I am a long distance solo paddler. In the past seven years I’ve logged well over 6,000 miles on many of the most scenic rivers and lakes across the country. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a body of water as horribly polluted as our Grand River in Lansing. So bad that it’s hard to imagine such a problem existing today, let alone so close to our state capitol.
About 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of the Brenke Fish Ladder, under an old railroad bridge, was a towering tangle of fallen trees and branches that stretched the full width of the river. Beyond, on either side of the river, were large, stagnant, green pollution pools made up of bottles, cans, plastic, paper, Styrofoam, shoes, and other municipal waste.
For much of the year, the area immediately below this railroad bridge was impassable. When the water level was high, it was often risky for an experienced paddler like me to attempt a passage. I worried that a cocky newbie might try it.
I first learned about this particular bridge and its longstanding problem three years ago while preparing for the 160-mile campus-to-shore race. When I returned to Michigan this summer, I was disheartened to find that not only had it stayed, it had increased in size. I have since learned that this river obstruction, along with its pollution pools, may have gone uncontrolled for 10 years or more.
To take action, I have sent emails and letters, filled out standard contact forms, and called various local and state offices, agencies, and elected officials to alert them to the problem and offer assistance. To my surprise, no one responded. I followed up with a second campaign to achieve more. Again no answer.
Beginning my third campaign, I received a call from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). They were helpful in describing the likely reasons that lead to this problem and the complex challenges of solving them.
Various experts told me that EGLE alone is responsible for supervision. Others said responsibility falls under city or county jurisdiction. Others say the railroad is responsible. Two city officials, each 99.9% sure who owned this stretch of track, gave me two different company names.
Not optimistic about a successful working relationship with our government, I spent a weekend contacting the two railway companies to see who was responsible and what we could do.
On Monday morning I heard from the new owners of Adrian and Blissfield Rail Road Company (ADBF). That afternoon I had met with their President. He shared his thoughts and plans and agreed to work together to clean up the entanglements and large pollution pools.
Within just 10 days of first meeting ADBF and recruiting a team of passionate, experienced paddling volunteers, this once impassable stretch of polluted Grand River was transformed into one of the most scenic stretches of river in the Lansing area.
TIED TOGETHER: Read more from the LSJ Opinion
While I am disappointed with the low response rate from our government and the fact that this problem existed at all, I am delighted with what has been achieved. A special thanks to the new owners of ADBF for their heavy lifting and responsibility. I hope other railway companies will follow suit.
Recognizing that there is much more work to be done and a greater need, we created Michigan Waterways Stewards. Its purpose is to raise awareness, collect resources, and lead or support initiatives to improve waterways throughout Michigan.
Mike Stout is the founder of Michigan Waterways Stewards.