WMEAC publishes Lower Grand River Water Trails Report

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The West Michigan Environmental Action Council published the 2020 Lower Grand River Water Trails Report in coordination with the Grand River Partnership to designate the entire Grand River as a state water trail. Courtesy WMEAC

The West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) this week published a new report on water trail planning for portions of the Lower Grand River.

WMEAC said Tuesday that it published the 2020 Lower Grand River Water Trails Report in coordination with the Grand River Partnership to designate the entire Grand River as a state water trail.

The report, which was funded by the Meijer Foundation, will be used by the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) to create a Water Trail Management Plan, which will push the designation process for the Lower Grand River forward.

The Lower Grand River, which runs through Ionia, Kent and Ottawa counties, is the only portion of the Grand River yet to be designated as a water trail by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The upper and middle portions of the Grand River were classified as water trails by the DNR in 2018.

Similar to hiking or biking trails, water trails are designated routes managed for educational and recreational use, except that they pass through rivers, lakes and canals. As with other nature-based trails, they are intended for nonmotorized vehicles, such as kayaks or canoes, to encourage “an experience of the waterway that reflects its natural state.”

Water trail designation aims to boost “recreational, economic, conservation and cultural development,” according to the report, which cites several studies suggesting designation of the Lower Grand River as a water trail could bring these development opportunities to West Michigan and the state as a whole.

“WMEAC has been working with local and regional efforts to designate our local waterways as water trails to help highlight the link between environmental protection and water recreation,” said Elaine Sterret Isely, director of water programs at WMEAC. “You’re more likely to care about — or even be aware of — the water quality of a river or stream that you paddle.”

The report contains findings from a two-year assessment and inventory of water trail assets and amenities along the Lower Grand River. The assessment was conducted by WMEAC for Kent and Ionia counties and follows a 2016 assessment of Ottawa County’s portion of the river.

“WMEAC came in to do the inventory of Kent and Ionia County so that we could have some idea of what’s needed in this area,” said Wendy Ogilvie, director of environmental programs at LGROW. “With this plan being completed, which we are very excited about, we can now look for funding to be able to write the trail development plan.”

Once the funding comes through and the development plan is written, LGROW will be able to apply for state-level designation of the Lower Grand River, which would classify the entire length of Michigan’s longest river as a water trail. Besides the designation, Ogilvie said development of the water trail relies on the input and participation of communities along the river, and the work of building connections with those communities is ongoing.

Until recently, LGROW was preparing for a paddling trip set to traverse the length of the Grand River from Jackson to Grand Haven — The Grand River Expedition. The event only occurs once every 10 years and was planned for this coming July. The trip had to be postponed until 2021 over concerns surrounding COVID-19, but in terms of public participation and support of the water trail, the delay may work in LGROW’s favor, Ogilvie said.

“If we actually could get a state-designated trail by next summer, it would really make the case for this one continuous journey, and people would see the coordination of the signs and everything else throughout the entire river,” she said.

She also said more volunteers are needed in organizing the expedition, and anyone interested in getting involved can contact the team at LGROW at info@lgrow.org.

The 2020 water trails report can be found at wmeac.org/water/west-michigan-water-trail.

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