The DNR recommends that women and children do not eat most species of fish found in the Grand River more than once per month and E. coli levels are so high in Plaster Creek that the water is not safe for human contact due to the risk of bacterial infection.
When a body of water is listed as polluted, a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan is required for each major type of pollution. A TMDL establishes the maximum amount of a pollutant that the body of water can receive without going above state and federal pollution limits and addresses the sources of pollution. The segment of the Grand River that flows through downtown Grand Rapids has a TMDL plan for E. coli, but additional TMDLs are needed for mercury and PCBs. For Plaster Creek, TMDLs have been created for E. coli and sedimentation and siltation, but TMDLs are still needed for mercury and PCBs, as well.
Grand Rapids must not only work to improve water quality within city limits, but must also seriously consider how the city impacts neighboring waters. There are a number of polluted waters near Grand Rapids, including Buck Creek, York Creek, and Strawberry Creek. Within the Lower Grand River Watershed, many of the same pollutants found in Grand Rapids are polluting waters in the entire watershed. The four most common pollutants in the watershed are PCBs, mercury, sedimentation and siltation and E. coli. The probable sources of these pollutants affecting the greatest area of water within the watershed are atmospheric deposition of toxics, which is when rain deposits air pollutants such as mercury and PCBs, agriculture, urban runoff and storm sewers.
Greater emphasis on restoring water quality by preventing pollution before it happens is essential to improve the health of aquatic life and communities within the Lower Grand Watershed.
The Grand River is the largest river in Michigan. Grand Rapids has the opportunity to play an important role in protecting the health of the waters and communities within the Lower Grand River Watershed and the Great Lakes Basin – as the water that flows through Grand Rapids empties into Lake Michigan.
While Grand Rapids still has serious water pollution issues to address, it is important to remember that significant progress has been made. At the turn of the twentieth century, Grand River water quality was so poor that the Grand Rapids Evening Press predicted that the river would be more like a sewer than a river by the year 2005. Grand Rapids began to separate the sewer system from the storm water system in 1991, which reduces sewer overflow into local rivers. Point source pollutants, which are centralized sources of pollution such as a factory discharges, have been strongly regulated and effectively reduced.
While these changes have greatly improved water quality in the Grand Rapids area, there is still more work to be done, specifically toward reducing nonpoint source pollutants, which is pollution from sources such as stormwater and urban runoff, precipitation, and atmospheric deposition.