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 tested.

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 Administer, 616-874-6966.

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.

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