From the Office of the Director

Scott Faulkner
Executive Director
Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

It is a rare privilege and honor for me to be placed in a position of leadership in such a historically productive organization as the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly. I have enjoyed reviewing the almost 25 years of improvements – large and small – to this prized watershed, and it is humbling to note the decades of hard work and real progress accomplished through the many that came before me.  Projects completed such as targeted reforestation, Lake Sturgeon assessments, shoreline bank stabilization, and a series of targeted private dam removals, have had substantial positive impact throughout the watershed.

At the same time, in our now post-pandemic world, it is critically important for MRWA to fully cease any temporary but understandable pauses in activity, set a bold new course, and raise our sights high once again.  There are very exciting, challenging, and potentially enormous undertakings that may be on the road just ahead, and there is plenty of science and data to support these potential projects.  That is, of course, only if we make the decision to do so.   In order to make unprecedented strides in preserving, enhancing, and protecting that to which we are entrusted, let us consider what history tells us about the efforts initially completed to “tame”  the Mighty Muskegon:

➤Starting around 1855, business interests alone took only 55 years to deplete virtually all of Michigan’s  old-growth forests, massively disrupting fragile ecosystems and displacing indigenous residents along the way.

➤Starting around 1910, business interests alone took only 27 years to place three massive hydro dams along the watershed, forever segmenting the previously seamless and highly productive aquatic habitat.

➤Starting with logging in the 1800’s, business interests alone spent 14 decades relentlessly contaminating much of the lower watershed with all manner of industrial waste.

Combine those historical drivers with a continuous 150+ years of expanding agricultural and residential encroachment, and that is where we find our beleaguered watershed today.  So, where do we go from here? What, if anything, can be done now to restore these incredibly resilient habitats?  In short – plenty!  But it will take bold efforts and investment that match the magnitude of the combined impact of logging, river-segmenting hydro dams, industrialization, and ongoing development. It will also take additional, even greater partnerships and relationships to make it happen.

There is reason and evidence for hope: Take the recent delisting of the watershed terminus – Muskegon Lake – as a clear indicator that successful, large-scale restoration efforts are more than possible on this watershed.    This delisting as an area of concern (AOC) by the EPA occurred because of years of intentional work by persistent and tireless people – West Michigan Regional Shoreline Development Commission (WMSRDC), one of MRWA’s original partners, deserves so much credit for this significant accomplishment, and it is also comforting to know we don’t face these challenges alone.  We believe this year, we face a rare moment of convergence of multiple high-level drivers for even more positive change, best described, if you will pardon the expression, as a “Watershed Moment”:

Consider the United Nations declaring this decade “The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration,”  aiming to revive damaged ecosystems, with a special emphasis on freshwater restoration.  Consider that all three of the hydroelectric power dams along Muskegon require FERC relicensing by 2034 and the recent statewide concerns over recent catastrophic dam failures.   Consider the current US administration’s expressed interest in critical infrastructure spending, along with corresponding desires and budgets at the State level. Consider the convergence of these forces and well, 2021 may indeed be our Watershed Moment for the Muskegon.

While at first blush tackling these topics may seem like a lofty, faraway ideal, I suggest that it is an opportunity, and ours if we seize the moment. One thing that is very clear — with a history of over 170 years of business-centric human engagement, finding a sustainable solution for the Mighty Muskegon will take considerable time and resources. More importantly, it will take bold thinking and measures that, this time around, address not just one, but three key stakeholder groups.

What does this mean, and where do we assert the MRWA? This time around, business interests alone will not be the sole determinant of our watershed’s future.  This time around we must combine environmental concerns and the very real concerns of social stakeholders – regular folks like you and I.  This time, alongside our indigenous peoples who also live on and around the watershed, we will also have a seat at the table through the MRWA. That is my hope, promise, and commitment as Executive Director.

Is it ever possible to sufficiently placate and address all three stakeholder groups?  Not perfectly, but we must believe it is possible to forge a new solution with what we now know to be scientifically true from an environmental perspective, and to also address the very real social and economic concerns across the watershed.

Today, your Assembly engages actively and directly with a broad spectrum of state and federal agencies as well as local corporations like Blue Triton, Consumers and DTE Energy, and environmental non profit organizations such as Trout Unlimited.  Additionally we count on units of government at the federal,  county and township levels, to further develop and implement  bold plans for increasing the preservation, protection, restoration, and sustainable use of the Muskegon River.

We expect great things- which may include an effort to build consensus for a bold plan to reclaim the “lost” Maple River anabranch of the Muskegon.  Imagine actually adding three new miles of healthy, productive river over 150 years after it was abandoned!  The future is bright. Thank you for your continued support.

Scott D. Faulkner
Newaygo, MI USA