Saving A River: Paddling the Shiawassee

How do you preserve a river? Land trusts and environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy have a long and successful history of acquiring special places and protecting them through ownership, conservation easements, or real estate partnerships with public entities. This approach works well for land, but you cannot purchase a river. How then can we save a river, and other bodies of water?

For me, the question is an important one, because one river, the Shiawassee River, runs through my life. At about the age of 10 my family moved to a wooded lot above a park along the Shiawassee, and I spent my adolescence exploring the River and a tributary that flowed behind my house. I made frequent canoe trips down the Shiawassee and the skills I learned there took me on to to other rivers in Michigan and several wilderness expeditions to northern Canada. I have some strong memories of special trips on The Shiawassee with my family, friends, and then my children, and it is one of the places I return to either in mind or body to refresh my spirit. I started this blog with a post about the importance of places, and the Shiawassee River is one of the key places that connects me to the natural world. To quote the great writer Wallace Stegner, “if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
“The Healthiest Warm Water River in Michigan” was what one scientist said while presenting data from a fish survey of the Shiawassee River. And indeed, the River does have a high diversity of aquatic life with not only 59 fish species, but also 12 species of freshwater mussels, and healthy populations of macroinvertebrates (i.e. bugs) as revealed by volunteer stream sampling. Unlike the spring-fed trout streams of Northern Michigan, the Shiawassee and other rivers of the Lower Peninsula are fed largely by surface run-off and thus have warmer water temperatures. Thus, the Shiawassee is appreciated for its smallmouth bass fishing.
The Shiawassee, which starts in a few small lakes and fens (a bog fed by groundwater) in Oakland and Livingston Counties, flows north to Saginaw Bay. It is in an interesting ecological zone where plant species from the south, such as the Kentucky Coffee Tree and Catalpa, overlap with northern trees like the White Pine. On one part of the River near Henderson, a signature Sycamore tree (the mascot of Indiana State) towers over one bend in the River; on the next bend a small stand of northern-dwelling Hemlock cover the banks.

On a recent canoe trip, I had several other reminders of the health of the Shiawassee: a large number and diversity of turtles sunning themselves on the shore or rocks, several different great blue herons patiently fishing, and–most dramatically–a pair of bald eagles near the Shiawassee Conservation Club. There have been increases in the number of eagles in the Great Lakes and the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge at the south end of Saginaw Bay. Now, they have come upstream not only on winter forays for fish in open water, but to nest.
The Shiawassee faces challenges, both from historic misuse and from some more persistent problems. Like many freshwater environments in the United States prior to the Clean Water Act, the Shiawassee struggled with an overload of poorly treated municipal sewage and industrial waste. Residential septic tanks along tributary streams also added to problems. Thanks to the investment of federal, state and local governments, major upgrades were made to the municipal wastewater treatment facilities along the Shiawassee and pollution dropped dramatically in the 1980s. The River still suffers when severe storm events cause an overflow of sewer effluent. When I look at the Shiawassee running clear, I always thank those leaders who had the wisdom to adopt, and fund, the Clean Water Act. Sadly, this keystone law is now under attack (read more here).  Infrastructure investments are still needed to put an end to sanitary sewage overflows.
The other negative legacy comes from several industrial operations that improperly disposed of wastes; in its history the Shiawassee has had fish advisories issued after spills and even one upstream stretch was a Superfund site. Fortunately, these pollution sources have been eliminated, again thanks to state and federal government. I am always amazed at the ability of rivers to cleanse themselves: the passage of time, the constant flowing of water, and the biological activities of flora and fauna can do much to restore a river. A paddle on the Shiawassee today will not reveal the problems of its past.
“We have met the enemy, and he is us,” said the great philosopher Pogo, and he could be talking about the problems facing the Shiawassee today. The point sources of pollution, sewage plants and industries, have been largely cleaned up, but the River still suffers: too much sediment, too much fertilizer, and too much trash. These come mostly from how we treat the lawns in our backyards, the farm fields in our countryside, and the stormwater from our cities. So to prevent polluted run-off we need to make changes in how numerous individuals and property owners use the land that drains into the Shiawassee. This requires a broad-based and constant commitment.
As in other watersheds, several partners have come together to restore the Shiawassee: The Friends of the Shiawassee River conduct an annual clean-up, the Shiawassee Conservation District works with farmers to promote better land use practices, and The Nature Conservancy has helped provide strategic guidance and build local capacity. Recently funding from the US EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other public and private sources has helped fund several projects to enhance the health of the Shiawassee River.
Too much water too fast may be the most intractable problem facing the Shiawassee and other rivers in the southern portions of the Great Lakes. Before settlement, much of the central area around Saginaw Bay consisted of marshes, wooded wetlands, and absorbent soils. When it rained, these areas soaked up water like a sponge and released it slowly into meandering streams that flowed to the Shiawassee. After the clearing of lumber (Michigan’s White Pine boom began in the Saginaw Bay region), farmers went to work and dug ditches to provide drainage and make the area a rich agricultural resource that gave birth to Owosso and many other communities.
Today, drainage tile underlies much of the farmland and county drains carry run-off quickly to the River. This is good for farming, but creates rapid rises in the River which increase erosion, carry more sediment into and down the River, and alters habitats. When it has not rained in some time, the Shiawassee runs clear and shallow; after a storm, the flow increases sharply and the River turns brown with soil. Over time, this has made the Shiawassee a flatter, shallower stream and important fish feeding and breeding areas have been covered with silt. It also costs landowners money to continually dredge out county drains and fight erosion along their fields.
The Two-Stage Ditch may be part of a solution to the run-off challenges of the Shiawassee and other agricultural streams in the Great Lakes. Rather than the typical narrow ditch with a straight flow of water, the two-stage ditch is wide and allows a stream to curve back and forth. This allows for more habitat areas, short-term storage (and thus the slowing) of run-off, and lower maintenance costs. The Nature Conservancy has worked to design, promote and develop two-stage ditches in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, including one close to Owosso that was installed by the Shiawassee Conservation District. This approach not only serves the needs of farmers to drain agricultural lands, but also helps moderate the flow of rivers. It is part of the tools that will protect and restore rivers like the Shiawassee.
Can a river be preserved? Yes, but it requires not only funding for improvements like wastewater treatment plants and two stage ditches, but also policies and programs that work with landowners, farmers, and cities to reduce polluted runoff. A watershed strategy needs to coordinate the efforts of government agencies, non-profits, and private landowners to address the unique needs and circumstances of each river. And perhaps most importantly, the residents of the watershed, need to become engaged “place-holders” and advocate on behalf of the river. When we truly connect with, and hold dear, the place in which we live, then we begin to understand the connections in nature. And the key connection for a river is the one between land and water.
Canoeing on the Shiawassee is a special experience, and not only for someone who grew up on it. It is an opportunity to witness the restoration of a river. The Shiawassee is a healthy river, but only because of conscious stewardship from several players, from the federal government funding for sewage treatment plants to the volunteers who have pull out tires. Rivers have strong powers to restore themselves, but only if we work to correct past abuses and strive to prevent further damage. Paddle the Shiawassee and see the difference we can make.
How to visit. There are many great canoe spots along the Shiawassee, including the headwaters around Holly and Fenton. Further downstream, The Friends of the Shiawassee River have an excellent canoe guide that details paddling opportunities in the main stem from Byron to Parshallburg (just south of Chesaning). There is a map and a detailed guide that provides not only helpful paddling hints, but also information on the human and natural history of the Shiawassee. I most often get out on the River at Harmon Patridge Park (map here) on the north side of Owosso and paddle to Henderson Park or beyond. I also sometimes put in at Geeck Road Park near Bancroft Michigan (map here) and paddle to the dam site at Shiatown.
When to visit. The spring, early summer and fall are the best times to paddle the Shiawassee because there is more water flow. If a week or more goes by in July and August without rain, then low water levels will require the paddler to disembark and walk the canoe over and through sandbars or rock gardens. You can check the flow of the Shiawassee River at Owosso at this monitoring site run by the United States Geological Survey. A river level of 2 to 3 feet is usually sufficient; be cautious of flood events as the river becomes less predictable and overhanging trees can become hazard. My favorite time to venture forth is in the fall, when the colors of changing deciduous leaves make a trip particularly pleasurable.

(links updated 8/8/15)

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