by Rosemary Horvath
For the Herald
The Pine River running through Gratiot County will be tested and surveyed this summer by a trio of Alma College professors hoping to ascertain causes of the huge aquatic vegetation blooms that seem to increase every year.
Environmental Studies Director Murray Borrello equates the problem to levels of E. coli, the bacteria found in environment, foods and intestines of people and animals.
He parallels the increased number of large animal feeding operations operating in the county to the increased amounts of nutrients and E. coli samples taken from the river since the 1990s.
Other factors having less of an impact, according to the professors, are golf course fertilizer, residential fertilizer and malfunctioning septic systems that drain into drainage ditches and the river eventually.
Evidence indicates E. coli concentrations differ upstream versus downstream of specific facility locations and sites where concentrations of livestock waste is applied to farm fields, he said.
Borrello stressed not all farmers in the general area “are being irresponsible.”
He encouraged the small audience at a recent seminar at the Dow Center on the college campus to ask Lansing legislators to change the policy and require farmers to abide by statewide sound management practices, and to impose restrictions on winter time manure applications on fields.
As it is, the Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices, while widely followed, are completely voluntary.
Over application can be problematic.
“There needs to be a balance,” Borrello said. “No farmer wants to put more into the soil than what the soil needs. But laws are inadequate. Farmers want to get rid as much waste as possible in a short period of time.”
Borrello noted the two state representatives that split Gratiot County both oppose restrictions for farm field applications.
The mouth of the Pine River rises from Pine Lake in eastern Mecosta County, flows through Isabella County, the south along the eastern edge of Montcalm County, east and north into Gratiot and onto Midland County.
It empties into the Chippewa River and eventually joins the Tittabawassee River near Midland.
Local homeowners along the river and along Honeyoey Creek in Arcada Township have voiced concern over the condition of the river and its negative impact on water recreation.
Arcada Township resident and professional hydrologist Theo vonWallmenich noted the growth of the agricultural industry in the county hasn’t had a corresponding way of treating E.coli.
“The river has absorbed the external cost,” he said.
Doug Brecht of Seville Township said the Chinese bought up fertilizer containing potash and drove up the price of manufactured fertilizer. U.S. farmers then began using natural fertilizer.
Tom Keeton of the Alma College biology department, will be investigating the DNA in water samples beginning in June to identify the human and cattle bacterial concentration.
“I can’t say where this E. coli is coming from,” he said, noting that nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the samples taken in 2015 had not bee as high as in previous years. “We have to do the science right.”
He said fertilizer runoff from the golf course is “really a chemical problem. It ends up in the river and contributes to the nitrogen phosphorous but the problems are upstream.
Keeton will be working with a lab at Saginaw Valley State University, contracted to offer training and duplicate testing.
Amanda Harwood, assistant professor biology and environmental studies, specializes in macroinvertebrates and will conduct studies upstream of the type of insects and fish in the river. This will indicate how healthy the ecosystem is.
Jon Allan, director of the Office of the Great Lakes, a program connected to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, will be at Alma College on June 9 to meet with concerned residents. The program begins at 7 p.m.
He was invited by the local grassroots organization, Healthy Pine River.
Mid Michigan District Health Department Health Officer Marcus Cheatham, encouraged attendance. Allan is on a “listening tour” meeting with groups around the state concerned about the quality of rivers, streams and the Great Lakes.
Allan is an executive on loan to the state from Consumers Energy this year. His background is in fisheries, wildlife and aquatic sciences. His storied background includes co-chairing Michigan Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council and the Water Resources Advisory Council.
In his current governor appointment, his focus is on building partnerships with local, state and federal groups and government bodies to protect, restore and enhance the Great Lakes.
“There are people in Michigan who care about these issues,” Cheatham told the group. “This will be a good opportunity to just be honest. Tell him what we really think. He will go back to the DEQ and talk to the DEQ director.”
Pine River to get more testing, studies this summer
by Rosemary Horvath