Today, we wrap up our series on pollution in the heartland.
To farm in the nation’s heartland, people first had to drain the water from the land. In a lot of places, that meant dredging rivers to get them to move along faster and carry water off the fields. But straight, fast rivers aren’t healthy rivers. And the rushing water carries pesticides and fertilizers off of fields and deposits them downstream. But in some places, farmers are starting to repair rivers. The GLRC’s Rebecca Williams has the final story in our week-long series:
Today, we wrap up our series on pollution in the heartland. To farm in the nation’s
heartland, people first had to drain the water from the land. In a lot of places, that meant
dredging rivers to get them to move along faster and carry water off the fields. But
straight, fast rivers aren’t healthy rivers. And the rushing water carries pesticides and
fertilizers off of fields and deposits them downstream. But in some places, farmers are
starting to repair rivers. The GLRC’s Rebecca Williams has the final story in our week-long series:
From an airplane, the land below it looks like it was drawn in geometry class. Fields
of corn and soybeans look almost like perfect squares. Rivers seem as straight as a ruler’s
When rivers have their way, they’re unruly. They have lots of twists and bends, but people have straightened a lot of rivers and streams to make it easier to grow crops
and raise animals. European settlers forging their way West got stuck in huge swamps.
The mosquitoes were terrible. But the settlers’ chances of raising food in the swampland
were even worse.
“In order to reclaim that land, muckland, for raising vegetable crops, they had to drain it.”
Barb Cook owns a farm here in fertile southwest Michigan. Her grandfather farmed here
in the early 1900s, back when the rivers were being straightened.
(sound of river)
Cook’s standing on the bank of the Dowagiac River. Right now it’s as straight as a canal
and it’s moving fast. But it’s about to get some of its curves back.
Barb Cook says she was skeptical when she heard about the plan to coax the river back to
its original path.
“Well, they want to put the wiggles back. Well, why? Were they trying to hoodwink
anyone or were their objectives pure? And I got involved and felt they were really truly
trying to improve things.”
Cook’s now the vice president of the group. It calls itself MEANDRS. It’s made up of
farmers and biologists and fishermen. People who all have a stake in what happens to the
They’re carving out one of the curves the river used to follow.
Jay Wesley is a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. He says even
though this new meander isn’t connected to the river yet, little springs are bubbling up.
“We’ve actually even seen trout in here since this first part of the project’s been done.
They’ve come up through the culvert from the river and have found their way up here.
So it’s pretty cold, high quality water.”
That’s exciting news for fishermen. A river fed by cold groundwater can be a mecca for
trout. The pools and riffles sculpted into the new meander will give fish places to hide.
These small signs of hope are a pretty big deal. This project is a very long labor of
love 12 years in the making.
That’s because there are lots of hurdles. For one thing, meander restorations are
expensive. Half a million dollars at the low end.
There are piles of paperwork.
And some farmers worry that restoring meanders will flood their fields.
In this project, the MEANDRS group surveyed nearby farmers early on about their
concerns and included them in the planning process. Bill Westraight is the President of
MEANDRS. He’s also a farmer who owns land along the river.
“I think what I say holds more weight with farmers than if somebody had come down and
was mandating that they participate in some way.”
Westraight says they had some major critics in the beginning. But he says they’ve gotten
almost all the neighbors on board. He says it was crucial that they gave everyone a say.
They also commissioned feasibility studies to make sure upstream farmers wouldn’t be
All these hurdles mean that projects like these aren’t very common.
Andrew Fahlund is with the nonprofit group American Rivers. He says big projects like
meander restorations almost always need government funding. And that funding’s been
cut dramatically over the past few years. Fahlund says those cuts are short-sighted
because healthier rivers can actually save money in the long run.
“One of the reasons you get such an economic benefit from river restoration is that you
reduce the costs of having to treat water, filter
that water and clean it up for human consumption.”
(river sound up under)
The MEANDRS group says there’s no way they can restore the entire river. But they
hope mending just this small section will help revive the river a bit.
The group points out that this type of restoration won’t work everywhere. They say in
many places, channelized rivers are still crucial for keeping fields drained.
Farmer Barb Cook says even now, she sees this project as an experiment. In a few
months, she’ll get to see whether all her hard work will pan out, when they’ll try to force
water from the straight channel into the new meander.
“As you look at the stream behind us, it’s quite a volume of water. Water has its own
way. Mother Nature has something to say about this too. She may say no.”
Cook says nothing ever runs smoothly. But she says they’ll just be flexible and this time
around, let the river choose its course.
For the GLRC, I’m Rebecca Williams.