Water Trail: 2016 Lower Grand River Improvement Plan Released

Amongst many of the wonders Michigan has to offer, the Grand River, which runs through several counties in Mid- and West-Michigan, provides a significant source of freshwater for recreational use. Whether it’s a short kayaking trip along the bayous, or a longer stand-up paddling trip down the mainstem, there’s plenty to discover on this waterway using a water trail.

Gaining traction in Michigan, water trails are designated waterway routes intended for the use of non-motorized travelers. Amongst these wonders is the Grand River Heritage Water Trail, which was established by Ottawa County Parks in 2012 and traverses nearly 44 miles of the Lower Grand River.

In 2015-2016, WMEAC and Grand Valley State University initiated a year-long project with Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission, Grand Haven Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds, and the U.S. National Park Service analyzing the present conditions of the Grand River Heritage Water Trail.              

As a result, the team released the 2016 “Lower Grand River Water Trail Assessment and Improvement Plan,” which is available to the public on WMEAC’s website.

Within the report, a survey found 93 percent of sampled paddlers would use the Lower Grand River. Further assessment analyzed potential complications with access, signage, amenities, and concerns with safety or plans to expand these services.

“Our water trails work is allowing us to reach a broader audience with our message about the value — and need to protect — our local water resources,” Elaine Isely, water and LID programs director at WMEAC.

Water Trail Report Findings

In previous projects, WMEAC, GVSU, and Williams and Works released a water trail report in 2014 entailing data and community input for the planning of a Lake Michigan Water Trail stretching from Benton Harbor to Ludington. During a series of three public meetings held in Grand Haven, the Grand River Heritage Water Trail was highlighted as an asset to water trail development. However, potential obstacles were discussed calling for additional research and planning. Among the concerns, participants found: an absence of access points past Harbor Island, the need for lodging nearby for overnight trips, and a lack of boat shuttle services.

The 2015-2016 project aimed to learn more about the Grand River Heritage Water Trail, as team members completed a series of on-site assessments; reviewed Ottawa County Park’s water trail webpage; as well as master plans, zoning ordinances, and recreation plans for communities along the water trail in Ottawa County.

In addition, public meetings gauged feedback from interested individuals, state representatives, county officials, and township officials. Among the concerns raised were a lack of on-site boat storage, no signs visible from the water, and only five locations with nearby food options. Without updated amenities and proper signage, the water trails would likely be under-utilized.

Taking to the waterways, WMEAC employees and interns accomplished four of the six reaches of the water trail to collect accurate user information. The team found some reaches of the water trail required more paddling than average.

Safety officers, including those from Spring Lake, Crockery Township, Ottawa County Central Dispatch, and Ottawa County Marine Patrol stated the closer a paddler is to Lake Michigan means the higher the currents and need for experience.

Honing in on public use, the water trail user survey was divided into four sections: paddling experience and skill level, venues and level of interest in paddling the Lower Grand River, quality of existing facilities, and planning for future paddling experiences. The results depicted 71.5 percent of sampled users are kayakers and 13.5 percent use canoes; and 9.6 percent identified as beginners, 70 percent intermediate, and 20.4 percent as experts.

Water Trail Recommendations

After completion of the project, the team addressed nine recommendations to Ottawa County Parks and Recreation for future renovation. Based on the report results, the project team believes it can serve as a guide to improve user experience on water trails and attract new paddlers.

“While this report and its recommendations are specific to the Grand River Heritage Water Trail, it is our hope that the information we’ve compiled will be helpful to others who are planning, developing, managing, and maintaining water trails,” Isely said.

Report suggestions dictate improvement of current facilities and calls for improvement to the Grand River Heritage Water Trail website, which needs to include boat storage locations, transportation, and food availability near each Ottawa County launch site.

Other recommendations include regional water trail planning, along with establishing an advisory committee. In the future, the team suggested implementing a water trail coordinator, and collaboration with Ottawa County Marine Patrol and Central Dispatch to strengthen safety regulations.

The project was funded in part by the Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program, Office of the Great Lakes, Department of Environmental Quality, and through a grant administered by the Office for Coastal Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Additional funds were distributed by the Meijer Foundation and the Frey Foundation.

Those interested in learning more about the 2016 report and its findings, as well as WMEAC’s future water trail project plans, are invited to learn more at the 22nd annual Quiet Water Symposium March 4, in Lansing, Michigan.

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