By Jeff Kart
Bay City Times
Published April 10, 2005
The Kawkawlin River watershed has a green face, but a
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
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
"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
"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,"'
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
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
Red zones were found throughout Auburn, in Bangor Township
near Euclid and Wilder avenues and in northwest Bay City,
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
"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
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
"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,"'
"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.