By CATHERINE BYRNE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Williamston resident Jenny Underwood remembers taking her boys fishing in the Red Cedar River when they were younger.
But recent high E. Coli levels in the river have discouraged such recreational activities.
“We used to take them down there all the time,” Underwood said. “I don’t know if anyone really fishes down there anymore. I haven’t seen kids down by there in a long time.”
The Red Cedar’s pollution is also threatening future economic benefits for Williamston’s whitewater rapids.
In 1999, Williamston’s Downtown Development Association began and finished a project to impound a section of the Red Cedar by creating man-made rapids.
According to Mayor Kenneth Zichi, the city began the project to avoid having to re-build a dam that was breached in the 1970s. That water needed to be impounded to keep the section of the river where the dam was under city jurisdiction.
Rep. Paul DeWeese, R-Williamston, is upset that recent environmental developments take away from the city’s project.
“Williamston made such an investment in creating this destination point for family fun and recreation,” DeWeese said. “The E. Coli revelation really derailed those plans.”
Underwood believes the city should have tested for contamination before going ahead with the project.
“Shouldn’t we have checked that out first?” she asked.
DeWeese contends the issues show the importance of environmental protection.
“Many times, I think we see the environment as a peripheral issue,” he said. “But with projects such as these, it shows it is also important to the economy.
“The environment is an economic issue.”
Contrary to popular belief, Zichi said, the rapids project wasn’t intended originally for recreational purposes.
“Someone suggested doing the rapids as a way of impounding that water,” Zichi said. “Then people started saying, ‘Hey! We can use this as a recreational draw, too!’ This is silly to anyone who’s ever seen it, though. It’s one six-foot drop over 300 feet of river.”
Last June, two years after the Williamston DDA’s project was completed, the Red Cedar made a federal list of waterways that don’t meet water quality standards.
The Ingham County Environmental Health Department’s last two weeks of sampling for 2001 found average E. Coli colony counts double the state’s guideline.
There are hundreds of strains of the E. Coli bacteria, but only a couple are harmful to humans. The strain in the Red Cedar puts swimmers at risk of gastrointestinal illnesses.
New studies discovered farms as a source of E. Coli in the Red Cedar River, but the drain commissioner wants to make clear that this is “just the tip of the iceberg.”
The health department has begun working with three dairy farms upriver from Michigan State University that have been found to contribute to the high E. Coli levels.
According to Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann, the new developments are just more “point” sources and are far from being the only problem.
Point-source pollution is contamination with a direct source that can be found and eliminated.
“For those sorts of things, we can just put a cork in the pipe, so to speak,” Lindemann said.
The Department of Environmental Quality already has brought action against one of the farms and is working with the Ingham County Conservation District to rectify the other two farm situations.
Although the farms aren’t the only problem, the DEQ is happy to have zeroed in on a new cause.
“Any time we find a discharge, it’s a step forward,” said Megan McMahon, environmental quality analyst for the DEQ.
Until a problem is found, the solution is “non-existent,” agreed Lindemann.
Aside from point sources of pollution, such as farms, nonpoint source (NPS) pollution has no direct source, but is the result of many different factors.
The Red Cedar and hundreds of water sources across the country are plagued with NPS pollution, according to Lindemann. It is caused by water moving over and through the ground, picking up pollutants and depositing them into the water.
Some NPS pollutants include lawn fertilizers, oil from cars, bacteria from pet wastes and air pollution.
DeWeese acknowledges that Red Cedar watershed cleanup will be a long-term process.
“There isn’t just one big pipe we can shut off,” he said.
NPS pollution will always be around until citizens modify their lifestyles, McMahon said.
“Residents need to assess their own behaviors and make sure they’re protecting the water quality,” she said. “Everyone needs to ask themselves, ‘What am I doing to help the situation?'”
DeWeese agrees that serious efforts need to be made by residents and contends the situation is “an accumulation of the actions of many people.”
“We need to think regionally,” DeWeese said. “We are part of a larger community and each of us has an impact.”
The DEQ has now turned its attention to preventing future NPS pollution.
“We’re working to develop a scientific survey to determine what the current residents’ level of information is concerning water quality, as well as what some of their practices are and what their concerns are,” McMahon said.
Information from the survey would allow the state agency to develop management techniques, and, more importantly, educate residents, McMahon said.
“You need people to understand what is going on before they can make a change,” she said.
DeWeese believes a positive result came from the public discourse on the Red Cedar’s pollution.
“While the situation looks discouraging, 20 years ago we wouldn’t even be blinking an eye at this,” he said. “Citizens are so much more knowledgeable and really concerned about the environment.
“We’re currently thinking, ‘Geez, things are bad.’ But I think all this attention being paid to the issue is a positive thing.”
To those residents who have lost faith in the Red Cedar’s water quality, Lindemann said, “Don’t give up!”
“It’s a river at risk,” he said. “It has inherent problems.”
Lindemann said the Drain Commission needs to work with communities on parking lot sweeping, cutting back on fertilizer use and just convincing people that the river will come back.
“It’s pretty beaten up,” he said. “It’s taken abuse for 100-some years.
“We just need to start hugging it and stop hitting it.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By CATHERINE BYRNE