The University Record, October 29, 1996

Washtenaw United Way funds will help ensure high-quality water supply

Volunteers for the Huron River Watershed Council gather sample snails, clams and other acquatic life to determine the quality of the water in the river and its tributaries.

By Rebecca A. Doyle


The Huron River Watershed Council states its mission as inspiring "attitudes, behaviors and economies that protect, rehabilitate and sustain the Huron River System." The council, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1995, will receive both designated and undesignated funding from Washtenaw United Way for the first time this year, as a member of the Environmental Fund of Michigan. The council has monitored the river and its tributaries since 1990 by comparing numbers of insects, clams and other invertebrates to determine water quality.

"We are very connected to the Huron River," notes Paul Rentschler, the council's executive director. "The Huron supplies 88 percent of the drinking water for the Ann Arbor and U-M communities."

Michael Wiley, associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, instructs volunteers in the finer points of harvesting snails, clams, insects and other invertebrates.


Michael J. Wiley, associate professor of natural resources, has helped with the collection, identification and statistical analysis of samples. Samples are collected by volunteers as young as 3 years old from tributaries that include Fleming Creek, Portage Creek, the headwaters of the river in Oakland County, the downriver area near Flat Rock, Mallett's Creek and Mill Creek. Wiley's graduate students help with collection and training and set up a temporary lab in the council's conference room to sort through the samples and measure the numbers and species found.

"On some sites, we have three years of data collected," Rentschler says, "so we are beginning to see some differences and change in certain areas." Some of the changes can be explained by different ways the land is used and population growth in those areas, he notes, but others are not easily explained and need further analysis and data collection. On Fleming Creek, for example, information collected by stream adopters, combined with anecdotal evidence from the Washtenaw County Parks Department, showed the tributary was beginning to decline at the lower end. That information, he says was very important to area communities, especially Superior and Ann Arbor townships, and once the information was provided to the townships, they responded by appointing a citizens' group that is now working on wetland protection ordinances and public education.

"In the watershed area, there is still approximately 60 percent of the land in agricultural use, but that is changing fast," he says. "We have done a lot to identify where agricultural runoff is present, but we are working mostly with residential citizens to educate about the watershed and the importance of a high-quality water source."

The Huron River watershed has the largest citizen monitoring program in the state, Wiley says, and he notes that it is a well-organized effort. "We helped set up the program, and still help with some of the collection and the analysis," he says. "But for the most part, this is a very active program that has been adopted almost entirely by the citizens." Wiley teaches a one-day mini-course in November on ecology for the volunteers, then helps them get started checking on the streams.

One of the factors Wiley and his graduate students look for is how many different species there are, and whether there are large numbers of those species. A large number of different types of clams, for example, would be a sign that the water was high quality and contained enough oxygen to support lots of aquatic life. But if the volunteers find only worms, there is cause for great concern. "If there are only worms, no insects or clams or snails, there is a real problem with water quality," Wiley says. "Worms are pretty much adapted to environments that have very little oxygen, and finding them in large number without any of the snails or clams or insects may mean the presence of metals or a significant lack of oxygen in the water."

Twice each year the conference room turns into a makeshift laboratory as graduate students from Wiley's class help sort out and identify the collected samples.

"The level of detail and the science that comes out of this session is of higher caliber than others around the country," says Rentschler. "We're quite proud of it."

"The entire community here is very connected to the Huron River," he continues. "We need it to stay healthy for all of us. United Way funds will help keep the river system and drinking water supply protected for everyone."

The University's United Way Campaign, which has now reached $613,246, ends Nov. 1.

To the Members of the University Community:


It would be great to declare a moratorium on our community's problems, but the fact is homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse and other social ills won't be placed on hold while our community rebuilds its faith in the United Way of Washtenaw County. I am writing to urge that we not penalize the children, families and individuals in need within our community and support the University's United Way Campaign.

We're all angered by the allegations of wrongdoing, but we've seen that anger transform into independent reviews of United Way's fiscal management and commitments on the part of many community leaders to re-direct attention to the United Way's principle objectives.

The "united" way remains the most effective and efficient means to raise funds for the hundreds of health and human service agencies and the thousands of people, including our family members and neighbors who rely on the help of these agencies.

The University's campaign will conclude at 10 a.m. on Nov. 1. I urge all my colleagues to demonstrate our confidence in the United Way Board's ability to regain our trust, to draw on that confidence in advance, and contribute as generously as possible now.


Maureen A. Hartford
University Campaign Chairperson