MML#5: Officials Learn about SEMCOG Water Resources Plan

MML#5: Officials Learn about SEMCOG Water Resources Plan

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Nov. 4, 2018)

Grand Rapids, MI- Water can mean different things to different people depending on the context. To some, the value of lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands is measured in terms of the environmental impact.  To others the threat of flooded basements and yards makes rainwater and drainage a concern.  When others think of water they imagine a day at the beach or kayaking through a river winding through woods. For some the thought of water speaks to property values, new developments, destination locations and other matters of planning and marketing. And for some the word water is followed by the word crisis, and worries over infrastructure that could be making people sick.

And as elected officials and city/village administrators get educated about the myriad of things they need to know in order to effectively run their cities, an understanding of all these perspectives is essential.

At the recent Michigan Municipal League (MML)/ Michigan Association of Planning Annual Convention in Grand Rapids, representatives from SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) talked about the ways they work with communities to protect and utilize the water resources they have locally and regionally.  SEMCOG released its “Water Resources Plan for Southeast Michigan” earlier this year, and their presentation mirrored the topics covered in the plan.

AICP Plan Implementation Manager Kevin Vettraino talked about water as an asset, the framework for protecting water, and the “blue economy.”  Planner Tyler Kilfman talked about natural resources and infrastructure. Attendees learned how to keep multiple considerations in mind when making decisions that involve the waterways that are under their care.

Water Assets

SEMCOG covers the counties of St. Clair, Macomb, Wayne, Monroe, Washtenaw, Livingston, and Oakland.  In that area there are:

~Over 4,000 miles of rivers and streams

~Over 340,000 acres of wetland

~Over 800 inland lakes greater than 10 acres

~Over 400 miles of shoreline.

~More than 350,000 jobs connected to water dependent industries

~Nearly 100,000 acres of inland lakes, rivers and streams

~450 Miles of designated water trails

~396 Miles of Great Lakes and connecting channels shoreline

~229 Public beaches

~171 Paddling launches

~6 Deep water ports

~5 Passenger ferries

~5 Higher educational institutions with water research and technology programs

Water Resource Plan

Last time SEMCOG make a large scale plan it was 1999, and the focus was on environmental clean-up and encouraging investment in infrastructure.  Since that time the number of combined sewer overflows has been reduced by 75%, seven problematic dams have been removed, 4,500 illicit discharge sites have been identified, and over 2,400 people have been trained in the IDEP (Illicit Discharge Elimination Plan).

“For many years we used them [our waterways] as part of industry. But our communities built there too,” Vettraino said.  “Now we are focusing on bring families to the water.”

Port Huron

One example of shifting the focus from industry to recreation is the Blue Water Riverwalk in Port Huron.  There the St.Clair Foundation has been working with the city to create a pathway along the St. Clair River where ships travelling the Great Lakes pass several times a day.  There are places for people to pause and watch the river and its travelers. There are also informational signs and a place where visitors can walk through wetlands on a raised path.

Vettraino complimented the design of the Riverwalk for actively bringing people to the water.  “A lot of times when you put in trails, there is still a buffer to the waterways, so you’re not having that connection,” he said.

Lake Orion

In addition to creating spaces that draw people in, many communities have built up events and groups that encourage people to dive in.  In Lake Orion a culture of kayaking has built up, with Lake Orion Slow Row taking the lead. Those interested in kayaking connect on Facebook and meet at places like Orion Oaks and other lakes and rivers.

“In the summer you see 10-60 people on a week day enjoying the lake,” Vettraino said.

Park Finder

As part of their efforts to promote nature and recreation, SEMCOG has partnered across their seven counties to create a Park Finder website and app that includes parks of all sizes and types, regardless of ownership.

“Everybody has their own websites, the DNR, cities, counties.  People don’t care who owns it, they just want to enjoy it,” Vettraino said. The Park Finder app makes it easy by including 2,657 parks with a way to search by amenities and features.

They are also partnering with SE Michigan Trail Explorer to do 360 degree maps of parks and trails.


This type of collaboration, information sharing, and database building does more than just help people find fun places to explore.  It also helps coordinate environmental and efficiency features into major infrastructure projects.

Kilfman said that in the past construction might happen without taking a look at all the ways the disruption could be maximized.  For cities and counties, coordination and planning means not just looking at the road, but in the infrastructure below it (such as sewers or utilities) and the environment around it.  This includes complete streets principles like curb cuts, crosswalks, bike lanes etc.  And it includes features like landscaping, bioswales, native plants, and protection of the waterways from construction runoff.

It works for larger projects as well.  “I-75 is a good example,” Kilfman said.  “1,550 native plants were relocated from this area to a local park.” This saved the plants from being wasted and helped a local park blossom.

“When construction is happening, look for opportunities to work together,” he said.

Challenges Moving Forward

Drawing people to the water has economic and community benefits, but it also provides opportunities for education.  The more people are aware of water, the more they are open to learning how to protect it.

Vettraino said that most people don’t know where their drinking water comes from, and as far as rating water quality, people’s opinions are varied.  The Flint water crisis brought some attention to the issue, but it’s up to local communities to keep the conversations going.

Drainage and flooding are also issues.  Many municipalities are looking at ways to encourage better drainage, including ordinances that allow people to plant native plants instead of grass, planting more trees, creating bioswales, and experimenting with permeable pavement.

They are also educating the public not to flush items like baby wipes, pads, and grease down the toilet.  Inappropriate items can clog plumbing and machinery at water treatment plants.  This goes along with other pollution prevention tips, such as not littering.

Policies and Resources

SEMCOG identified nearly 30 policies they recommend local governments implement. Among them are policies to help control invasive species, those that encourage water quality standards, and those that promote tourism, recreation, and water-related economic development opportunities.

The Water Resources Plan, which includes the recommended policies and other resources, is available on the SEMCOG website.

This article is a series based on presentations from the Michigan Municipal League (MML)/ Michigan Association of Planning Annual Convention held in Grand Rapids, MI Sept. 20-22, 2018.  For more MML-related stories click here.  For more on the Michigan Municipal League, visit their website

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