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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Public, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, The Narwhal, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

More than 31,000 pounds of trash removed from Michigan rivers, streams, and creeks

The trash collected from one of the volunteer groups after cleaning up a river in Michigan.
Photo courtesy of Paul Steen
The trash collected from one of the volunteer groups after cleaning up a river in Michigan.

Volunteers with the Michigan Clean Water Corps program pulled more than 31,000 pounds of garbage from 222 miles of rivers and streams in 2023.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) made $44,588 in grant funding available, sourced from water quality protection license plates. When you buy the license plates featuring sailboats, $25 of the $35 spent goes into the program.

These funds are then distributed to various local municipalities around the state, supporting the purchase of equipment such as trash bags, boats, and even covering dumpster fees. Overall, the funds help organizations organize volunteers actively cleaning creeks, streams, and rivers, pulling trash out.

Volunteers after cleaning up the Huron River.
Paul Steen
Volunteers after cleaning up the Huron River.

Municipalities often partner with nonprofit organizations or other volunteer groups to carry out cleanups. Last year, the program awarded grants to 11 different organizations across Michigan.

Paul Steen, the ecologist overseeing the Michigan Clean Water Corps (MiCorp) cleanup program, said the volunteers removed the most trash from the Red Cedar River in Lansing.

"About 350 volunteers this past summer did this massive cleanup, pulling out about eight tons of trash out (of the Red Cedar River). I don't think anyone had done a cleanup on the Red Cedar for a couple of decades, so they're just getting so much out of that river and really transforming it."

Half of all the trash collected this year was by the volunteer group in Lansing.

Volunteers found some interesting items in the water, including a grill, reclining chair, and even an unopened safe.

Steen said more trash was picked up this year than any other year of the program. It's not that there was more trash this year, but more trash was collected due to all the helping hands.

This increase was expected as the COVID pandemic eased, as more people engaged in outdoor activities and participated in helping their communities.

If you aren't able to volunteer, you can still do your part, Steen said, "Even trash you just see laying on the ground, you know, if no one picks it up, it will eventually run downhill and get in the water. So, keeping your own yard cleaned up, even though it may not necessarily be right next to a river or lake, still contributes to helping get the stuff out of the water."

If you're a city manager or a township supervisor, and want to run one of these cleanups, MiCorps is currently giving out grants this coming month, so you could potentially host these cleanups in your community. Applications are due by 5 p.m. March 8, 2024.

Zena is a senior at the University of Michigan with aspirations of becoming a broadcast journalist. She is interning in the Michigan Public newsroom.
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