The Flint: A good river with a bad reputation

Biologist Joseph Leonardi has a message for people who believe the Flint River caused the lead contamination problem in Flint’s drinking water: It wasn’t the river’s fault.

Leonardi, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, has studied the Flint River for more than two decades and knows it as well as anyone. He also understands the science behind Flint’s drinking water crisis, which erupted after the city switched its source of drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

“The issue with the (lead in Flint’s) drinking water stemmed from the Flint River having natural differences in chemistry compared to water from Lake Huron,” Leonardi said. “The river water itself was not to blame.”

The Flint River contains chlorides (some of which likely come from road salt), but the water does not pose direct threats to fish, wildlife or people who use the river. Chlorides cause problems in drinking water mainly because they corrode metal in the pipes and plumbing fixtures that transport water into homes.

Flint’s recent drinking water problems increased concerns about water quality in the river, but research shows the waterway is improving.

“Overall, the health of the river is fair to good — it is vastly improved from the 1950s and ’60s,” Leonardi said. “There are some fairly pristine tributaries in the headwater reaches, but there are also some areas of degradation and concern.”

Fish and wildlife populations are rebounding in and along the river, according to government data. And bald eagles, which nest only near healthy waterways, now reside at several sites along the river.

The river supports an excellent smallmouth bass fishery on the outskirts of Flint, and improved water quality played a major role in the resurgence of the walleye fishery in Saginaw Bay. The Flint is a major tributary of the Saginaw River, which flows into Saginaw Bay.

Each spring, as many as 100,000 walleye from Saginaw Bay migrate up the Flint River to spawn in a scenic stretch of river that winds through the city of Flushing. The annual migration has given rise to Flushing’s annual Walleye Festival.

“The river is holding its own — maybe not improving as much or as fast as some would like, but I think we have seen some noticeable improvement in the fish community,” Leonardi said. “My hopes are for continued improvement as communities embrace the river for the asset it is.”

Although the river is improving, it faces ongoing challenges from contaminated storm water runoff and past pollution. Storm water runoff is the most serious problem facing the river, according to government officials and river advocates.

Polluted storm water that drains off the landscape harms water quality and aquatic life. It also alters the natural flow of the river, which can cause a myriad of problems, such as flooding and streambank erosion. This issue is not unique to the Flint River — storm water runoff is the biggest threat to rivers nationwide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite those challenges, the river is a tremendous resource that offers an “Up North” experience just minutes from downtown Flint. It flows through three lakes in Genesee County and, in some areas, winds through miles of pristine woods that are devoid of houses, cars or other signs of modern society.

Leonardi, who has canoed much of the 142-mile long Flint River, calls it “an undiscovered treasure.”

The river’s recovery is the latest chapter in a story that dates back thousands of years.

Etched into the landscape by the same glaciers that carved the Great Lakes about 10,000 years ago, the river has been the lifeblood of Flint. It was a source of food, water and transportation for Native Americans who first settled the area. Following the arrival of European immigrants, the river supported a thriving fur trade in the 1700s, carried millions of logs to saw mills in the 1800s, and fueled the rise of the automobile industry in the early 1900s.

The river will play a key role in 21st century efforts to revitalize downtown Flint, said Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition.

“We have a beautiful vision for the river in downtown Flint. We are working with a wide variety of stakeholders to remove the two dams in downtown Flint and naturalize the river banks,” Fedewa said. “When we are done, people will be able to fish and kayak up and down the river in downtown Flint.”

Many other Michigan cities, large and small, have made rivers the focal point of downtowns. Leonardi said he hopes communities along the Flint River afford it similar treatment.

“For most people, I think simply the aesthetic value of a river is its greatest attribute,” he said. “Whether it is the sound of moving water or watching the water flow, it gives people a sense of being and an opportunity to perhaps forget the hustle and bustle of the world around them — even if it’s just for a quick moment.”

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