is a prime example of an organization whose stalwart commitment to protecting the local watershed has fostered this valuable resource and laid a foundation for residents of Washtenaw County to benefit from clean, healthy water for the future

  *   Laura Rubin, Executive Director of the Huron River Watershed Council, has worked with HRWC for 17 years leading the organization to make the Huron River perhaps the best studied river in the state, and the HRWC’s influence extends far beyond local policy impacting state water protection activities.

Earth Day 2015

Earth Day is the world’s largest, non-secular celebration. The Earth Day Network has over 22,000 partners in 192 countries mobilizing people across the globe for the planet. The theme of Earth Day 2015 is “It’s Our Turn to Lead,” and this years focus is on commitments from global leaders, businesses and citizens to pledge Acts of Green. More than one billion people are involved with Earth Day, and it is the perfect platform to bring people together to tackle the greatest challenge of mankind by promoting environmental awareness and encouraging sustainable initiatives to fight against climate change. The 45th anniversary of Earth Day is an important moment as the world prepares for the UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris and the announcement of the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

Huron River Watershed Council

The Huron River is considered to be the cleanest urban river in Michigan.  Much of the credit for this status goes to the Huron River Watershed Council and the persons who saw the need for the river’s protection.  Even though the Council has no enforcement powers, it has accomplished its goals through the use of technical data, factual information and citizen stewardship to influence decisions made by various local agencies, businesses, and individuals.

The need for river protection

The origin of the Council goes back to 1956 when a drought period caused severe water shortages in the Detroit Metropolitan area.  A controversy between Wayne County and Detroit resulted in a National Sanitation Foundation study to survey present and future water resources and demands in the area.

At the same time, new industrial and subdivision development was occurring in Ann Arbor and eastern Washtenaw County.  Water supply was sufficient, but pollution in the river was a growing problem, especially in the narrow part below Ann Arbor.  The State Health Department studied the quality of the river and decided to restrict expansion of any sewage treatment plants.

Washtenaw County Planning Department was concerned about the impact of this policy on future development and asked the State Water Resources Commission to study the utilization of water in the watershed to help resolve water use and pollution concerns.  Among the findings of the report, The Water Resource Conditions and Use in the Huron River Basin, was a recommendation that an agency was needed to evaluate the quality of the Huron River on a continuing basis.  Public Act 200 of 1957 provided the basis for the local units of government to establish a cooperative information, research and consultative agency to tackle multi-unit problems.  An agency, the Huron River Watershed Intergovernmental Committee (HRWIC), was formed in April 1958.  Four counties, eight cities/villages, and twenty townships joined.  The purpose of the HRWIC was to study mutual problems relating to water management and use in the Huron River Watershed.  Its objective was to sponsor a series of studies that would lead to recommendations for review and action by member governmental units.

The studies focused on the biological and chemical characteristics of the river; groundwater geology and hydrology, and irrigation needs.  Based on these studies, an engineering firm was hired to analyze waste disposal and water use in downstream portions of the Huron.  Two important recommendations were made: 1) the level of treatment by existing sewage treatment plants needed to be increased; and 2) an agency should be established to coordinate development of a pollution control program in the watershed.

At the same time, the technical advisory committee of the HRWIC published A Water Use Policy Development Program that also strongly recommended the formation of an organization to maintain surveillance of the Huron. Enabling state legislation was needed and UM Professor Lyle Craine and others worked to get Act 253 of Public Acts of 1964 passed, the Local River Management Act.

The founding of HRWC

In 1965, seventeen governmental units petitioned the Water Resources Commission to establish the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC).  The petition was granted and in April 1965 the first Watershed Council in Michigan was formed.  The office was moved from the County Building to 415 W. Washington in Ann Arbor and Jerome Fulton, a UM graduate student, was hired as a part-time Executive Secretary.

Members of the first Council included twenty-four units of government.  The functions of the Council were to: 1) conduct studies; 2) give reports; 3) request the Water Resources Commission to survey the watershed to establish minimum levels of stream flow; 4) recommend establishment of a River Management District when needed; 5) advise agencies of problems and needs of the watershed; 6) cooperate with federal, state, and local agencies; 7) employ an executive secretary and such other personnel as needed and within budget; 8 ) form sub-committees or advisory committees as needed, and 9) seek special project funds as needed.

HRWC’s accomplishments

Since it was formed, The Huron River Watershed Council has been a respected voice in the 73 communities in the watershed and has a history of working creatively and cooperatively to tackle a variety of issues facing the basin.

The Huron River Watershed Council has built its reputation by authoring sound scientific reports that individuals, agencies, and governments use to guide their decision-making.  Our studies have covered a broad range of topics including: impervious surface coverage and land development practices, coliform bacteria monitoring, fisheries improvement, septic influences on lakes, groundwater vulnerability, flood control, benthic macroinvertebrate populations, influences of various land uses on water quality, and existing and lost native ecosystem types.

Highlights

  *   For 50-years, the Council has served as a common ground where stakeholders can come together to discuss collaboration and coordination between local units of government, businesses, and citizens on water management policies and programs.  Throughout the years these discussions have resulted in reports that governments and agencies have used to direct policies such as Wellhead Protection Planning, Pollution Prevention in threatened waters, Land Use Planning, Flood Forecasting and Warning, Phosphorus reduction, and numerous Watershed Management Plans.

  *   Over the course of its history the Council has played a vital role in the development and passage of statewide legislation that sought to protect water resources.  The Inland Lakes and Streams Act, the Natural Rivers Act, the Clean Water Act and its reauthorization, Goemare-Anderson Wetland Protection Act, Michigan Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act, The Michigan River Basin Management Act, and many others have benefited from the Council’s expertise and involvement.

  *   The Council played a significant role in portions of the Huron receiving a Natural River designation in the 1970s.  The Huron is the only river in Southeast Michigan to have a State-designated Natural River District.

  *   Our 20-year old Adopt-A-Stream program is the state’s premiere volunteer river monitoring program.  The program coordinates several hundred volunteers to monitor the quality of the Huron River.  These individuals assess habitat, the benthic macroinvertebrates that live in the Huron and its tributaries, and water quality, making the Huron one of the best-studied rivers in Michigan.  These volunteers translate the results of their studies into actions, restoring wetlands, educating their neighbors, and working on local land use policies. This long experience in running this program has resulted in the Council receiving the responsibility of running the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s volunteer stream monitoring program, the Michigan Clean Water Corps (MiCorps).

  *   The Council runs a model plan to educate citizens about how they can reduce the seemingly incidental pollution that comes from our everyday lives (nonpoint source pollution).  The Council runs media campaign uses newspaper advertisements, directly mailed tip cards, annual calendars with monthly tips, and radio public service announcements to reach watershed residents.  We are seeing results: for example the use of Washtenaw County Home Toxics Reduction Center is up 250% from the previous year following implementation of our efforts.  This translates into tons of toxics being disposed of properly and kept out of our waterways, soil, and air.  Similarly, 90% of the individuals who received the Pledge Book report having a greater awareness of the issues and over 60% have changed their daily or weekly practices related to water and the environment.

  *   The Council works with communities to protect their natural resources and the groundwater and surface water that supplies municipal drinking water.  We are a recognized and respected source of technical information and coordination among local officials throughout the Watershed and the State.  Our geographic information systems (GIS) modeling, award-winning “Community Guide to Wellhead Protection”, “How Much Development is Too Much” guidebooks and training, Codes and Ordinance Worksheet, and other workshops and tools have helped hundred of communities in the State protect their water and natural resources, and drinking water.

  *   The Councils’ watershed management planning efforts have brought together landowners, builders, elected officials, interest groups, and scientists from 56 different communities to develop and implement community-based roadmaps to guide future protection and restoration efforts.

Today, the Council’s eleven-person staff coordinates a dozen programs and hundreds of volunteers who serve on our boards, committees, and in other volunteer activities.  The HRWC’s efforts fall into three major categories of Education, Technical Assistance, and Science/Conservation.  The programs cover pollution prevention and abatement, hands-on citizen education and river monitoring, natural resource planning, mass media education and information, and wetland and floodplain protection. (Source: http://www.hrwc.org/about/history-of-hrwc/)

Future Threats to Local Watersheds

New Sources of Water Contamination - each year thousands of new chemicals and chemical additives are added to our consumer supply, many untested for safety within our waterways. Microfiber plastics are one such example of a substance that was unknown to contaminate water resources until after the products containing the small particles became commonplace. Household chemicals, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals all end up in our water, and the HRWC will be need to be ready to address this type of contamination as water quality problems crop up.

Loss of Native Species, Establishment of Invasive Species  - in our ever more globally connected world invasive species will continue to be introduced threatening the balance and even the continuation of our local biodiversity web. The HRWC is likely to document species which could potentially alter the delicate nature of the entire natural system at some point in the foreseeable future. The Adopt-a-Stream program and other monitoring efforts can help to recognize foreign species introduction while there is still time to eradicate threats.

Water Use Conflicts - there have been and will continue to be conflicts among members of the local community over how water resources should be used. One example has been the use of Barton Pond for recreation and crew activities vs. the potential to return the Huron River to its natural flow by removing the dam. Aquatic organisms that thrive in the river’s natural state have suffered from dams, but certain types of recreation activities and the habitats abutting the river would be altered if the dams were removed.

Climate Change -  perhaps the most nebulous threat to our watersheds are profound changes to the temperature, precipitation, and pattern of the local climate due to global climate changes. Although we cannot be sure when and where these changes will have the greatest impacts in the future, organizations like the HRWC can be sure that when changes occur the local watershed will be affected. Monitoring efforts now can help to create a baseline for assessing when and where changes occur, and hopefully research can lead to management plans that protect water resource from negative declines.