Source: Natural Resources Defense Council
Kids Help Protect Bear Creek
Cannon Township is combining inspection with education
to protect the Bear Creek watershed. The township implemented
a program that used kids to conduct septic system dye testing along
Bear Creek and its tributaries. By making it an educational
experience for fourth-and fifth-grade students, staff at the Robert
B. Annis Water Resources Institute (WRI) at Grand Valley State University
felt that people may be more receptive to having their septic systems
Bear Creek is located in Kent County, Michigan,
an area experiencing urbanization pressures expanding out of the
Grand Rapids metropolitan area. To protect this designated coldwater
trout stream, the Bear Creek Watershed Project focuses on prevention,
with an emphasis on education and outreach. The project includes
the Hydrologic Education Line for Partners (HELP), a 24-hour automated
telephone information line intended to educate residents, provide
information, and announce projects and activities; the Bear Creek
Players, an environmental theater group that performs skits about
Bear Creek and water-quality issues at elementary schools and community
events; and the septic system dye testing program.
The township implemented the dye testing in response
to high levels of bacterial contamination in Bear Creek. Water-quality
sampling and monitoring by the county health department and WRI
failed to identify any conclusive sources but recognized failing
septic systems as one possible culprit.
The dye testing process itself is relatively simple
and nonintrusive. Students send out letters to septic system owners,
informing them of the process and procedures, as well as the need
for such an inspection. So far, the class has contacted 137 homes
and businesses and 21 were tested over a three-and-a-half- week
survey period. If a septic system owner agrees to be a test site,
students pour a tracer dye into the toilet and place charcoal receptor
packets downstream in the creek. If the septic system leaks, charcoal
packets absorb the dye, which can be detected through laboratory
analysis. Students also take the opportunity to inform the owner
about the creek, related water-quality issues, and septic systems.
One third of the systems tested during the spring
of 1997 were failing in some way. By inspecting and testing septic
systems at homes and business along the creek, the township has
determined that septic systems are one source of fecal coliform
bacteria. WRI recommends the township use this information as a
guide for local officials to make more informed decisions about
sitting and constructing new septic systems, and for using alternative
water treatment systems such as mound systems, community systems,
and sand filter systems.
The Bear Creek Watershed Project is reaching more
than just students; parents, homeowners, local officials, and project
staff also learn more about water quality in the watershed. Watershed
administrator Bonnie Shupe says, "Any time you get children involved,
you seem to reach a greater audience." The program’s message was
able to reach beyond the watershed as well, being featured in the
PBS television documentary Insatiable Thirst: Groundwater and the
Crisis of Development14 that was aired across the state.
According to Shupe, the biggest benefit of the
Bear Creek Watershed project is getting people aware that they need
to take some action to preserve the creek. Through the project,
people learned that many of their everyday activities affect creek
quality, and that even something a basic as flushing the toilet
can have a negative impact.
Original funding for the project came from Section
319 of the CWA along with a local match provided by the township.
WRI administered the grant and provided staff and technical assistance.
Working with WRI staff provided a substantial advantage because
they provided skills, knowledge, and resources that would have otherwise
been unavailable to Cannon Township.
Building off the success of the collaboration with
WRI, the township is continuing its watershed protection efforts
funded through its general account and managed by the newly established
watershed administrator. The township has enjoyed support from its
residents, who do not want to lose the momentum generated by the
grant. There is consensus among residents and officials that it
is better to focus on protecting the creek now rather than face
the high costs of restoring it later.
& Contact: Bonnie Shupe, Cannon Township Watershed
Copies " Insatiable Thirst: Groundwater and the
Crisis of Development" can be ordered by contacting Forest Godsey,
WFUM-TV, University of Michigan-Flint, Flint, MI 48502-1950, 810-762-3028.