2020 A Year Like No Other

It would be nearly impossible to find an enterprise of any type in America that has not felt the impact of Covid-19.  Small businesses that depend on daily customer interaction face the largest challenges and tragically, many will not survive.

Obviously, a nonprofit organization like the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly has different concerns since we rely on a diverse combination of revenue sources.  Individual donations, membership fees and support from local partners combine to provide the necessary funding to cover operational expenses.

State and federal grants fund the major restoration projects that define our organization and make it possible to achieve our stated mission: “to protect and restore the Muskegon River, the land it drains and the life it supports”

All these revenue streams declined last year. Extraordinary demand for individual relief funding at the state and federal level have had a negative impact on conservation budgets. As a result, grants became far more competitive.  Additionally, individual donors, facing personal hardship often found it difficult to justify charitable gifts.

And yet, 2020 was a year of significant accomplishment for the MRWA despite these challenges.   Following is a brief review of our achievements in order to let our closest friends know what we were up to last year.

Before drilling down to specifics, it seems fair to acknowledge those who are most responsible for our success. Much of the credit must go to MRWA staff who embraced a “less is more” approach to getting the work done. They voluntarily reduced their hours to save operational funds but maintained a focus on critical priorities. The team is small, but it is mighty.

MRWA executive director Dr. Marty Holtgren leads the effort and serves as the voice of the organization. In a relatively short time, he has developed highly effective mutually beneficial relationships with key partners. As a direct result of his efforts, the organization was able to secure grant funding for the type of restoration projects that have maximum benefit for the watershed.

Patricia Jarrett is our extraordinary office manager who handles the day to day details required for an effective organization. She also manages many of our “perennials” – those ongoing programs like river cleanups that have immediate impact on the health of the watershed

Mary Hansen is the MRWA project manager who ensures results on the ground meet expectations. Our reputation as an organization depends largely on keeping our promise to major funders by successfully completing projects assigned to us.  Mary is responsible for that and takes it very seriously.

As always, the MRWA would like to extend our gratitude to dedicated partners, who provide the financial support that drives our stated mission: to preserve and restore the Muskegon River.

There are local foundations that have been with us from the beginning:

  • The Fremont Area Community Foundation
  • The Community Foundation for Muskegon County

There are corporate sponsors that appreciate and support our efforts:

  • DTE Energy Foundation
  • Ice Mountain
  • Cargill

Finally, there are state and federal agencies that provide major funding for large projects

  • Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
  • Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE)
  • The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)
  • The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

2020 Highlights

In the fall of 2019, the USDA, Forest Service awarded a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grant for more than $300,000 to the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly. The grant requires that the MRWA and six partners plant 882 trees over 300 acres in four counties within the watershed.  Partners include:

  1. City of Evart
  2. Mecosta County Parks
  3. Newaygo County Parks
  4. City of Newaygo
  5. Bridgeton Township in Newaygo County
  6. West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC) in the Greater Muskegon area and Fremont.

Mary Hansen has made excellent progress on this two-year reforestation project and expects to complete the work by the fall of 2021. This is where it stands to date.

GLRI Tree Planting Update

Bridgeton Township May 13 49 Trees Total
Bridgeton Township Hall 11 Trees
Bridgeton Township Boat Launch 24 Trees
Maple Island Boat Launch 14 Trees


Mecosta County Parks May 20 40 Trees Total
Paris Park 35 Trees
School Section Lake Park 5 Trees


Evart September 11 30 Trees Total
Riverside Park 30 Trees


WMSRDC-Fremont October 5 43 Trees Total
Oak Street Development 43 Trees


WMSRDC-Muskegon Site October 5 21 Trees Total
City of Roosevelt Park 21 Trees

Total:183/882 (21% Complete)

Including the GLRI grant and other smaller projects Mary and her team put 229 trees in the ground in 2020.

IM Showcase

Funded by Ice Mountain with additional support from Cargill, the IM Showcase grant provides for the development of a Landowner’s Guide to Streambank Restoration webpage and YouTube channel, i.e.  a “Do it Yourself” approach. To demonstrate desirable outcomes we will employ Best Management Practices (BMP’s) in restoring 2 severely eroded streambanks within the watershed.  One site is on the Hersey River at Rambadt Park in Reed City, a highly visible public area with heavy pedestrian traffic.  Due to erosion, a section of a walking path adjoining the riverside has fallen into the river.  The second site is on private property on the Muskegon River. Each site has different types of erosion allowing us to perform a variety of bank stabilization techniques. We will then monitor both site through photopoint photography to demonstrate positive change over time.

In a final bit of good news, funding for the Invasive Species (IS) grant was restored so we can continue our partnership with the North Country Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (NCCISMA) to educate and inform riparian land owners about invasive species and how they can help by signing up for our lake monitoring program.

Education and Outreach

The Freezin’ Season Winter Carnival is one of two youth oriented educational activities funded by the Fremont Area Community Foundation that feature prominently on MRWA’s annual calendar. The other is the summer snorkel event at Diamond Lake County Park and both have the same general goal: raise environmental awareness among local young people through outdoor adventures. We believe that kids who learn to love the outdoors at an early age are much more likely to protect the environment as adults

The Diamond lake activity was a victim of the pandemic and had to be cancelled but the staff managed to execute a great wintertime activity in early February

The 2020 winter carnival was a terrific event for Newaygo County kids and their parents as families gathered at the Newaygo County Welcome Center for a full day of winter activities. Some fished through the ice or skated across it while others tubed down a perfect sledding hill. Many young artisans made bee boxes and bat houses with help from MRWA Executive Director Dr. Marty Holtgren and Executive Director of the Newaygo County Conservation District, Luke Cotton.  There was also a native wildflower seed bomb class, horse drawn trailer rides and other outdoor activities. Volunteer DJ, Doug Harmon kept everyone entertained.

Naturally, there was hearty winter food for all and a roaring campfire, just what you would expect from an event produced by the Newaygo County Conservation Collaborative. Along with the MRWA, founding partners include

  • Newaygo County Parks and Recreation
  • Michigan State University Extension
  • Newaygo Conservation District
  • Newaygo County Drain Commission
  • Newaygo Invasive Plant Project

Muskegon River Trash Bash

Pat realized that to execute a river clean-up event this year she needed to create a different strategy since planning and preparation would have to be done remotely:  “The Trash Bash Committee decided that cleanups had to take place in the month of August but we let the participants pick any day in the month.  Rather than assign individuals to a specific team and section of the river we recruited team captains and asked them to form their own team and select an area of focus within the watershed. We had plenty of volunteers and my biggest task was to make sure that we covered as much of the river as possible. Of course, we asked all the volunteers to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing and masks.”

The results are impressive:

  • 26 teams with 106 participants donated a total of 318 hours to the cause
  • They collected 188 bags of trash weighing approximately 10 lbs. each for a total weight of 1880 lbs. of trash removed
  • They covered approximately 644 acres of the river and adjacent property

“When they finished their cleanups, we asked all participants to complete a 3 minute survey that provided us with the results we needed and registered them in prize drawings. The Trash Bash fund gave away $950 in cash prizes including $100 for best team video. Additionally, each volunteer received a certificate of participation and a Trash Bash 2020 embroidered patch in the mail.”

We offer our appreciation to the following corporate sponsors who provided the funding to make it happen to the benefit of everyone who cares about the Muskegon River:

  • Ice Mountain
  • DTE Energy Foundation
  • Wisner Canoe Rentals
  • Cargill, Inc.
  • Radio Station B103.9
  • Michigan United Conservation Clubs

We are happy to note that our sponsors were pleased with the event:

Tina Wilson, of Cargill, Inc. and a member of the Cargill Cares Committee said, “Great ideas. Great project. Very successful event during COVID. Great job Pat”

Arlene Anderson – Vincent from Ice Mountain added, “Its remarkable to see how the Trash Bash, which started over 7 years ago has grown, which would not be possible without the volunteers, sponsors and now the leadership of the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly. The structure this year, allowing volunteers the flexibility to choose the place and time, proved this is an event that will continue into the future. I am proud that Ice Mountain continues to be an important part of the clean-up each year and am looking forward to many years to come.”

We also want to thank our unsung heroes who handle the critical details like clean up bag distribution and trash disposal:

  • Muskegon Conservation District
  • Newaygo County Parks and Recreation
  • MRWA project manager Mary Hansen
  • City of Evart
  • City of Big Rapids

Finally, we offer a special thanks to our dedicated volunteers for an important job very well done.

Laying the Foundation with a new Watershed Management Plan

Last fall the department of Environment, Great lakes and Energy (EGLE) awarded a grant totaling $108,000 to the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly (MRWA). The grant provides funding to update our existing Watershed Management Plan (WMP) which when completed will include specific recommendations for restoration and protection projects in four watersheds.

Key elements of the updated plan will include:

  • New stream monitoring data
  • An agricultural inventory
  • Wetland functional assessments
  • An updated dam inventory

An approved watershed management plan is required to apply for implementation funds offered annually by the Nonpoint Source Program. In other words, this grant represents the successful first step to qualify for additional funding that will be invested locally to improve the quality of freshwater resources.  Over the next three to four years, we intend to manage major restoration projects aimed at reducing nonpoint sources of sediment, nutrients and other contaminants.

The current watershed plan is almost 20 years old and because of the many land use changes in the area it needs to be updated.  The update will focus on the lower watershed starting at Croton Dam and extending to just below Maple Island Road. Specific geographical areas of focus are four local sub-watersheds:  Bigelow Creek, Hess Lake, Brooks Creek and Mosquito Creek.  The updated plan will help to restore impaired waters and protect high quality waters by reducing nonpoint sources of sediment, nutrients and other contaminants.  Specific areas of focus will include collecting nutrient and temperature data, evaluating dams, and updating the extent of agricultural practices.  There will be opportunities for the public to provide input and we will be announcing dates and locations where those opportunities will occur.

The EGLE grant combined with funding provided by Ice Mountain to conduct a thorough inventory of dams within the watershed promises to have far-reaching impact on the resource and will guide our efforts to remove obsolete dams that present a serious hazard to the Muskegon River.  MRWA is excited to work with an exceptional group of partners including EGLE, Trout Unlimited, Grand Valley State University and the Newaygo Conservation District.

Looking Ahead

Early in 2021, the outlook for a productive year is very positive. Dr. Holtgren has several major grant applications in progress and expects confirmation in the next thirty days. With the support of our partners, we intend to build on the accomplishments of last year to achieve even better results in the coming months.