Looking Back

By: Wayne Groesbeck, Vice Chair MRWA

As a founding member of the MRWA, I thought it would be fitting to write something about my perspective of our twenty-year anniversary. Our major successes are widely known: the Hersey Dam removal, the voyage of discovery and the recent sturgeon rescue. Many are also familiar with our ongoing water conservation projects like rain gardens, shoreline workshops, river cleanups and reforestation sites. I’ve said before but will restate, that I’m as committed to the welfare of our river as I was twenty years ago and far more knowledgeable about it but it’s the people I’ve shared this journey with who, like an extended family, have sustained my commitment.

In 1998, Muskegonite Gale Nobes solicited river enthusiasts to form an advocacy group for our river similar to other watershed councils I have encountered. I remember asking Gale at our first meeting how a watershed council is certified and he said, “You place your hand on your head and say, “I am a watershed council and you magically become one.” So we did.

Early on Newaygo County politico Jerry Deschaine took it upon himself to get us organized and appointed me secretary (the fate of all English majors). I had barely finished drafting our first constitution and articles of incorporation when, in 1999 Muskegon Chronicle staffer Jeff Alexander wrote a series of articles about the Muskegon River which were eventually published as a book, that generated a good deal of public interest.

We gained the attention of environmentalist and philanthropist, Peter Wege, who offered to sponsor a stakeholder meeting at Ferris State University, located in Big Rapids in the middle of the watershed. The turnout was massive, and we gained approval for several ambitious research projects setting the MRWA on a science-based course. Ferris offered us the office space our staff still occupies

Again, founding chair Nobes had the memorable quote: “It was as if I walked across the room with a puzzle in a box, tripped and fell and the puzzle landed fully assembled.”

Not everything worked out quite so well. Our first material project was a turtle fence built in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) using federal grant money. Its purpose was to prevent female turtles from being wiped out while crossing the busy US 31-river overpass in Muskegon, looking for south facing nesting sites. We expected this “warm and fuzzy” project to generate good public relations for both MRWA and MDOT. Instead, it sparked a heated months long controversy, causing our US Representative to wax apoplectic over this blatant example of government waste, and our fledgling organization to alienate part of our national government. Local songwriter Scott Sheldon’s “Turtle Fence Song” may still be enjoyed on You Tube. Thankfully, relations have since improved.

Another early project was Wild Rice Reintroduction on Muskegon Lake. We planted five sites and some grew at each site, where it proved to be the absolute most favored food of invasive mute swans.
At one point, I was paired with Phil Daken of the Muskegon Conservation District. We arrived at the planting site to find it covered with a fresh crust of ice. Phil and I developed a technique whereby we would broadcast the seed onto the ice, then fracture the ice and sink the seed with syncopated thumps with the bottoms of our plastic seed buckets.

On another occasion, a planting at the Muskegon Nature Preserve, Kathy Evans (now with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission) backed her car up to the shore and played Native American music on a boom box in her trunk.

Fred Norton of Hess Lake, our founding treasurer, at one point experienced a cardiac event and was not allowed to drive. I offered to pick him up and take him to one of our far-flung board meetings. Not yet familiar with our upper watershed, upon leaving the meeting I mistakenly headed east instead of west. Fred and I happily cruised through verdant farmland and eventually found a southbound road that inevitably led to I-96 and home. Relaxed and refreshed, we returned to Hess Lake three hours late and found that Fred’s wife had contacted our executive director and every hospital and law enforcement agency in the region. She was not amused. For the next several years, any board member who was currently out of favor was told “and you can ride with Wayne.”

The MRWA’s major accomplishments have been recorded but these and many other people and misadventures will be what I most remember.