By Ross Van Peursem
If you ask anyone who is familiar with the city of Grand Rapids, they will tell you that there are exciting things happening in Beer City USA. From the growing micro-brew scene, to its world renowned ArtPrize competition, Grand Rapids is being recognized as a destination city in the Midwest. One of the new and exciting developments in the city is the GR Forward Initiative. GR Forward is a new, community driven planning organization which began in April of 2014 with support from Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. (DGRI), The City of Grand Rapids, and Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS). The excitement surrounding this new planning initiative is not without justification. It is a comprehensive vision that has a unique capability to change the landscape of downtown GR, while also fundamentally improving the river’s flood capacity, fish habitat and opportunities for Grand Rapidians to interact with the Grand River.
What’s in the works for the GR Forward planning initiative?
The plan focuses on developing the downtown core of Grand Rapids, while also developing the Grand River corridor. After a community driven input period, GR Forward introduced its main planning draft which described the six main goals of the GR Forward Campaign. The six goals are:
#1: Restore the River as the Draw, & Create a connected and equitable River Corridor
#2: Create a true Downtown neighborhood that is home to a diverse population
#3: Implement a 21st century mobility strategy
#4: Expand job opportunities, and continued vitality of the local economy
#5: Reinvest in public space, culture, and inclusive programming
#6: Retain and attract families, talent, and job providers with high quality public schools.
The first goal, restoring the River as a Draw, will seek to create a connected and equitable Grand River Corridor. This is a daring and innovative plan to integrate art, education, infrastructure and ecology into a thriving and accessible river for all to enjoy.
Why does Grand Rapids need the GR Forward plan?
Grand Rapids’ downtown is the urban center of West Michigan. The heart of the city core of Grand Rapids is the Grand River that flows through the city, gives the city a unique beauty, and is the cities namesake. Without a healthy, vibrant heart, the region will fall short of its full potential. From an environmental standpoint, we need a vibrant city and dense housing choices in order to preserve open space and economically critical farmland. From a purely economic perspective, a thriving downtown attracts new and vital businesses that subsequently provide jobs for people throughout the region.
It is time now to reverse the history of industrialization along the river corridor that, while historically necessary, has become irrelevant and a barrier to clean and pleasant recreational access for the citizens of GR. Today, the legacy of GR’s early industrialization still accounts for 29% of the river corridor’s land use, with 38.1% of the direct riverfront being used by industry. As ideas about river use and land use around rivers start to change, rivers are now beginning to be looked at as potential economic, environmental, and recreational sources, rather than tools for the disposal of industrial and city waste. Through quality planning and design, time, and strategic land acquisition, we can begin to transform the river into a vital commercial and residential corridor, while continuing to protect the remaining industrial uses along the river.
The River is Cleaner than Ever, but work remains
The River is the most important natural resource in Grand Rapids. Knowing how important the natural water resource flowing through GR’s heart requires us to take a deep look at water quality, a core component critical to the success of GR Forward plan implementation.
Fully implemented, the GR Forward plan will provide economic growth, environmental protections, and vital public spaces for the city. While the city and its partners have made great progress on water quality, unfortunately, there are still water quality issues that need to be addressed as we increase public access to the river.
The Grand River is much cleaner than it once was due to various water quality improvement projects, but the river still faces challenges that could negatively impact the recreational uses outlined by our community in the GR Forward plan. The Grand River is listed by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as having an advisory against partial and full body contact. It is also considered unhealthy to eat fish taken from the river because of harmful pollutants like mercury and PCBs. Furthermore, it has been found that although the Grand River accounts for only 13% of Lake Michigan’s drainage basin, it is a leading contributor of pollution to Lake Michigan pollution.
How is the Grand River polluted?
A leading cause of pollution in our waterways is storm water runoff. Stormwater runoff picks up pollutants from many different locations and sources. In urban areas, precipitation picks up pollutants from roads, houses, factories, yards, and parks. It then carries these pollutants into our river system in a matter of minutes, disturbing the natural rain infiltration cycle. Pollution from urban areas is also caused by the use of Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) systems like the ones that are used in upstream communities like Lansing, which dump an estimated 758 million Gallons of untreated sewage into the Grand River every year. Grand Rapids has invested millions in separating its sewer and storm water sewer which has virtually eliminated CSO pollution in Grand Rapids.
In suburban and rural areas, there are additional water pollution sources impacting our waterways. Improperly installed and maintained septic systems pollute ground water, and in turn, our river bodies with E. Coli contaminants. This type of pollution, called Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO), has been estimated to release tens of millions of gallons of sewage into the Grand River annually, and one billion gallons of sewage into Michigan’s environment every year.
Finally, bad Agricultural practices such as improper seeding, destruction of riparian buffers, and improper fertilization methods contribute pollutants like nutrients, sediments, and pesticides into our water systems. Industrial Agricultural practices, called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s), damage water quality with poor animal waste management, and often allow direct access of farm animals (and subsequent animal waste) into streams and rivers.
How can YOU help?
Cleaning the Grand River is not just a job for the planners at GR Forward, it is also the job of citizens to do their part in order to create a safe, clean Grand River for all West Michiganders. Citizens like you are needed to continue reducing their impact on our water ways, and continued support of environmentally friendly policy decisions. By installing Low Impact Development strategies like rain barrels, rain gardens, and native planting, while also advocating for the implementation of Green Infrastructure like permeable surfaces, green roofs, and wetland creation, we can all contribute.
The GR Forward campaign is at an exciting and critical step in its planning development to fundamentally improve how Grand Rapidians interact with its most important natural amenity, the Grand River.
WMEAC is excited to participate in these conversations with the community alongside DGRI and all the many community partners who are working on this project to ensure a greater Grand Rapids.
WMEAC will continue to support GR Forward and Grand River Restoration by focusing on protecting and improving water quality. WMEAC helped create and now currently serves on the Water Quality sub-committee of the GR Forward Plan. Part Two of this blog series will discuss the role of the Water Quality sub-committee and the best opportunities to clean and restore the Grand River Watershed.