Watershed Vitality: A Public-Private Approach

Grand Traverse Bay Watershed
The Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Initiative works to educate the public about the importance of proper watershed management.

The Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Initiative was formed in 1991 to protect the water quality of the Grand Traverse Bay. The Initiative takes a partnership approach to protecting water quality based on watersheds (land that water flows across or under on its way to a stream, river, or lake). The partnership is between the many private and public sector organizations working to reduce pollution from nonpoint sources, which include such things as agricultural chemicals and road salt. Since nonpoint source pollution comes from many, many small sources instead of a few large ones, it is harder to control throughout the watershed.

More than 100 institutions have renewed the partnership agreement which unifies the interests of diverse groups around a common vision of protecting the bay. While the agreement is not a legally binding document, it asks public and private agencies to lend their name, money, expertise, or labor to help protect the watershed by such things as reducing soil erosion, discouraging the misuse of fresh water, tracing harmful chemicals, or other organized efforts.

The Initiative works to renew the Watershed agreement with participating institutions because it provides an opportunity to solicit feedback and concerns from participating members. It also reminds them that the Watershed is working proactively to improve the surrounding watershed, and to ensure regional economic viability and quality use by future generations. An office was established in 1994 to promote and facilitate the collaborative efforts of the partners.

Although there are no guarantees a partnership approach ensures success, there is also no guarantee that a strict government program would enjoy great success either. The Initiative staff believes the probability of protecting the environment increases when government looks beyond itself, and adds the expertise and vision of civic groups and private citizens to keep the bay clean and protect the surrounding watershed.

Although there are no guarantees a partnership approach ensures success, there is also no guarantee that a strict government program would enjoy great success either.

Consider a few important features of Grand Traverse Bay:

  • The bay is located in Northwestern lower Michigan along the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan and is widely recognized for its outstanding recreational features. The bay is used for many recreational activities, including swimming, kayaking, boating, paragliding, scuba diving, jet skiing, fishing, ice skating, and ice boating.

  • The bay contributes significantly to waterborne commerce, which includes charter fishing, Native American fisheries, and bulk shipments of petroleum. The region’s agricultural economy also benefits from this unique natural resource. The success of Michigan’s cherry industry, for example, can be directly tied to the moderating effect that the bay’s surface waters have on the region’s temperature. Seventy-five percent of the shoreline is characterized by either commercial or residential development.

The region’s popularity is indicated by the population of the Grand Traverse Bay watershed area which is growing seventeen percent every ten years, compared to the state average of five percent.

One example of this public-private approach to protect water quality is a joint venture between the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, a private, nonprofit group which purchases land for preservation of scenic and farm land and the Grand Traverse County Soil and Water Conservation District, a government agency, to financially sustain the Boardman River Restoration Project.

The public-private venture of stabilizing riverbanks, road, and stream crossings to reduce soil erosion into the Boardman River began with funding from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. It is now funded through solicitations from private property owners and stakeholders along the river. In addition, soil erosion control offices and county and regional planners are partnering with private home building associations and private developers to design and implement consistent soil erosion control practices to protect water quality throughout the surrounding watershed. Federal and state dollars are used as start-up costs but they may only carry a project for a year or two. The probability of success increases dramatically with private efforts, such as those led by the Initiative. In fact, there would be little or no likelihood that such a program would continue without the Initiative’s efforts, let alone be as successful as it is today.

Another interesting example of public-private partnerships is between the Grand Traverse Regional Math, Science, and Technology Center, the Initiative, and a smattering of other private organizations to establish a school-based water quality monitoring program. The monitoring program will be expanded to businesses willing to train teams of employees to take monthly water samples from adjacent tributaries. Such monitoring will play an important role in protecting the environment by providing important information on the state of the watershed. It also provides the Initiative with greater human resources and gives local citizens the opportunity to give something back to the community in which they live.

Protecting the water quality of the Grand Traverse Bay requires protecting the water quality of the lakes, rivers, tributaries, feeder streams, groundwater, and precipitation that all flow into it. When private citizens work toward a common goal, the task is not only easier, it is more rewarding. The partnering of private nonprofit groups, private citizens, business and government agencies serves many important functions—but few are so vital as defending important resources like clean water and the watershed of the Grand Traverse Bay area.