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Posthumus Vows to Extend Protections for Wild Rivers

Republican clarifies position on water safeguards

October 14, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Conservationists generally regard Michigan's Natural Rivers Act as the most effective state statute ever enacted to safeguard the wildness and quality of undeveloped rivers.

Kalkaska, MI - Months after Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Granholm said she would protect more of Michigan's most beautiful rivers under the state Natural Rivers Program, Republican Dick Posthumus' campaign also expressed its support this week for the state's principal river protection law.

In response to questions from the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Sage Eastman, Mr. Posthumus's spokesman, said, "He supports [the Natural Rivers initiative] and would like to see if we can create additional designated areas."

In clarifying the campaign's position, Mr. Eastman added one more specific action Mr. Posthumus is prepared to take to protect Michigan's water and natural resources.

Both Mr. Posthumus and Ms. Granholm have sought to distinguish themselves as the defender of fresh water, and by extension, the state's economy and recreation-based culture. Each candidate proposed a plan early in their campaign to keep the state's exceptional water resources - from groundwater to wetlands to tributaries to the Great Lakes - safe for future generations. Mr. Posthumus first outlined his policy in April (See Posthumus' "Marshall Plan" for Great Lakes Gains Definition) while Democratic candidate Jennifer Granholm unveiled her plan last February (See Granholm's Great Lakes Initiative).

Freshwater an Issue
Less than a month before Election Day, though, debate about public policy has taken a back seat to personality attacks by each candidate. Surprisingly, environmental issues have emerged as an aspect of the negative campaigning, particularly the quality and security of the state's fresh water.

During a televised appearance in Grand Rapids earlier this month, for instance, Ms. Granholm accused Mr. Posthumus of being insincere about his promise to protect the Great Lakes and cited as evidence his change of heart a year ago when he broke with Governor John Engler and called for a ban on drilling for oil and gas beneath Lake Michigan. Ms. Granholm said Mr. Posthumus supported energy exploration beneath the Great Lakes while he was in the state Senate and while he served as Governor Engler's lieutenant governor.

Conservationists generally regard Michigan's Natural Rivers Act as the most effective state statute ever enacted to safeguard the wildness and quality of undeveloped rivers. Since the law's passage in 1970, 14 of Michigan's rivers have been protected from rampant development, including the Rogue, a stream flowing clean, cold, and full of fish into the fast growing city of Grand Rapids. The law, however, has come under attack by anti-government and extreme "property rights" groups who view its restrictions as too heavy handed. No new Natural River has been designated since 1988.

The election is likely to change that. Mr. Posthumus and Ms. Granholm have proposed separate programs that encourage state government to be a much more active water steward than it was during the 12 years of Governor John Engler's outgoing administration. Both candidates say they will reduce toxic pollutants such as mercury, slow the introduction of exotic species, strengthen rules for water withdrawals, and reject diversions from the Great Lakes.

Sewage, Sewage Everywhere
The major party candidates also have addressed the condition of the state's rivers. Both promise to upgrade aging sewer systems, reduce human sewage spills to local streams, and remove obsolete dams to restore natural stream flows and habitat. Ms. Granholm also proposes a River Keepers program to help monitor water quality. She was the first candidate to support a revival of the Natural Rivers Program.

The explicit call for more effective leadership on water policy reflects the growing restiveness at the grassroots, where dozens of popular citizen groups have criticized the Engler administration's soft approach to managing fresh water.

 The Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, a Mecosta County organization, formed in 2000 to challenge the Nestle company's plan to open the state's largest groundwater bottling facility in central Michigan's Morton Township despite limited understanding of the community's future water needs. The group filed a lawsuit in 2001 that is scheduled to be heard by state Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Root on October 25.

The People Out of Water, composed of residents in the Saginaw region, formed in 2001 to seek relief from five straight years of seasonal water shortages that arise when the cumulative groundwater withdrawals by commercial and residential users drain the region's underground aquifer.

And the Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes organized in 2001 to oppose a proposal by Laketown Township, just south of Holland, to construct a new water intake facility on the shore of Lake Michigan. A study by the state Department of Natural Resources earlier this year found that the project would be detrimental to the enjoyment of Saugatuck Dunes State Park. What's more, says the citizen's group, the township intends to distribute water throughout Allegan County without a detailed plan to manage the population and business growth that the new infrastructure will encourage.

"We are tearing up one resource to get to another," says David Swan, the group's co-founder.

Property Rights A Concern
But even as the gubernatorial candidates pledge their commitment to modernize Michigan's water policy, a struggle over the Natural Rivers Program in Kalkaska County demonstrates the persistent influence of a few land owners who seek to thwart new safeguards.

Early last month, local leaders in Bear Lake Township voted to rescind an earlier resolution of support for a promising Natural Rivers management plan designed by local residents to permanently protect the water quality and scenic beauty of the Upper Manistee River.

The vote was a surprising reversal of the township's previous position. At the request of the Upper Manistee River Association, a local conservation organization, the five-member board of trustees voted on July 2, 2002 to unanimously support protection of the Upper Manistee because, as the resolution stated, the "river's health is a perennial concern."

Land owners, however, organized with several prominent business owners and other critics and called on the township to rescind the resolution. The opponents accused the Natural Rivers Program of infringing on private property rights and usurping the ability to make local decisions. On September 3, despite the candid admission by several trustees that they had not read the 80-page protection plan, the board withdrew its support.

Supporters of new protections for the upper Manistee said they were disappointed. "The township board officially gave its support for designating the Upper Manistee River as a Natural River," said Steve Sendek, an area resident and fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "Then all of a sudden a few people come in and start telling half-truths, spreading misleading information, and the board members flip-flop and change their position. That's scary because this is a long lasting decision."

Natural Rivers Act Respects Rights
Mr. Sendek told the township board that the Natural Rivers Program advances a fundamental set of rules to protect fish, wildlife, recreation, and scenic beauty. The program establishes uniform zoning rules throughout the river corridor to maintain native vegetation and position new septic tanks and buildings back from the river's edge, two basic strategies for slowing erosion and limiting pollution. The standards, he said, help local governments guide future development in a way that ensures the river remains healthy for future generations. Bear Lake Township does not have a local planning commission to manage community growth.

"The Manistee River is a treasure to the state of Michigan," Mr. Sendek said. "There are only three rivers in the world that have similar characteristics of clean, cold water and stable flows. Two of those streams - the Jordan and the Au Sable - already are protected by the natural rivers program."

Ten northern Michigan conservation organizations and sporting groups, among them Trout Unlimited, have campaigned for more than a year to gain protections for both the Upper Manistee River and the Pine River. They say Natural Rivers designation would help to guarantee future water quality, maintain healthy fish populations, and empower local officials to make certain that future community growth does not engulf cherished streams. The DNR intends to solicit public comment on draft management plans for both the Pine and Upper Manistee at a series of official hearings next spring.

Even opponents of the Natural Rivers Program agree with supporters that northern Michigan's clear rivers are in jeopardy. Many fear the combined effects of septic system sewage, ongoing erosion, unmanaged land development pressure, and increased commercial use threaten to ruin the rivers and diminish the region's economic and cultural well being.

Jack Martell, a Bear Lake Township resident, is one opponent of the latest draft of the Natural Rivers plan for the Upper Manistee. Mr. Martell asserts that officials and residents are capable of managing local streams without state bureaucracy and expertise. He is acutely aware, however, that without clear rules to guide river stewardship mounting pressures can spoil the Upper Manistee experience.

"In the last two years there has been a 500 percent increase in traffic by commercial boats in front of my home," Mr. Martell said. "Eleven years ago it was a novelty to see one boat on the river in front of my property. One Saturday afternoon last month 14 boats went by. I agree wholeheartedly that something must be done."

Mr. Martell emphasizes that knowledge of the Natural Rivers plan for the Pine and Upper Manistee River system is limited in northern Michigan. He and several other residents called on the Department of Natural Resources to distribute copies locally, post it on the Internet, and take an active role in facilitating an open discussion about its complex scientific concepts.

"We all agree that this resource needs to be protected," said Jim Powers, president of the Upper Manistee River Association. "The process of Natural Rivers designation started in 1994. Volunteers from all townships in the Upper Manistee and Pine River area met for three years to write the draft management plan. We did not always agree. But it was process by committee. The objective is to protect this unique natural feature."

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes water issues and co-author of Liquid Gold Rush, a seminal 2001 report on groundwater use in Michigan, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute's office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org, or 616-308-6250.

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