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Sunday, 04 March 2018 18:44

Project Clarity leverages public, private support to improve Lake Macatawa watershed

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Project Clarity aims to help improve water quality in Lake Macatawa. The initiative partnered with local companies to deploy in-stream monitoring technology. Project Clarity aims to help improve water quality in Lake Macatawa. The initiative partnered with local companies to deploy in-stream monitoring technology. Courtesy Photo

The final goal will take years to accomplish, but the early data coming in from a long-term project to clear the waters of Lake Macatawa and the surrounding watershed has been trending in the right direction.

Water clarity improved from 2013 to 2016, and phosphorous levels declined in most years. While phosphorous remains at an excessive level, the changes in water quality indicate progress for Project Clarity, an initiative formed years ago to restore the Lake Macatawa watershed that spans 175 square miles across southwestern Ottawa County.

“The long-term trends are encouraging,” said Dan Callam, the greenway manager for the Outdoor Discovery Center that’s leading Project Clarity. 

“The water clarity’s starting to head in the right direction, but it’s still pretty early,” Callam said, noting that success for the initiative will take years to achieve. “It’s taken decades to cause this problem and may take decades to wholly fix the lake itself, but we’re encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.”

Project Clarity began five years ago when local donors funded a study to identify the sources of the greatest problems within the watershed. The study led to the formation of a larger group to raise money to support what became Project Clarity to address water quality problems within the Lake Macatawa watershed.

Funded by private donors, businesses and foundations, plus local communities and state and federal grants, Project Clarity since 2013 has secured $11 million of the $12 million it needs, Callam said.

Restoring Lake Macatawa — a pristine lake a hundred years ago that was a popular destination for anglers — and its watershed has been a project that’s been needed for a long time, Callam said. He ties the watershed’s quality to the area’s quality of life.

Businesses that back Project Clarity “certainly see the talent recruitment” aspect “and making this the best place to live,” Callam said.

“We have this really great potential resource that historically has been a great asset for us and it’s just fallen into neglect,” he said. “This can really potentially be one of those great assets we have in the community.”

SHARING BEST PRACTICES

Key partners behind Project Clarity are the Outdoor Discovery Center, the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council, Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, Hope College, Progressive AE in Grand Rapids, and Niswander Environmental of Brighton.

The project has progressed with strong public and private sector backing, Callam said.

That support goes beyond financial backing to include direct participation and a willingness to do what’s needed. The City of Holland, for example, made infrastructure improvements to its stormwater system, and Project Clarity has worked with farmers in the area to implement best practices to better control runoff from their fields treated with manure, Callam said.

The project has worked by seeking to partner with farmers and others along the watershed to implement best practices that can lead to improved water quality.

“That’s one of the big things we’re trying to do with Project Clarity — not come in and saying ‘this is how things should be done, we know best,’” Callam said. “We’re trying to work with folks and say, ‘This is an issue, we want to help solve it and have you guys be part of the solution. What makes sense to you and how can we work with you?’ and not just impose something that’s a cookie-cutter format.”

Among the projects completed in the last few years was a 42-acre wetland restoration on property Haworth Inc. offered on its corporate headquarters campus southeast of town that the Macatawa River runs through.

“They basically said, ‘Can you do something with this? We want to do our part,’” Callam said. “We’ve had pretty good success so far. We’ve had a lot of partners supporting us.”

TECH TEST DRIVE

The project has even been used to test a wireless technology that gives Project Clarity real-time data on water quality.

The system of sensors placed in the water monitors the quality and transmits data through low-frequency radio waves to a cloud-based server. That allows administrators of Project Clarity to access updates on changes to the water quality following events such as rainstorms or sewage discharges.

Twisthink LLC, a design firm based in Holland that’s focused on Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, approached Project Clarity about using the system. Project Clarity has deployed two of the sensors near a large wetland restoration to monitor changes in the water quality and check “are these projects working as they should be,” Callam said.

Twisthink partnered on the monitoring system with Open Systems Technologies Inc. in Grand Rapids and Boston-based Sigfox U.S., a provider of wireless IoT technology.

Project Clarity provided Twisthink a way to test Sigfox’s wireless technology. The firm offered Project Clarity the use of the technology, then assembled a team to work on the project, developed the cloud infrastructure, and coupled the Sigfox radio with a sophisticated sensor.

“The best way to figure out if a technology works well is to actually use it for something helpful and to actually try to deploy it,” said Kurt Dykema, director of technology at Twisthink. “We said, ‘Hey, we’d like to take Sigfox for a test drive. We’d like to experience their technology in depth. What could we use it for and have our team learn about it and do some good at the same time?’”

GIVING BACK

Dykema first learned about Project Clarity when he was invited to attend an event on the initiative’s vision and goals. He was “inspired” by the grassroots effort and the collaboration with the public sector toward a goal, “and I wanted to see if I could help in some way.”

Twisthink will continue to work with Project Clarity to see if it needs to expand the use of the sensors or if there are other ways to help, Dykema said.

“In West Michigan, the benefit of living in this community is tied to water. It’s tied to using the lakes and enjoying the lakes, and that’s part of what is the DNA in our business as well,” he said. “We felt like it was an appropriate way to learn, but also to give back to our community at the same time.” 

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