Take me to the river: CRWC director Anne Vaara on restoring an urban waterway

Listen to Anne Vaara speak here:

It’s the middle of a busy week, and Clinton River Watershed Council executive director Anne Vaara stands on the banks of the Clinton River in the middle of the watershed. Bare branches bend and sway over clear, flowing water, setting a tranquil scene.

But we’re far from the wilderness. Instead, we’re in the middle of the busy suburb of Rochester Hills, not far from one of its busiest intersections. This 100-acre Eden of sorts is on city-owned property, near Rochester Hills City Hall.

It’s a quiet, unassuming patch of land with tall yellow grass, gurgling creeks, hiking trails and, of course, the Clinton River. Aside from the faint roar of traffic, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about the restaurants, office buildings and gas stations within a half-mile of this natural setting.  

One thing the Clinton River watershed has in spades is people. It’s Michigan’s most populated watershed. And it’s those people, according to Vaara, that can make a difference in stewarding the river.

Vaara, a Royal Oak resident, is an environmental planner, wetland scientist and executive director of the Clinton River Watershed Council

. For 23 years, she’s been involved in wetland and environmental science, and has been working with CRWC for the past eight years.

The majority of her time is consumed by meetings with various stakeholders and officials at the state and county levels.

“One of the things that makes CRWC unique is that we have 60 government members,” Vaara explains. She says that fact demonstrates that municipal leaders within the watershed believe in the work her group does.

Vaara says one of the things that surprised her about the Clinton River watershed most was the number of active volunteers who dedicate their time and talents to improving the river.

“We have close to 5,000 volunteers throughout the year that work on projects in their communities or help with clean-ups or invasive species removal,” she says.

The Clinton River is one of 43 Areas of Concern (AOC) throughout the Great Lakes. The AOC program was established by both the American and Canadian governments in 1987 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and that same year, the Clinton River was designated an AOC. Vaara serves as vice-chair of the Clinton River Public Advisory Committee, which represents the public in the program.

Pollution from decades ago is the reason the Clinton River is an AOC.

“The biggest challenge in trying to improve the river’s health is dealing with ‘the sins of the past,’ she says.

Vaara says she’s hoping to get the impairments removed and have all management actions required to get the Clinton River delisted from the AOC program completed in coming years.

“It comes with challenges, it takes time, it takes people, it takes coordination, and it takes money,” she says.

Vaara notes that Great Lakes Restoration Initiative federal funding, which became available in 2010, has been critical to supporting work to restore the watershed in recent years.

“It’s helped with planning, design and implementation. It’s been a huge help and it’s been a real difference maker,” she says. Since 2010, the Clinton River AOC has received $30 million from the fund.

She’s proud that many communities are taking ownership and caring for their waterways now more than ever before.

“We’re working with communities now that are excited about putting in a green roof or redoing their parking lots so it’s not just pavement anymore,” she says.

CRWC also has various programs designed to inspire a sense of ownership and enthusiasm for the river. For example, through its WaterTowns initiative, which was launched in 2013, people can connect to the river in a number of different ways.

“It can be through waterfront development, education, art, history, ecology or green infrastructure,” says Vaara.

In addition to WaterTowns, CRWC is working on a Clinton River Water Trail to promote the local recreation and tourism economy through biking, hiking, paddling and fishing. The trail would eventually encompass all 81.5 miles of the Clinton River at some point.

Vaara says CRWC is working with nine different communities along the river on the trail. One of their goals is to make sure the trail is designed for universal accessibility, which includes universal access to bathrooms, parking, launch sites and more.

“This is about creating a facility that everybody can use, and it’s not just people who are in wheelchairs, it’s grandma and grandpa taking the grandkids to the river,” she explains.

Vaara says all of these programs and improvements are only possible through collaboration.

“Everything we do is about stewardship because that’s what gets people interested and paying attention,” she says.