Crockery Lake and environs are the focal point of a group of citizens intent on forming a watershed council. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Chester Township resident Callie Melton started building support for a watershed council after what she called “old-school farming practices” and climate change caused heavy soil erosion that impacted her backyard last year.
While her neighbor — a farmer — fixed the issue, Melton saw the episode as part of a larger erosion and drainage problem in the watershed, which spans parts of Ottawa, Muskegon, Kent and Newaygo counties and empties into the Grand River.
She said the erosion and runoff problems stem in part from over-farming, not planting cover crops in winter and not using buffer strips between agricultural plots and neighbors’ land. Buffer strips would allow for patches of natural plant life to grow deep roots to hold the soil in place, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Melton also blames the issues on climate change disrupting weather patterns.
In 2018, Melton said the rains were so heavy on nearby Crockery Lake she could see the runoff — much of it agricultural byproduct containing bacteria — “pluming” into the lake, and residents were “literally shoveling sediment out of the lake because it was filling up in their dock area.”
The Ottawa County drain commissioner stepped in to help with the drainage issues, but Melton said problems persist.
All told, she estimates the restoration of the lake and soil erosion, water quality and farmland conservation issues could cost about $1 million to fix.
This is not counting the cost of a sewer being put in around the lake, where many of the homes have failing septic systems that present an E. coli risk, according to Ben Jordan, Ottawa Conservation District conservation technician.
In light of these issues, Melton is working to establish an advisory council for the Crockery Creek Watershed she hopes will consist of citizens, as well as appointed and elected officials.
“This is about more than cleanups and planting trees; it’s really about trying to fundamentally change some of the farming practices we have around here. And that is a huge goal,” Melton said.
Community members are invited to attend a public meeting held in conjunction with the Lower Grand River Organizations of Watersheds (LGROW) and the Ottawa Conservation District at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at Cellar Brewing Co., at 133 E. Division St. in Sparta.
The newly created advisory council will be taking applications to form a board of directors. Residents living in the watershed, elected or appointed officials, farmers and local business owners are encouraged to apply, Melton said.
The board will be tasked with founding a watershed organization that will seek funding for lake and wetland restoration work, as well as farmland conservation services.
Pat Wolters, vice president of the Crockery Lake Association, said she hopes to attend the advisory council meeting as a more than 50-year resident who cares about the health of the lake she lives on.
Some of the issues she has noticed lately include algae floating on the surface, streams “boiling” with rainwater runoff and carrying sediments into the lake, as well as non-native species being introduced to the lake.
“We’ve had five watershed studies by different companies, and they pretty much all say the same thing: that we have a lot of sediments,” Wolters said, noting the sediments bring in various nutrients, which has led to the lake developing high phosphorous levels.
She said the studies were commissioned to help residents understand what they “can do to help make the lake cleaner (and) create habitat for the little microscopic critters that help the ecosystem of the lake.”
Just as the studies are meant to be informative to the residents, Wolters said she hopes Melton’s group will provide the watershed’s inhabitants with an education they can use.
“Education is key. I’ve always said that, and we have a responsibility as residents … to do our part,” Wolters said.
Melton said she felt the township, which is only staffed by part-timers, needed help tackling the issue and bringing farmers and concerned citizens to the table to talk about the issues and seek funding.
“There’s this weird false dichotomy between the farming community and environmentalists where farmers feel like the environmentalists are against them because when something goes wrong, like E. coli or something, the government comes in and says, ‘Do this, this and that,’” Melton said.
“It is very expensive. But I wanted to break through some of that because without clean water or without making sure the land doesn’t erode away right under your feet … farmers would be (impacted). I’m trying to engage farmers on this so that they’re a part of the process.”
Wolters said, in addition to getting funding for a sewer and treating the water quality of the lake, she also hopes a face-to-face meeting will bring some clarity.
“(I hope) everyone can work together toward one common goal. There’s just been too much speculation, I believe,” she said. “What are we leaving for future generations? Are they going to thank us?”
Rachel Frantz, environmental programs associate for Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, serves as the liaison between LGROW and sub-watershed groups. Her role includes helping people start new watershed councils.
“All it takes is a group of interested citizens and individuals and, especially, landowners and business owners in the watershed who care about it and want to see it better,” she said. “That makes a group work.”
Frantz said in order for watershed councils to get grant funding, they have to follow the LGROW watershed management plan (lgrow.org/lgrwmp).
Jordan said there is federal funding already available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Farm Bill to help farmers adopt conservation practices, although it is a lengthy process that sometimes people “choose not to participate in.”
On the state level, funding for certain watershed improvement projects is available, namely through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). To apply for its 319 grant addressing nonpoint source pollution would require the assistance of a government official or nonprofit organization, he said.
The most helpful aspect of having a watershed group in place is to keep goals and objectives in front of the officials that can make them happen, as well as to engage property owners, Jordan said.
“A big part of why we received our last grant was we had buy-in from farmers; we had letters of support from I think 10 farmers in these two watersheds that basically wrote us a letter and said, ‘Hey, if you get funding, we will use that funding, and we will put these practices in place,’” he said.