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Great Lakes Article:

Watershed worries
By Jeff Kart
Bay City Times
Published April 10, 2005

The Kawkawlin River watershed has a green face, but a dark underbelly.

Northern parts remain green and undeveloped - areas a local land conservancy wants to protect.

But parts in Bay County are in trouble, local groups say, with hot zones of impervious surfaces - developed areas where rooftops and paved areas drive harmful, unfiltered pollutants into the river and out to the Saginaw Bay.

The watershed is bigger than local residents may realize, covering 250 miles as it flows from Gladwin, Midland and Saginaw counties into Bay County and the Saginaw Bay.

A coalition called the Kawkawlin River Conservation Partnership has mounted an awareness campaign to get people to think about the expanse of the watershed, and care about keeping it clean.

The partnership is made up of the Kawkawlin River Watershed Property Owners Association, the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy and The Little Forks Conservancy of Midland.

"It's really a public education project so that people can begin to identify the geography that drains into the Kawkawlin River," said Michael T. Kelly, director of The Conservation Fund's Great Lakes Office in Bay City, which administers the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network.

"Until you can explain to people what the extent of the watershed is, it's difficult for them to build a relationship to it."

The campaign includes 30 road signs going up in Bay, Midland and Gladwin counties. A series of watershed posters are planned for public buildings this summer.

A first-ever study of impervious surfaces in the watershed has been ongoing for a year. When it's finished later this spring, the results will be presented to local government planners.

"The plan is to take it to these folks and say, 'Hey, you're reaching a point where you need to be maybe a little bit more careful on how you develop these areas,"' Kelly said.

The signs, posters and study are being funded with $29,000 in grants from Saginaw Bay WIN, the Bay Area Community Foundation and the Midland Area Community Foundation.

The water quality problems people notice along the river in Bangor and Monitor townships - such as public health advisories during the summer and an aquatic weed problem - are influenced by land practices throughout the watershed, project organizers say.

If someone has a faulty septic system, over-fertilizes the lawn, dumps used motor oil down the storm drain or pours old antifreeze in a ditch, it all eventually ends up in the river and bay.

"We want people to recognize that they're not living in isolation," Kelly said. "They may be 40 miles or 50 miles away from the Saginaw Bay, but they still have an important role to play."

It all flows to the bay

Impervious surfaces are another concern.

Parking lots, for example, collect pollutants like gasoline and oil, which are flushed into storm drains when it rains, said Charlie Bauer, an analyst for the Department of Environmental Quality in Bay City.

As more farm fields are turned into subdivisions or other developments, there's less natural filtering of water through the soil, Bauer said. Hard surfaces also drive larger volumes of water into storm drains at a faster pace. Water heats up when it hits blacktop, discharging warmer water to streams and rivers.

All this unnatural runoff impacts the chemistry of streams and rivers and aquatic plants, fish and other organisms.

The impervious surface study is being done by a consultant, Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr and Huber Inc. of Grand Rapids, using satellite imagery and census data.

The Little Forks Conservancy is coordinating the study. Studies elsewhere have shown that water quality is impacted when impervious surfaces reach 10 percent.

Draft results of the local study have identified "green" areas where impervious surfaces are below 10 percent; "yellow" areas from 10-25 percent, where there is a moderate impact; and "red" areas of more than 25 percent, where there is a severe impact on water quality.

Yellow zones were found in western Williams Township, Bangor Township near the mouth of the Kawkawlin River and Monitor Township east of Interstate 75, said Elan Lipschitz, land protection specialist for The Little Forks Conservancy.

Red zones were found throughout Auburn, in Bangor Township near Euclid and Wilder avenues and in northwest Bay City, Lipschitz said.

The campaign isn't anti-development, Kelly said, it's aimed at smarter development.

Study results will include recommendations for decreasing impervious surfaces and show the impacts if more of the landscape is covered over, Lipschitz said.

Kelly said he hopes the campaign will make local planners think more about low-impact developments, creating parking lots with stone pavers or gravel instead of pavement, for example, and re-examining zoning ordinances with generic standards for parking lot sizes.

Finding a balance

Tom Paige, Williams Township supervisor and president of the Bay County Township Officers Association, said he thinks the study will be a valuable tool for local planners.

"I don't believe development is going to stop in the area," said Paige, whose township has seen the construction of several new subdivisions in recent years.

"We're going to continue to have development and really there needs to be a balance."

Lipschitz said his conservancy hopes to protect large expanses of woods and wetlands in the northern reaches of the watershed, to preserve water quality and wildlife habitat, and provide space for future generations.

Bay County Drain Commissioner Joseph L. Rivet said his office takes steps to control the amount of runoff from impervious surfaces.

Two-year-old standards require any development in Bay County townships that is one acre or larger to be approved by Rivet's office, to ensure the projects won't negatively impact county drainage or water quality.

That often requires developers to build retention basins to collect runoff, release it slowly to county drains and filter out some sediments and pollutants.

Basins were built for the Menards home-improvement store in Monitor Township, for instance. A new Pizzeria Uno restaurant planned for a site across from Menards will include a system of retention pipes underneath the parking lot, Rivet said.

He said more low-impact development is the ideal, but in many cases, paving over land and building retention basins is still less expensive.

Kelly said retention basins cut out some pollutants, but still are unnatural, and allow water to warm up before it's discharged. He said low-impact development can be cheaper in some instances, and he hopes the campaign makes a difference.

"There's a lot of people out there that can say, 'Hey, I'm a capitalist and if a farmer wants to develop his land, have at it, more power to him, that's his land,"' Kelly said.

"But there's not a lot of people out there who would say, 'We think development is great, even if it screws up the water quality."'

- Jeff Kart covers the environment and politics for The Times. He can be reached at 894-9639.

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