Saving the Muskegon River one tree at a time

By: Julie Chamberlain

In our line of work, we like to have science on our side. While much of what we do would seem to have obvious benefit for the watershed, it’s always good when we can pin it down with facts.

For example, we know that when we create a natural shoreline with native plants the net effect is lower nutrient levels in the water. Science confirms it. It is a fact.

Recently we have used the Spreadsheet Tool for Estimating Pollutant Loads (STEPL) to calculate the benefits of the reforestation projects we have managed throughout the watershed.

Developed by scientists at Penn State, STEPL requires the user to plug in available scientific data such as

• Soil information (based on county)
• Runoff Curve Numbers (land use/soil group)
• Urban land use distribution
• Nutrient concentration in runoff/shallow groundwater
• Irrigation information
• Gully & streambank stabilization

Nobody ever said science was easy, but the knowledge gained is well worth the effort.
Consider a recent project, completed in partnership with our good friends at the Muskegon Conversation District (MCD)

Trees improve water quality by reducing erosion and nutrients from running off the land and entering the river. At total of 37,100 native tree seedlings were planted in this project

In total, we planted 37,100 native seedlings, including a mix of 14 species of shrubs, conifers, and hardwoods. The plantings covered 105 acres of stream adjacent land and 6,050 feet of shoreline in 5 sub-watershed areas:

• Little Muskegon River Watershed
• Handy Creek-Little Muskegon River Watershed
• Quigley Creek- Little Muskegon River Watershed
• Brackway Creek-Little Muskegon River Watershed

Having completed our STEPL analysis, we can report some impressive results: our reforestation efforts will prevent 900 pounds of nutrients and 19 tons of sediment from flushing into the watershed annually.

These numbers lead to an obvious conclusion: a tree is Mother Nature’s greatest gift to fresh clean water.

Yet, many people do not understand the important role that trees play in the cleanliness of our waters, the health of fisheries and even our own health and wellbeing.

One mature tree can capture and filter up to 36,500 gallons of water/year (approximately 100 gallons every day) through its root system. Water carrying pollutants and sediment is effectively cleaned before it reaches the river.

Additionally, tree roots hold down soil along riverbanks preventing erosion and keeping sediment from filling in the places fish need to spawn. Those dead trees that have fallen into the river are not eyesores, but provide valuable habitat and shade that fish and their food need to survive.

A total of 6050 feet of streambank was stabilized to prevent erosion on the Muskegon River

If that were not enough, trees play a significant role in cleaning the air we breathe. They absorb odors and pollutant gases (nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and sulfur dioxide) and filter particulates out of the air by trapping them on their leaves and bark.

If you are familiar with the history of the Muskegon River, you know that most of the virgin white pine forests throughout the watershed were lost to uncontrolled lumbering in the early part of the 20th century. Reforestation in an attempt to replace those trees will be an ongoing effort for years to come.

It is a huge undertaking but we are fortunate to have great partners in the effort. Over $92,000 in funding needed for the project discussed here originates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Great Lakes Basin Fish Habitat Partnership along with generous contributions from MRWA and the MCD. We offer our appreciation to all for their continuing support.

Forest Facts