From the Office of the Director January 2022

Scott Faulkner
Executive Director
Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

Over the warmer months of 2021, I frequently traveled through the backwaters of our watershed; in remote tributaries, on a jet boat out in the braids, and electrofishing in a hidden impoundment.  I frequently found myself marveling at the ingenuity and tenacity of previous generations in their dozens, even hundreds of watershed-related projects.  Granted, over the fullness of time, many of these projects have proven – shall we say- to be of singular economic benefit to the original designers, often to the detriment to the health and future of the greater watershed.

It occurs to me nonetheless that the creativity, scope of sheer manual labor, and substantial resources needed for many of these projects in often remote places at least deserve legitimate recognition and a solid mention. These folks were hungry, these folks were resourceful, and these folks were tough!

Serious questions: Did our Western watershed settlers give even a passing thought of other stakeholders just downstream from their projects?  Could they even contemplate the consequences on the watershed in its entirety, or conceive of an increasingly displaced native culture through the elimination of their food source or means of transportation?  Could they know that entire species were being isolated and then eliminated? If so, did they care?  Early maps of that era revealed little physical or scientific awareness of the complexity of the watershed, and the interconnected impacts, as we understand it today.  So at least a portion of these transgressions might be at least understood, if not altogether forgiven. Right?

Often their actions were exclusively focused on a specific economic or survival outcome, whether that be grinding grain for food, harnessing hydrodynamic energy for a sawmill, or keeping an agricultural field from flooding.  These were, at the time, noble projects for the benefit of a small group of rural people trying to survive, or simply improving their lot in the late 19th century.  Granted, the late 1800’s and early 1900’s afforded the ambitious Muskegon River “tamer” far fewer obstacles in the form of required environmental studies, detailed engineering drawings, and demanding permitting as these requirements exist today. But these projects were nonetheless a hard, tough “slog” for those souls dedicated to their projects’ completion and the economic benefits promised.

Of course, the past handful of decades have given increasing insight to what previous generations did not know: That even well-constructed projects have a life expectancy of around 50-75 years, not 100, 125, or even longer.  That water control devices, even small, minimally designed culverts at a road crossing, can severely restrict watershed habitat and often decimate native fish populations.  Just a few degrees of warmer water on an otherwise perfect stream, and the trout are simply… gone.   Today, we know more, and we should all know better.  Today, are we willing to act on that knowledge, and demonstrate true stewardship and conservation at levels far greater than our ancestors?

In 2022, your MRWA will continue to evaluate each watershed restoration project from these four important perspectives:

  • Scientific and Environmental Impact: Is this project a net gain for the watershed?
  • Economic Impact: Does this project support and/or expand local economies?
  • Cultural: How does it affect current resident populations who live with the outcome of the project?
  • Sustainability: How will it affect future generations?

Your MRWA will do all we can to make sure that any projects being contemplated along the watershed are held to these four standards of analysis.  More good news: Thanks to your support, MRWA will almost double our available staff in 2022.  We are engaging with the GLUA sewer project at Higgins Lake, meeting face to face with stakeholders throughout the Maple River Project boundary, expanding and formalizing our relationship with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, working with Ferris State University to deepen and expand our 25-year partnership, and providing meaningful internship opportunities to students who want to get their hands dirty cleaning up the Muskegon- perhaps with as much fervor as our ancestors were likewise willing to toil to tame it.

Today, MRWA is also at the conversation table, engaging with Consumers Energy on the $200+ Million Hardy Dam Emergency Spillway project, as well as with the permitting agencies that will ultimately approve any final design.  While the project is being largely- and correctly – touted as an important public safety improvement, MRWA believes that any $200M project also has the required resource base to include positive environmental, economic, and cultural impact. There is room for hope: After all, Consumers Energy’s own Mission Statement promises to put People, Planet, and Prosperity first.

MRWA sees the potential of combining a strengthened, safer Hardy Dam Emergency Spillway, a much-needed Dragon Trail crossing on 40th Avenue, with the possibility of an accompanying project that would evaluate an engineered bypass channel / fish ladder.   Imagine eager tourists and students watching the first walleye and steelhead instinctively re-establishing their native migration patterns, Ferris interns documenting this monumental turning point in ecological design, high school biology students who might even start to believe that anything is possible.  Imagine the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians celebrating the return of a sacred species deeply anchored in their tribal culture.  With a full reconnection at Hardy, Croton, and Rogers we could indeed imagine all of this  in the years ahead.

More good news: MRWA presently enjoys a proactive, productive, and open line of communications with Consumers Energy, actively working together on important aspects of the FERC relicensing deadline of 2034, exploring opportunities for watershed restoration projects including multiple small dam removals, Maple River restoration, and joint public engagement functions. Truly anything is possible if and when we truly work together.

Is your MRWA up to the task? Are you?  I believe it will take the same grit and determination that it took the early settlers as they labored to tame the Muskegon with dams, straightened a miles-long section of river, and otherwise abused the watershed over a remarkable 60 or 70 years of water control projects.   2022 will be a time to be creative, strong, resourceful, transparent, stakeholder- inclusive, and wise. Your financial support allows MRWA to continue to show up strong along the watershed- from end to end, and we continue to appreciate your active comments, criticism, encouragement, and support, as we work to live our Mission.  Thank you.