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Inaugural Festival Changes Lives by Just Adding (Clean) Water

Parents took their children to a free-flowing give and take at the inaugural River City Water Festival that demonstrated to them why they cannot take untainted water for granted.

The Water Festival, held at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, was born out of a partnership between Groundswell and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC).

Clean and contaminated water is a matter of life and death:

  • About 11 percent of the world’s population — 738 million people — do not have access to safe water.
  • Around 700,000 children die every year — almost 2,000 a day — from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. Hand-washing with soap at critical times can reduce the incidence of diarrhea by up to 47 percent.
  • Access to piped water into the household averages about 85 percent for the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, compared with 25 percent for the poorest 20 percent.
  • Twelve percent of the world’s population uses 85 percent of its water, and they do not live in the Third World.
  • 87 percent — 5.9 billion people — of the world’s population and 84 percent of the population living in the developing world now use drinking water from safer, improved sources.

Sources: www.who.int, www.wateraid.org, www.unicef.org, www.childinfo.org

“Groundswell works with schools in Kent County to help teachers and students make a real difference in their community,” said Clayton Pelon, associate director in the Grand Valley State University College of Education, where Groundswell is housed. “This festival highlighted some of our partner organizations and the great work they have been doing with our schools.”

Small Actions, Big Results

Throughout the museum’s main floor were displays that demonstrated how small actions can make a big difference in water quality.

GVSU’s Annis Water Resources Institute used a diorama to show how all too easily the three main sources of pollution in the Grand River — fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste — can end up in a watershed, an area of land where all of the water drains into the same river, lake or stream.

Locally, the lower Grand River watershed area covers nearly 3,000 square miles of land from just west of Lansing to Lake Michigan, as far north as Montcalm and Newaygo Counties, and as far south as Barry and Eaton counties, according to the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW).

Besides the Grand River, other rivers that drain their own smaller watersheds within the LGROW watershed area include the Thornapple, the Flat and the Rogue rivers as well as scores of other smaller tributaries, creeks and drains.

Each day, the anticipation of what is happening to the area’s watersheds builds, said Janet Vail, Annis Water Resources Institute research scientist.

“We all live in a watershed, and what we do affects our health and the health of our watershed and, ultimately, Lake Michigan,” Vail said.

The Future Is Us

That’s a challenge Kent Innovation High School junior Jay Graef has taken to heart. LGROW and some of Innovation High’s students have joined to help improve the environment around the area by planting plants around sewer grates to help absorb some of the minor pollutants.

“Our first step is to recognize we live by the (Grand) River, and future generations are going to ask what those shiny droplets on it are, which are oil that has been deposited into it,” Jay said. “We need to be careful where we put our used oil.

“Water is a national issue. Floods and droughts are going on at the same time in the country.”

Learning how to protect the environment nudges students like Jay to learn how to interact with people he otherwise wouldn’t have. But when you are passionate about making a difference, he said, that’s motivation enough.

“We’re learning not only how to protect the river, but how to talk to adults,” Jay said. “We’re learning how to organize something we’re passionate about and finding a goal and a solution.”

All Together Now

Other exhibitors at the festival included John Ball Zoo demonstrating how the effects of pollution reach animals first in a natural environment and can be an indicator of how people may be affected.

WMEAC provided a rain-barrel painting activity, and showed how collecting rainwater for gardens helps keep the Grand River clean and saves families money.

Cranbrook Institute of Science wrapped swamp milkweed pods in newspaper strips and encouraged families to take them home and plant them. They bloom into pink and purple flowers in mid-summer and are often found on the west margins of floodplains, lakes, ponds and other areas where they help absorb pollutants and support biodiversity, said Lisa Appel, watershed education coordinator at Cranbrook.

“They co-evolve with our insects, which support song birds,” Appel said. “Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on swamp milkweed, and monarchs have declined 90 percent in the last 20 years across North America.”


Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds


West Michigan Environmental Action Council

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