Looking Back. Year in Review: 2021

Despite the obvious challenges inherent in a global pandemic, a topic that we have all talked about way too much, 2021 was a year of accomplishment and growth for the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly. Thanks to commitment from dedicated individuals throughout the organization, we sustained many of our most important legacy programs and projects while laying the groundwork for more expansive efforts in the future.

Fundamental to our success is an enduring commitment to remain true to our identity as a project-based, results oriented organization. Clearly, we are most effective when we leverage our strengths: expertise in grant writing and major project management. Our promise as always is to preserve and restore the Muskegon River by doing work that has tangible impact on the resource.

The year marked significant personnel changes for the MRWA. Dr. Marty Holtgren, who assumed the position of Executive Director in 2017 at a time when the organization needed effective leadership, has elected to transition to a part time role as principal watershed scientist.  This will allow Marty to stay engaged with the MRWA while attending to a thriving consultant business that demands more of his time. Our sincere appreciation to Marty for righting the ship and establishing a positive direction for the future.

At the same time, it was our good fortune to recruit a very capable individual to lead the MRWA. Scott Faulkner accepted the position in April and brought a fresh approach to the role. If you read his article in the fall 2021 Riverview, you know he does not believe in imposing artificial limits on the scope of our achievements. He has already had a positive impact on the organization and his influence is felt throughout.

On the other hand, the one constant on the MRWA team for the past seven years has been our office manager, Patricia Jarrett.  In times of increased workload combined with COVID-19 related staff reductions, Pat has stepped up whenever necessary to keep the organization on track. She has always been a rock-solid financial manager as evidenced by a perfect streak of approved annual audits, but last year her list of accomplishments, in addition to her core responsibilities was impressive:

  • She organized and managed the 2021 Trash Bash, the most comprehensive river cleanup project in our history. Teams covered the upper, middle and lower sections of the Muskegon River and removed nearly two tons of trash. ( Ed Note: see Fall 2021 Riverview for details)
  • She took responsibility for the MICorps stream sampling program.
  • She managed a variety of midsized projects including tree planting and bank stabilization to successful conclusions.

Going forward some of this work will land on a different desk since Pat has announced her intention to work a reduced schedule beginning in January with an exclusive focus on financial matters and some project work.

Fortunately, reinforcements have arrived. We are pleased to introduce Sarah Himes as Watershed Assembly Assistant, working part time in our Ferris offices. Sarah has a strong background in media and education, and is a Big Rapids resident living on the Muskegon River with her husband, Todd and four-year-old daughter, Sabrina. Sarah comes to us from a busy career at 9&10 News in Cadillac, where she served as a pre/post-production professional for their lifestyle show – ‘the four’.  Her talents include videography, editing, writing and social media. Perhaps even more importantly, Sarah and her family moved to Big Rapids so that they could live right on the Muskegon River, and enjoy the many benefits- a major goal for their family.


2021 Highlights

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 to update our existing watershed management plan specifically to address non-point source pollution in the lower watershed.

Nonpoint-source pollution, which can be extremely harmful to the environment, occurs when pollutants are released in a wide area. In rural areas, for example runoff after heavy rainfall can flush pesticides and fertilizer from farm fields. All of this pollution is likely to wind up in streams, rivers, and lakes. It is a complex issue requiring targeted solutions beginning with an effective plan.


An approved watershed management plan targeted specifically to issues of this nature is required to apply for implementation funds offered by EGLE annually through the Nonpoint Source Program. In other words, this grant represents the successful first step to qualify for additional funding to 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, temperature, and other contaminants.

Given the complex nature of isolating and addressing non-point source pollution, we knew we needed to recruit professionals in the field who were willing to share their expertise. We expect excellent results from this project team:


Nichol DeMol, Trout Unlimited:  temperature monitoring and wetlands investigation

Michelle Storey, EGLE: Technical Contact

Julia Kirkwood, EGLE:  Project Manager

Luke Cotton, Newaygo Conservation District: Agricultural Surveying

Mark Luttenton, Grand Valley State University: Water Quality Monitoring

Cindy Fitzwilliams-Heck, MRWA: Consultant

Marty Holtgren, MRWA: Dam Assessment, Wetlands Investigation, Project management


When completed the plan will include specific recommendations for restoration and protection projects in four sub-watersheds:

  • Bigelow Creek,
  • Hess Lake,
  • Brooks Creek and
  • Mosquito Creek

Prior to writing an actionable plan, it is essential to compile the data necessary to make informed decisions.  In that regard, we have determined that in the coming year we will focus on four key elements:

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


While it is too early in the process to define the specific elements of the plan, it is certain that the effort will include significant reforestation projects since trees serve as natural filters for all contaminants in the ground.  Additionally we will continue to focus on stream bank stabilization, road stream crossing repair, agricultural practices, and the removal of obsolete dams.

As an indirect benefit, we typically hire local engineering firms and other contactors to do the heavy lifting. As a result, a significant amount of state funding will be invested in the local economy.

MRWA watershed scientist, Marty Holtgren, feels important progress has taken place. “We are honored to be selected by EGLE to carry out this critically important work and haven taken important preliminary steps to develop a comprehensive, science-based management plan that will serve as the foundation for future efforts to restore and protect the Muskegon River Watershed. As always, we are grateful for the support of dedicated organizations that share our vision. In this case, partners include EGLE, Trout Unlimited, Grand Valley State University, and the Newaygo Conservation District.  

Nichol DeMol, Great Lakes Habitat Program Manager for Trout Unlimited commented, “Many tributaries discharge cold water into the mainstem of the Muskegon River and provide a broad network of interconnecting habitats for cold water species including trout. Trout Unlimited is eager to partner with the MRWA in updating the watershed management plan to identify potential issues that can alter these cold water streams and plan for practices that protect and restore these areas.”  

Kinney Creek Dam Removal Project

There are nearly 100 dams in the Muskegon River watershed today, many of which no longer serve a useful purpose. The Muskegon River Watershed Assembly (MRWA) has long recognized that their removal would help to restore natural stream functions and processes, and overall watershed health. In 2020, supported by a grant from the Fremont Area Community Foundation, MRWA began a project to identify an initial group of dam removal candidates that meet specific criteria including degree of environmental threat, community support and cost effectiveness.

The first dam identified was on Kinney Creek, a tributary of the Muskegon River that originates in a wetland area near the junction of M-115 and M-66. It travels about 8 miles to its confluence with the Muskegon.  Historic fish surveys show the stream supports a healthy brook and brown trout population.

About midway along the stream’s length, a private landowner constructed a dam in the late 1950s to create a small pond with an island where children canoed and camped. Over the ensuing decades, the pond had become heavily silted and unusable.

The Kinney Creek dam impaired fish movement up and down the creek and though the 1-acre pond was small, the resulting solar absorption warmed the stream 3°F in the summer, adversely affecting fish habitat quality downstream. The current owner wanted to see the dam removed and the stream properly restored.

Although relatively simple and cost effective when compared to the major effort required to remove larger, more permanent dams, the Kinney Creek project illustrates perfectly the issues involved.  All dams pose similar environmental threats to rivers and streams.  The physical structure itself destroys stream connectivity and blocks fish movement, impeding spawning activity.  Unnaturally warm water temperatures, caused by an impoundment have a negative impact on fish habitat.

Removal of the dam restored natural flow to the stream, which in turn resolved several issues. Brook and Brown Trout that populate the stream can thrive in cooler cleaner water and are free to move up and down the length to access the best spawning areas.

Our thanks to two partners who provided funding for the removal: the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Schrem’s chapter of Michigan Trout Unlimited.  Their generous contribution provided a good share of the funds necessary to complete this project.

Going forward we fully expect to receive significant funding through the EGLE Non-Point Source program, USFWS Fish Habitat Program, and Michigan DNR to enable dam removal projects of much larger scale with greater impact on the river.


Maple River Restoration Project

We have described this project in some detail in previous editions of the Riverview. Please see Scott’s article in the fall 2021 issue for more information.  We have already made significant progress through discussions with partners such as the Army Corps of Engineers, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, area landowners and other stakeholders.

Although everyone involved sees real value in the project, ultimately a successful outcome will depend on generating sufficient funding. Since the project goals are consistent with the stated intentions of state and federal funders, we expect to begin the preliminary work during calendar year 2022.

As always our success is dependent upon the generous support of our partners. We offer our sincere appreciation to those who stepped up last year.

  • The Fremont Area Community Foundation
  • T. Energy Foundation
  • Consumer’s Energy
  • EGLE
  • US Department of Agriculture
  • Dennis and Barbara Adama