FLOW is proud that one of our own, former founding board member, Tom Baird, has been appointed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to serve on theNatural Resources Commission (NRC) and is officially confirmed as of Monday, May 24. The NRC, which oversees the state Department of Natural Resources, has exclusive authority to regulate the taking of game and sport fish in Michigan, and to establish seasons. Its meetings are a forum for a myriad of natural resources concerns.
A lifelong sport fisherman, Baird says he is humbled by the opportunity to serve on the NRC. “Many conservation giants have served on the Commission,” he adds. “Michigan’s reputation as a leader in natural resources protection was achieved, in part, by the work of the NRC.”
The NRC was created as the state Conservation Commission by the Legislature 100 years ago. Its name was changed to the Natural Resources Commission in 1965.
Baird began serving as a FLOW board member in 2011, our founding year a decade ago. To accept the NRC appointment, he has resigned from the FLOW board.
“Tom has been a strong, steady force for protecting Michigan’s land, water, fish and wildlife for a long time,” said Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor. “He’ll sometimes jump on something to help, when you know he’s busy. But then, as demonstrated by his leadership on the Board of FLOW, when he takes something on, he’s in it to succeed, if necessary, for the long haul. Governor Whitmer made a great choice.”
Baird owns Thomas Baird Consultants. A resident of Elk Rapids, he has a bachelor of science degree from Grand Valley State University and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. His appointment runs through December 31, 2024.
An angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo courtesy Michigan DNR
By Tom Baird
Many Michiganders overlook a state agency critical to the environment.
When we talk about water issues in Michigan, we usually think of environmental protection, especially related to pollution and public health.We tend to forget that environmentalism was born out of the conservation movement of the early 20th century. Water issues remain central to the mission of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to this day.
Water was an integral aspect of the early conservation efforts of Michigan, often related to fish and game issues, as well as agriculture. The Department of Conservation was created in 1921, and the DNR took its place in 1965. Michigan’s early environmental laws were assigned to the DNR, but under Governor John Engler the Department was split, with environmental functions going to the Department of Environmental Quality (now Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE), allegedly because the environmental staff at the DNR was too zealous in its enforcement of the law.
The DNR still has an active water program, covering areas of major concern. Under the new administration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, several of these areas have seen renewed focus. And the DNR has a Senior Water Policy Advisor, Dr. Tammy Newcomb, who oversees many of these efforts.
PFAS pollution is an area generally within the purview of EGLE and the Department of Health and Human Services. The DNR has an important role in assessing contamination of water bodies and the fish and game that use them. Recently “do not eat” advisories have been posted due to PFAS contamination on Clark’s Marsh and the Au Sable River near Oscoda and the Huron River, for example. The DNR is critical in determining how PFAS compounds work through an ecosystem, and its half-life in various species of fish. Michigan appears to be the only place in the world that has tested white-tailed deer for PFAS contamination, resulting in a “do not eat” advisory for venison near Oscoda. Much of this work has been controversial, especially in areas where hunting and fishing are integral to the local economy, but the DNR has pushed hard when public health was at risk.
Water withdrawals remain another controversial area of concern where the DNR is involved. Applicants for high-volume ground water withdrawal authorizations use the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) to determine whether a withdrawal will have an adverse environmental effect. This is based on a computer model that assesses the effect on nearby streams. Those streams are classified, in part, by their temperature, flow, and the type of fish living in them. Cold-water trout streams, for example, are highly valued, so a relatively small adverse effect (compared to a sluggish warm water stream) might trigger a denial. The DNR is responsible for characterizing each stream’s type, and identifying the fish that live in it. Recent water withdrawals by Nestlé for bottled water and by Encana for fracking in northern Lower Michigan, and for agricultural irrigation in the southwestern part of the state, have caused significant controversies and litigation. The WWAT is under continuing review.
The Water Use Advisory Council is back in operation. Its purposes include the study of groundwater use in Michigan, and review of the scientific basis and implementation of the WWAT. As noted above, the DNR has an integral role to play, and Dr. Newcomb is the DNR’s delegate to the Water Use Advisory Council. Important work on the WWAT will continue in 2020.
Invasive species are a never-ending challenge for the Great Lakes. A major focus is Asian carp. Intensive negotiations are continuing with Illinois and federal authorities to block their migration into Lake Michigan. The goal is to engineer and finance the “Brandon Road Locks Project.”Brandon Road is a system connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. It could allow carp to invade the Great Lakes. The project involves measures such as an engineered channel and acoustic fish deterrent, air bubbles, electric currents, improved locks with flushing systems, specialized boat ramps, and other measures. Negotiations with Illinois are ongoing, with the DNR keeping up the pressure.
Climate change is a major emerging threat to Michigan’s fish, wildlife, and state forests. Warming temperatures and severe weather events threaten rivers, lakes, and streams, and their fisheries. The DNR Fisheries Division has been studying the issue for several years now. At some point, difficult decisions will need to be made regarding management of these resources in the face of these climate effects. For example, some streams will warm to the point that they will not be viable habitats for trout, causing management objectives to change. This will be controversial due to its effect on anglers and local recreational economies, and the DNR will play a central role in deciding how to manage these resources in the face of these changes.
The Department of Natural Resources remains integral to the study and management of Michigan’s water issues.Monitoring its work is critical to assure healthy and productive habitats and sustainable water uses.
Tom Baird, who serves on FLOW’s board of directors, is past president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and chair of the group’s legal and governmental relations committees. Reach him at email@example.com.
The Anglers of the Au Sable in late September reached a successful legal settlement with the Harrietta Hills Fish Farm in Grayling that by January 1 will permanently close the commercial fish farm. Harrietta Hills will vacate the premises, and the Anglers will assume the lease with Crawford County and take over the facility. Plans are to return the hatchery to its former status as a tourist attraction, and to upgrade its educational and recreational offerings.
This victory was a long time in coming, but it was worth it. Six years ago, we learned that an industrial scale aquaculture facility was planned for the old, obsolete state fish hatchery in Grayling. It was located on the East Branch of the Au Sable River, just upstream from the fabled “Holy Waters,” the premier trout fishing destination east of the Mississippi. Production was slated to increase from under 20,000 pounds of fish per year to over 300,000 pounds per year. This would increase pollution in the form of phosphorous and suspended solids (feces and uneaten fish food), according to our expert studies. As a result, algae growth would increase, dissolved oxygen would decrease, and the aquatic insects on which trout feed would be diminished. There would be an increased risk of fish diseases, including whirling disease, which is deadly to trout. The fishery and related tourism would decline.
The Snyder Administration bent over backwards to facilitate this absurd project. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources waived statutory and deed restrictions limiting use of the facility to historical and recreational purposes. (A court later ruled this action was illegal, but that the Anglers did not have standing to raise the claim.) The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) issued a pollution discharge permit based on faulty data (or by ignoring data altogether), which was woefully insufficient to protect the river. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pushed hard to permit this project, notwithstanding the illegalities and environmental threats involved. The Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Aquaculture Association, the MSU Extension Service, and the Sea Grant Institute at the University of Michigan all supported the project in spite of the facts.
This was the biggest threat to water quality and the fishery of the Au Sable River in the 30-plus years of the Anglers’ existence. So the group mobilized its membership, formed a team, and got to work. Environmental attorneys were retained. Expert witnesses were hired in environmental engineering, aquaculture, fish biology, and resource economics. A volunteer team was formed involving specialists in communications, finance, fundraising, and coalition building. The word got out, the membership got involved, and large donors began to emerge.
The Anglers used a two-pronged legal attack. First, the group appealed the pollution discharge permit was internally within the MDEQ. An 18-day administrative hearing was held. As expected, the initial ruling by the MDEQ Director was in favor of the fish farm, so the Anglers filed an appeal. In addition, the Anglers filed an independent lawsuit in Crawford County Circuit Court, alleging breach of the statutory and deed restrictions, and also claiming violations of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act. After some initial skirmishes, the case was submitted to facilitative mediation where it was settled.
Two lessons can be taken from this near-debacle. First, it is possible for the conservation and environmental communities to take on industry and big government and win. But it takes time, determination, and money. Good will, strongly held convictions, and perseverance are necessary but not sufficient. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but that leads to the second lesson.
Politics matters. So, elections matter. As long as voters fail to make concerns about our environment a priority, we are doomed to continue making the same mistakes. The governmental officials charged with protecting our environment and natural resources should have blocked this entire project, but they did not. Corporate interests and the almighty dollar prevailed until organized citizens rose up to enforce the law when the state would not.
In the end, that is why efforts to educate the public about our resources, especially water, are so important. It is not immediately apparent to the public that a fish farm will pollute a river, or that an oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac threatens the Great Lakes, or that our groundwater is in danger of overuse, exploitation, and pollution. A broad, deep, and sustained process is needed to raise the consciousness of people to the point that water becomes an issue of such importance that they will consider it in casting their vote.
This work is being done by groups like the Anglers, FLOW, and others to educate and empower the public to uphold their public trust rights and the law. On November 6, it’s time for Michigan’s educated electorate to choose leadership that will protect our water, and with it, our heritage and future prosperity.
Tom Baird, who serves on FLOW’s board of directors, is past president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and chair of the group’s legal and governmental relations committees. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once again, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has sacrificed our precious water resources for the profits of a privately owned business and the promise of a couple of low wage jobs. As a result, the waters of the Au Sable River will be seriously polluted, and the risk of harm will be borne by the taxpayers of the state.
On May 1, DEQ Director Heidi Grether issued a final decision upholding a pollution discharge permit for the Grayling Fish Farm on the East Branch of the Au Sable River. In doing so, she has endangered one of the premier fresh water resources in Michigan and violated the state’s duty to hold that resource in the public trust. The Anglers of the Au Sable, which had contested the permit, filed an appeal of Grether’s decision on May 9 in Crawford County Circuit Court.
The Au Sable River is Michigan’s finest blue ribbon trout stream. It is the number one fly fishing destination east of the Mississippi. As such, it is a huge contributor to the region’s tourist economy and to property values in the river valley.
The fish farm, owned by Harrietta Hills of Harrietta, Michigan, is operated in an old fish hatchery built at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and abandoned by the state decades ago. Its last use was as a tourist attraction. It was not designed to be a fish farm, and has no wastewater treatment facility. It is a “flow through” system, meaning that water is diverted from the river, flows through the fish (picking up phosphorus, fish waste and uneaten fish food), and then flows back into the river just upstream from the famed Holy Waters of Au Sable. Essentially, the river is used as a sewer for the fish farm. Portions of the river are fenced off, preventing floating or fishing on that stretch.
The effluent allowed by the permit will cause excessive algae growth, reductions in aquatic invertebrates (the “fish flies” on which the trout depend), reductions in dissolved oxygen, and an increased risk of dreaded Whirling Disease, which is lethal to young trout. The minor modifications of the permit required by Grether will do almost nothing to ameliorate the damages. She did not provide additional limits on discharges; the DEQ will not provide ongoing monitoring; and Harrietta Hills will not be required to post a performance bond.
The pollution will accumulate over time to the serious detriment of the river and the fishery. The fishing will decline. Anglers have choices. Poor fishing means less fishing trips to the area. A resource economist from Michigan State estimates that economic losses to the regional economy due to reduced fishing will be $1.77 to $4.6 million per year. Additional losses will flow from other reductions in recreational uses, and due to reduced property values. In the event of a catastrophe, the taxpayer will likely foot the bill.
The DEQ was created to be “business friendly,” and it has not disappointed: water withdrawals for fracking which dried up the North Branch of the Manistee River, algae blooms in Lake Erie, the Nestles bottled water fiasco, Flint – the list goes on and on.
There will always be those who see ways to make a buck off resources owned by the people. And reasonable use of our resources is fine. But the DEQ has totally abdicated its role as the protector of the public trust in our waters. So it is left to small nonprofit organizations and citizens groups to do what is needed. Consider that at election time, and when you think about which groups to support. It really is up to us.
Almost everyone agrees: the old state fish hatchery on the Au Sable River in Grayling is the worst place you could pick for a commercial fish farming operation. It is on the East Branch, just upstream from the famed Holy Waters, the heart of Michigan’s blue ribbon trout fishing industry, and the premier wild trout fishing destination east of the Mississippi. But due to a combination of factors, including politics, greed and governmental lawlessness at the state and local level, that’s exactly what is happening.
The state deeded the hatchery to Crawford County subject to a statute passed by the legislature and a deed which limited use of the property to public recreation and museum purposes, and which required the county to preserve the public’s right of ingress and egress for fishing. But in 2012, the Director of the Department of Natural Resources signed away the state’s right to enforce those restrictions. Crawford County leased the hatchery to the fish farm for 20 years for $1. The river is fenced off. In October of this year, a judge ruled that operation of the fish farm “clearly violates the statute and deed,” but the DNR has been sluggish at best in rectifying the situation.
The fish farm will pollute the river, so it needs a Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit, which was willingly granted by the Department of Environmental Quality with the urging of the Department of Agriculture and the Farm Bureau. It was justified on the basis that the operator would profit, 2-3 jobs would be created, and the hatchery would stay open as a tourist attraction in the summer (which could have been accomplished without degrading the river with a fish farm). Damage to the multi-million dollar sport fishing industry in the area, and the jobs it supports, was not even considered.
Photo credit: John Russell
At permit limits, the fish farm will discharge about 160,000 pounds of solids (fish feces and uneaten feed) and over 1,600 pounds of phosphorous into the river every year. It currently has no water treatment system, and none is planned, other than a low-tech “system” of “quiescent zones” which might be implemented at an unknown time in the future. The pollution will cause algae to grow, and the solids will create sludge beds. These will harm aquatic insects which the fish eat, reduce dissolved oxygen which they need to breathe, and increase the risk of Whirling Disease, which can decimate a fishery if it reaches epidemic levels. Escaping fish could breed and dilute the wild trout gene pool. Technology exists to remedy the problem, but the operator says it is too expensive.
All of this violated the property transfer statute, the deed, state and federal clean water laws, the non-degradation rule, and regulatory standards for phosphorous and dissolved oxygen in cold-water streams. And it violates the public trust right of the people to have access to the river for fishing and other recreational pursuits. It appropriates public trust waters for private gain.
The case is in litigation. Attorney, experts and other costs have exceeded $400,000 so far, with a long way to go.
The state’s approval of this operation shows either a lack of understanding of its public trust responsibilities – or a willful disregard of them. It will once again be up to citizens to do what their state government is supposed to do – assure there is no impairment of public waters for private benefit.
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Tom Baird is a board member of FLOW and the past President of the Anglers of the Au Sable.
The Successful Outcome of the Holy Water Mineral Leasing Issue Was a Product of Shrewd Planning, Coalition Building and a Sense of Urgency
It was a tight clock, and there was a long way to pay dirt.
This football analogy best captures the circumstances Anglers faced last October as it became evident that the [Michigan] DNR was going to allow oil and gas companies to bid for leases on land interspersed throughout the heart of the Au Sable [River], its Holy Water. Worse, a third of those parcels were designated “development with restrictions,” which would allow the construction of production facilities and the installation of drilling rigs, storage tanks, compressors, and the other equipment necessary for oil and gas production. At first there was shock, then anger, but there wasn’t much time to dwell on either.
The task was daunting. Still, Anglers of the Au Sable had done the impossible before. Folks who were at the Grayling Ramada in August of 2003 remember the forest of hands that were raised when somebody said, “Who here thinks that oil well is going in on the South Branch no matter what we do?” at a public meeting concerning that crisis. Then there was Kolka Creek — not as dramatic as the Savoy case but maybe more important. The consensus was that Merit Energy would have a free hand in remediating the Hayes 22 facility.
In the end, we won, sometimes with the help of friends, sometimes on our own. Our record is not perfect, nobody’s is, but we know the rules of the game.
In the Holy Waters mineral leases fight, we twice asked DNR Director Creagh to remove the parcels from the October mineral rights auction. After our requests for reconsideration were denied our work was cut out.
First up was the gathering of personnel. We needed experts in communication, issue management, folks with knowledge and connections within the state government, especially the Department of Natural Resources, and, of course, attorneys. Several conference calls were held in short order to get the ball rolling.
We began a behind-the-scenes campaign, including communications from some of our well-placed members, to the DNR, Nature Resources Commission, DEQ, and Governor’s office. There were some weeks when the negotiations had the frenetic feel of a peace accord, but we stayed the course. It is important to remember that those folks involved were also working regular jobs, had family obligations, and were dealing with the same holiday mishmash as everybody else. There were times for some when sleep came at a premium. But we received important signals from key governmental officials that our request was meeting with approval – if we could keep the pressure on.
Next up came building a coalition. Fortunately, the outrageous nature of the DNR’s plan – some likened it to opening the Pictured Rocks or Sleeping Bear Dunes to oil and gas development – aided us in our recruitment. We had partnered with many of the same organizations on sundry causes before. In a very short time Michigan Trout Unlimited (plus two local chapters), the Sierra Club, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Environmental Council, and the Au Sable Big Water Preservation Association were all on board.
It was decided that we needed to go further than the “usual suspects” this time. We were grateful for their support, but everybody involved, including all of them, knew that the extra mile was necessary if we hoped to succeed.
An extensive outreach effort was made to bring in several “non-traditional” partners. It worked better than expected. The City of Grayling, Grayling Township, property owners associations, the Au Sable River Watershed Committee, FLOW, recreation and real estate businesses, and, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) all joined us. MUCC is an extremely important voice regarding conservation questions in Michigan, and having them with us added tremendous weight to our push.
A letter to the DNR Director was carefully crafted. In the end 17 groups, businesses and governmental bodies signed on to it. The letter was sent on December 6, 2013, and copied to any and all in government likely to have a say in the leasing decision.
Many of these organizations took up the reigns on their own, but always staying on message in a carefully coordinated plan of attack. Email blasts to their memberships were forwarded to friends and so on. Almost everybody knew within a day of two of operatives hitting the “send” button what the Holy Water lease issue was all about.
In the meantime, our Public Relations team put together maps, photos, articles and op-eds. We began planting stories with a selected group of reporters throughout the state including the Detroit News, Free Press, the Associated Press, and Michigan Public Radio. The Holy Water lease story was showing up everywhere. It put the oil and gas development issue on the agenda, and the whole thing started to resonate with the public.
And then it went viral. Citizens were now furthering what groups initiated. Perhaps the best example of this was from Robert Thompson, a member of Anglers who is a video producer in Chicago. Thompson was already working on a feature film concerning the Au Sable (watch for its release soon!) and had plenty of footage of the river. He created a 90 second collage of the Holy Water and superimposed the slogans from our “Save The Holy Waters Poster” while adding an affecting soundtrack. Now the cause had a polished, professional commercial (http://vimeo.com/81287261) rolling through the cyberspace.
The tables had turned dramatically in roughly a fortnight. In the public sphere the pressure was mounting with every Internet refresh. People from discrete backgrounds, many of which who were not the typical responders to this sort of thing, were making their views known to the powers-that-be. Thousands of emails and letters were sent to Director Creagh. Behind the scenes in a highly disciplined dance of advocacy our well-placed members were making headway.
And in the end it worked. As outlined in RIVERWATCH 67 (“DNR Director Creagh Joins Anglers in Saying ‘No Surface Development’ on Holy Water”) the Director relented. He allowed the leases, but only as “non-development” in the Holy Waters corridor. This was our objective: preventing development of oil and gas wells near this special piece of water.
Of course, the devil is in the details. We are now working with the DNR on lease language that will prevent changes in the surface use designation during the life of the leases. In addition, Director Creagh assigned his Manager of Mineral Leases to design a way to identify “special places” like the Holy Waters in advance, and, if they are nominated for lease, make it clear they will be non-development. That’s not all there is left to do by a long shot, but we’ve come a long way since last October.
To say that this outcome was one of the most successful efforts in the 27-year history of Anglers would be self-serving, but not necessarily any less true. Given the short window of time and the nature of the government in this right-of-center, “drill, baby, drill” era, it seemed unlikely that we could affect a favorable outcome. But we did more than that. Now there is dialogue. The issue of oil and gas leasing and fracking is far from resolved in our state. The path forward is not clear.
We have a blueprint, though, recently tested and found to be effective. It involves smart and committed people from varied backgrounds hammering out consensus. It involves new partners, who for the first time are seeing the downside of oil and gas development when allowed to proceed in places that are special. We need to keep the pressure on, through a campaign involving diverse voices from the conservation community, environmental groups, business and local government. It cannot succeed without respectful discourse with the decision makers. And, finally, it can only truly be effective when it has the support of the people.
So, you see, it’s really not self-serving to say this may have been one of the Anglers’ Finest Hours. It came about due to a hell of a lot of people putting in a hell of a lot of effort, and doing it in double time.