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Protecting Northern Michigan's ​Water Resources


Our History from Inception to Present

The Watershed Council was formed in 1979 by a group of lake associations from Cheboygan, Charlevoix, and Emmet Counties with the assistance of the University of Michigan Biological Station.  The lake associations wanted to coordinate efforts in order to keep their lakes clean and protect the water resources of the region.

The series of events which led to the formation of the Watershed Council begin in the early 1970’s.  At this time, the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) provided enormous assistance to the lake associations.  These programs—RANN (Research Applied to National Needs) and project CLEAR—were funded through federal grants.  The station did a complete water quality evaluation in Lakeland Reports.  The brochures covered topics such as greenbelts, zoning, water quality, and septic system maintenance, and conferences were also given.  Burt, Walloon, Douglas, Crooked, and Pickerel Lakes received the most attention.

Additional assistance came from NEMCOG (Northeast Michigan Council of Governments) and Northwest Michigan Regional Planning and Development Commission.  These commissions employed staff trained in water quality protection.  They produced a Lake Management manual and additional educational literature, gave advice, and encouraged participation in the DNR Self-Help Water Quality Testing program.  They also did water quality testing and produced “A Study of 48 Lakes” in 1978.  The planning commissions also depended largely on federal grants to fund their programs.

At the end of the 1970’s, federal grant funding for assistance to lake associations became unavailable.  This is when the lake associations decided it was time to raise funds to support their own program and formed Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council to oversee it.  In 1979 the Watershed Council was a volunteer organization with a budget of about $1,500.  Ruth O’Gawa was the volunteer Executive Director through 1981.

Fortunately for the organization, H.M. Huffman, Jr. joined the Board of Directors and became Vice President for Development.  Through his fundraising work the organization grew.  In 1982, Little Traverse Conservancy gave a grant of $5,000 to hire a part-time Executive Director, Nancy Jarvis.  Thanks to a dedicated fundraising effort $17,000 was raised through private donations in 1982.  Carol Magee was hired in February 1983 to serve as Executive Director on a three-quarter-time basis.  The Watershed Council also hired four student interns the summer of 1983 to gather past research data on the lakes, give educational programs, and assist lake associations with water quality monitoring.

In 1984 grants were secured allowing the addition of three staff:  Jim Bricker as Science Advisor/Limnologist, Gail Gruenwald as Legal Consultant/Office Manager, and Tom Lagerstrom as half-time Membership/Communications Coordinator.  The grants were for three years, decreasing each year.  Due to the increase in services and membership outreach, membership increased from 141 members to 421 and donations rose to $46,000 in 1984.  We mailed our summer newsletter to 6,000 families in the region.

In 1985 the Watershed Council received a grant of $43,000 from the C.S. Mott Foundation for a wetlands protection project.  This enabled Gail’s office manager duties to shift to Tom, who became full time, and we were able to hire a half-time secretary.  We also hired graduate students to work on the project under Gail’s supervision.

The grant funds received in 1984 and 1985 allowed the Watershed Council to expand its programs, including fundraising, and increase its visibility tremendously.  Our budget has grown steadily since those years, supporting a professional staff and diverse programs.

Over the past 40 years, Watershed Council programs have continued to expand in an effort to support our mission.

In 1987 the Comprehensive Water Monitoring Program began. Initially, physical and chemical data were collected on 10 lakes, but the program has progressively expanded and, we now conduct comprehensive water quality monitoring at more than 60 sites throughout Northern Michigan. Monitoring occurs every three years, during spring turnover, March or April, when the lakes are well mixed. Typically, data for nine parameters (temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity, clarity, total phosphorous, total nitrogen, nitrate-nitrogen, and chloride) are collected at the surface, middle and bottom of the water column in each water body. This highly-accurate water quality data for lakes and rivers in Northern Michigan, collected consistently for the last 20 years, have been compiled into a single database that can be used by staff to evaluate aquatic ecosystem health, examine trends within or among water bodies, and identify specific problems.

We have also coordinated a Volunteer Monitoring Program for almost 40 years. Volunteers monitor 40 sites at 28 lakes spread throughout Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Emmet, and Montmorency Counties. The objectives of the program are to collect baseline data, characterize lake ecosystems, identify specific water quality problems, determine water quality trends, and, most importantly, inform and educate the public regarding water quality issues and aquatic ecology. 

​In early 2005, the Watershed Council applied for and was awarded a two-year grant by the Michigan Clean Water Corps to kick-start the new Volunteer Stream Monitoring Program. Seventeen streams are currently monitored in the spring and fall.

In addition to watershed protection, the policy and advocacy program was developing with the initiation of a comprehensive planning and zoning program in 1991. The Watershed Council provides guidance and recommendations to local units of government on ordinances that will improve water resource protection. We review and represent water resources on numerous development proposals throughout our service area. As part of our ongoing work, we receive copies of state and federal dredge and fill permit applications to review. For those projects that have impacts to water resources, we provide recommendations to reduce impacts. In addition, we are often contacted by citizens or local units of government to provide comments on a range of issues.

The first school-aged education program was created in 1995. In partnership with the Lake Charlevoix Association, “Experience Lake Charlevoix” was initiated. During the event, students board the Beaver Islander in Charlevoix, travel to the west bay of Lake Charlevoix and spend either a morning or an afternoon on board participating in experiments relating to water quality, watershed protection, invasive species, water safety and several other topics. The students rotate to seven different learning stations which are run by enthusiastic area volunteers. 

In 2015 the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Academy was launched. This program engages high school science students and provides them an opportunity to become experts in their local watershed. The initial program included five schools. The program has now grown to 13 high schools throughout Northern Michigan.

Building upon the success of the Watershed Academy, the Water Resources Education Program (WREP) was implemented in 2017. WREP is a program that engages students in introductory, foundation-laying, watershed experiences that enhance the local curriculum, increase water resources literacy and foster stewardship ethic in a team structure. As part of WREP, students will research and investigate a water resources issue and identify the need for action through learning about their surrounding community.

In 1996 the Watershed Council created the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund (GLAHNF) whose mission was to foster and support a vital, effective grassroots sector working locally to protect aquatic habitats throughout the Great Lakes Basin. GLAHNF worked toward this mission by providing financial resources, sharing information, and fostering communication between citizens and organizations working to protect aquatic habitats. GLAHNF was such a successful program it became a stand-alone 501(c)(3) organization in 2006. The organization still exists today under the name of Freshwater Future.

In 2000 the Watershed Council initiated a signature program to restore Bear River, “Healing the Bear.” Bear River and its surrounding area encompasses 36 acres of public space near downtown Petoskey. In the past, Bear River was used as a working river, providing Petoskey with timber and hydropower; logs were floated down the river to mills near Petoskey, and dams were installed in the river to generate power for sawmills, gristmills, and electric lines to support the growing town. These uses left behind a scarred riverbed, eroding riverbanks, and altered hydrology, all of which limited movement of aquatic life and impacted water flow. Even worse, the river was used as a cheap waste disposal site. Since its inaugural year, the Watershed Council has continued to host a river cleanup on an annual to biannual basis. It is the goal of the cleanup to maintain the ecological and aesthetic integrity of Bear River by involving the community in keeping it clean and healthy.

Another celebratory event occurred in 2004, with the completion of the Watershed Council’s 100th Biotechnical Erosion Control/Habitat Restoration Project. The Watershed Council provides different levels of contract services for shoreline and streambank restoration needs, in addition to receiving grants for restoration projects. Through these projects, we have restored thousands of feet of shoreline and streambanks, improved connectivity and fish passage, and protected our inland and Great Lakes water resources.

A key component of the Watershed Council efforts is the development of watershed management plans. A watershed management plan identifies problems and threats to water resources and develops a framework to address these issues within a specific watershed. The primary purpose of a watershed management plan is to guide watershed coordinators, resource managers, policy makers, and community organizations to restore and protect the quality of lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands in a given watershed. The plan is intended to be a practical tool with specific recommendations on practices to improve and sustain water quality. To date, Watershed Council has written or co-written seven watershed management plans and updates.

After 34 years as executive director, Gail Gruenwald retired at the end of 2021. Katie Wolf served as executive director from 2022-2023. Kim Baker began serving as interim manager in 2023 as the Watershed Council embarked on a search for a new executive director.

The Watershed Council continues to work toward protection of water quality and promotes the wise use of water resources through education, water quality monitoring and encouraging sound public policy.