Nonprofit flows into 50th year
West Michigan Environmental Action Council hones in on fighting water pollution.
Polluted water is top of mind for many Michigan residents right now, but not everyone understands the myriad factors that can cause it, according to a local nonprofit.
West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), at 1007 Lake Drive SE in Grand Rapids, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this spring.
At the same time, Executive Director Bill Wood is marking a year and a half at the helm of the 501(c)3 membership-based organization.
He said one of the reasons he was hired was to help the organization make changes so it could have maximum impact.
“There’s such a thing in the nonprofit world as mission creep,” Wood said. “Part of me coming on board at WMEAC was, to an extent, about narrowing programs rather than expanding them.”
While remaining active in education and zero-waste work, WMEAC currently is ramping up its activity in the water protection sphere.
This includes advocacy around creating a statewide septic code to prevent pollution from human waste, nascent-stage partnerships to stimulate green infrastructure for stormwater management, the creation of a municipal and developer-oriented stormwater calculator, protecting the fishing industry and conducting research on making inland waterways more navigable.
“It would be nice if I worked myself out of a job, if we could solve all the problems we have and didn’t create new ones,” Wood said, referring to recent groundwater contamination issues in Belmont, Plainfield Township and Algoma Township allegedly stemming from Wolverine Worldwide’s improper waste disposal in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, pollution isn’t always limited to chemical dumping, Wood said, which is why WMEAC participates in education and advocacy efforts around septic and stormwater systems.
The former problem occurs when home septic systems in suburban and rural communities fail to adequately treat waste before it seeps into groundwater, rivers and lakes.
“Michigan is the only state in the union that doesn’t have a statewide septic code,” Wood said. A code could mean requiring uniform inspections of septic systems before homes are sold.
Septic systems were devised under the assumption soil acts as a natural form of treatment for sewage. But Wood referred to a study done by Michigan State University in 2015 that analyzed 64 waterways and found the more septic systems there were in the watershed, the higher the presence of human fecal bacteria, such as E. coli.
Wood said this has economic implications for Grand Rapids, with the current project underway to restore the rapids to the Grand River to spur kayaking, fishing and boating.
“If you have to issue a ‘no body contact’ order because of pollution, that’s going to be a problem,” he said.
WMEAC is working to identify which Michigan counties have enacted their own septic codes and how they are working.
“We have to figure out … what we can recommend to legislators. We don’t want it to be a rubber stamp; it has to have some teeth,” Wood said.
Another issue that has economic implications is stormwater management.
WMEAC recently developed a stormwater calculator called Rainwater Rewards to help small to midsize cities in the Great Lakes basin understand “the value of reducing flood risk, water and air pollution reduction, increasing property value, CO2 storage and energy savings.”
Wood said the tool is available at rainwaterrewards.com to municipal planners and private developers — although homeowners also can “play around with it,” he said.
“It’s a tool that says, ‘We want to reduce this much runoff or chemicals associated with it. If we install this many green technology units, it will reduce the runoff by this much,’” Wood said.
Residents of low-income neighborhoods aren’t likely to have the resources to improve their own stormwater flow, so WMEAC has secured grants from the Funders Network and the Wege Foundation, in partnership with the city of Grand Rapids and GreenHome Institute, to launch a two-year program called Partners for Places.
“We are working with low-income neighborhoods and communities of color to stimulate residential green infrastructure around stormwater management and reducing water bills for residents,” Wood said.
The first year will include listening sessions in various neighborhoods. In the second year, the partners will choose a neighborhood for a pilot in which it will install a “water-saving bundle” in between 50 and 75 homes.
The bundle will include “rain barrels and rain gardens, low-flow shower heads that slow the water at the source and low-flow toilets,” Wood said.
“We are trying to go from the bottom up, which is not the typical approach. There’s a bad tendency in environmentalism of saying, ‘We know the problem, and we will tell you,’ rather than listening to what people are saying who live there,” Wood said.
When cities don’t manage their stormwater properly, the problem spreads. It affects the fish in streams, rivers and lakes, which, again, has monetary consequences.
“In a trout stream, a few degrees difference can mean a thriving year or a year they don’t thrive,” Wood said. “Our sport fishing industry is anywhere between a $2 billion and $4 billion industry. The impact is huge.”
WMEAC also is concerned with West Michigan’s efforts to create “an outdoor brand” and, thus, is continuing to do research and development work surrounding water trails.
“We had worked on the water trails out in Ottawa County and did a report with Ottawa County Parks on where the river is at to bring people to paddle on it,” Wood said. “You need to have trained rescuers, the resources to get to stretches of river, mile markers, signage of where to park your boat. We need all that, so we don’t have a tragedy that gets someone hurt and brings (the region) bad press.”
He said WMEAC currently is in the fundraising stage to do a similar report on the Grand River east of Grand Rapids to Portland. The Meijer Foundation is a major donor on the project.
To celebrate its 50th year, WMEAC has a few special things planned for its annual Blue Tie Ball fundraiser April 26.
The nonprofit invited a former executive director to interview WMEAC’s youngest volunteer, a 7-year-old boy named Milo, who founded the Earth Savers Club at Congress Elementary School.
WMEAC also plans to share a highlight reel of its “victories” over the past five decades.
The event will culminate in a posthumous award to former U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers — the Heartwell Environmental Legacy Award — for Ehlers’ longtime commitment to environmental protection issues in West Michigan.
“We feel really fortunate to be celebrating 50 years,” Wood said. “That’s a long time for a nonprofit. We intend to be around for 50 more at least.”