Issues Of The Environment: Paying Tribute To The Women of the Huron River Watershed Council

Mar 3, 2021

Huron River Watershed Council executive director Rebecca Esselman
Credit Doug Coombe / Concentrate Media

The Huron River is a life force for the communities in its watershed.  Throughout the years, it is women who have been a driving force in improving its quality.  In this Women's History Month edition of "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks with the current executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council about some of the women who preceded her and how that serves as foundation for the work she is doing today and for tomorrow. 


Overview

  • 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 (HRWC) and those who saw the need for the river’s protection.  Even though HRWC has no enforcement powers, they have accomplished their goals through the use of technical data, factual information and citizen stewardship to influence decisions made by various local agencies, businesses, and individuals.
  • The HRWC’s work reached back to 1956, a time when Ann Arbor was expanding and pollution in the Huron River was already a growing problem.  For over 5o years, HRWC has served as a common ground where stakeholders 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.
  • Women have taken on the central roles at the Huron River Watershed Council for the past 23 years to great effect.  Laura Rubin served as executive director from 1998 until Rebecca Esselman took over in 2019.  Laura transformed the nonprofit from a low-profile organization to a high-impact, high-visibility national leader in the field of watershed management.  HRWC leads in the development and dissemination of cutting-edge conservation and public-education projects and serves as a model for watershed organizations around the country and world. (Source: *Directly quoted* https://conference.stewardshipnetwork.org/keynote2020/)
  • Today, Rebecca Esselman oversees a staff of 15 professionals and more than 500 volunteers dedicated to protecting and restoring the river for healthy and vibrant communities. Our 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.

History of the 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 (HRWC) and those who saw the need for the river’s protection.  Even though HRWC has no enforcement powers, we have accomplished our 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 historical roots reach 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.

The 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: the level of treatment by existing sewage treatment plants needed to be increased and 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 our first Council included twenty-four units of government.  Its function was 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 other personnel as needed and within budget; 8 ) form sub-committees or advisory committees, and 9) seek special project funds.

HRWC’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Since its inception, the Huron River Watershed Council has been a respected voice in the watershed’s 73 communities with 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. 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.
  • For over 50 years, HRWC has served as a common ground where stakeholders 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 our history, HRWC 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 re-authorization, 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 HRWC’s expertise and involvement.
  • HRWC 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.
  • The 20-year old stewardship program at HRWC 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 chemistry and flow levels, 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. Because of this long experience in running this program HRWC was selected to lead the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s volunteer stream monitoring program, the Michigan Clean Water Corps (MiCorps).
  • HRWC engages and educates the public about how they can reduce the incidental pollution that comes from our everyday lives (nonpoint source pollution).  HRWC employs social networking and other digital channels, print advertisements, mailings, storm drain labels, outreach at public festivals, printed and free calendars with monthly tips, and radio public service announcements to reach watershed residents.  Results show: for example the use of Washtenaw County Home Toxics Reduction Center is up 250% from the previous year following implementation of our initial 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.
  • HRWC works with communities to protect their natural resources and the groundwater and surface water that supplies municipal drinking water.  HRWC is a recognized and respected source of technical information and coordination among local officials throughout the Watershed and the State.  Its 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.
  • HRWC’S 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, HRWC’s staff coordinates several programs and hundreds of volunteers who serve on our boards, committees, and in other volunteer activities.  HRWC’s efforts fall into four major categories: Study, Restore, Protect, and Connect.  Our 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.  Go here to learn about current programs and projects. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.hrwc.org/about/history/)

HRWC Female Leaders

Rebecca Esselman

Rebecca spent the past seven years as a watershed planner for HRWC and served as the interim executive director after Laura Rubin resigned the post in April to lead the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

I am also happy to report that HRWC has been nurturing a strong internal environment, one that challenges staff members and provides room for advancement.  We ran a search process that was truly nationwide and rigorous, and we attracted a good number of exceptional candidates. After thorough and careful deliberation, we concluded that none stood out as strongly as Rebecca.  She is a smart leader and a fierce advocate for the Huron River.  She has the right skill set, professional work experience, and temperament for the challenges we confront, and she has earned the respect and full support of the HRWC staff.  With PFAS, climate change, and other forces now threatening the health of the River, Rebecca is the right person for the job.

She has 18 years of experience in water resource management and river protection. In her seven years with the Huron River Watershed Council, she has led the organization’s climate adaptation efforts, implementing projects that prepare the river, as well as cities and towns, for a changing climate. She is a skilled facilitator, successfully bringing together diverse constituents to make progress on some of the most pressing issues facing our freshwater resources.

A Dexter resident, Esselman works at the state and regional level to increase the impact of HRWC’s work and strengthen clean water protection efforts throughout the Great Lakes region. Prior to joining HRWC, Rebecca spent 10 years with the Nature Conservancy. She holds a Master of Science in Conservation Ecology from the University of Georgia, where she focused on watershed issues, and a Bachelor of Science in Botany from Michigan State University. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.hrwc.org/rebecca-esselman-named-hrwc-executive-director/)

Laura Rubin

Laura Rubin has spent more than 30 years working on environmental protection, policy, and conservation issues. She is currently the Director of the Healing Our Waters—Great Lakes Coalition, which has been harnessing the collective power of more than 160 groups representing millions of people, whose common goal is to restore and protect the Great Lakes. The Coalition has earned a well-deserved reputation as a national leader in securing federal investment in regional ecosystem restoration efforts.

Before that Rubin worked as executive director of the Michigan-based Huron River Watershed Council since 1998, where she transformed the nonprofit from a low-profile organization to a high-impact, high-visibility national leader in the field of watershed management. HRWC leads in the development and dissemination of cutting-edge conservation and public-education projects and serves as a model for watershed organizations around the country and world.

She has served as a board member or advisor to local, state, and national organizations including the Michigan Environmental Council, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Integrated Science and Assessment Center, the University of Michigan School Of Natural Resources’ External Advisory Board, the City of Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt Commission, and others. For her national leadership in river protection, she received the River Network’s 2013 River Hero Award.

Prior to leading HRWC, Laura worked with small and medium sized manufacturers on pollution prevention efforts, consulted on economic development strategy with the Navajo Nation, and served as a Program Director at Greenpeace, where she cut her teeth on policy development, community organizing, and environmental advocacy.  

Originally from the Chicago area, Laura grew up a block from Lake Michigan and learned to love and appreciate the beautiful waters, recreational opportunities, and rich ecology of the Great Lakes.  She earned Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Natural Resource Policy at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, and a Bachelor of Arts in business economics from Colorado College. (Source: *directly quoted* https://conference.stewardshipnetwork.org/keynote2020/)

Eunice Burns 

HRWC’s longtime Board Member, Eunice L. Burns, peacefully passed away on October 20, 2016 at the age of 93.  Eunice is the longest serving member of the HRWC board and the co-founder of Ann Arbor’s Huron River Day with her friend Shirley Axon. Eunice’s commitment to clean water and a healthy Huron River began with her service on the Ann Arbor City Council in 1962.  She became involved with HRWC in the early 1970s and served as Chairwoman 3 times.  “Eunice cared deeply about the Huron River and the Watershed Council” said Laura Rubin, HRWC’s Executive Director, “She was always there to help out, stand up and let her opinion be known, and offer a big smile of encouragement”.

Eunice was the embodiment of a good citizen.  She never backed away from what she thought was right no matter the opposition and was courageous and dedicated in her actions.  Her love for her community has stood as a shining example for her children, grandchildren, and those who knew her, of a vibrant, purposeful life rich in impact and meaning.  Eunice liked to say that she had multiple careers, starting as a physical education teacher, and then entering political life in 1962 as a member of Ann Arbor City Council from the First Ward. She served three terms and went on to run for Mayor in 1965, the second woman in the city’s history to do so.  In 1971, she began working for the University of Michigan as Executive Assistant to the Dean in the School of Education, and Chair of the Commission for Women.  After ten years at the university, she became Manager of the historic Kerrytown Market, and in 1983, obtained her real estate license and worked as a realtor with Charles Reinhart Company until she was 85. (Source: https://www.hrwc.org/eunice-burns-made-a-difference/)

Shirley Axon

And locally she represented Ann Arbor on the Huron River Watershed Council, a post which lasted for 35 years until her retirement in 2013.  She co-founded Huron River Day with a friend to help focus community awareness on the river; this event has been an annual summer celebration for 38 years since its founding.  She died at 89 in 2018.  (Source: https://obits.mlive.com/obituaries/annarbor/obituary.aspx?n=shirley-axon&pid=189635854)

Janis Bobrin

She is the former Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, an elected position she held for six terms from 1989 through 2012.

She serves on the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission, as well as on several nonprofit boards statewide and locally – including the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Huron River Watershed Council, and Dawn Farm. She also is an advisory board member for the Girls Group.

Prior to her election as water resources commissioner (originally called the county drain commissioner), Bobrin worked as manager of water quality programs for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG).  (Source: https://www.hrwc.org/about/board-of-directors/)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu