The tragedy occurring on the Flint River cannot be diminished in anyway. The horrible impact on unsuspecting families is incomprehensible, and the flawed science behind the decisions that allowed this atrocity to happen is inexcusable. But in this new age of regulation-be-damned politics, the Flint catastrophe may serve as the crystal ball of what the future may look like if the stewardship of our nation’s fresh water supply succumbs to the pressure of unregulated forces intent on either making or saving a buck while public health and welfare pays the price.
It is not that this disregard of our water resources is new. Montana’s Clark Fork River once flowed orange in the days of the twentieth century Copper Barons as its headwaters flowed from the city of Butte. The rehabilitation of the river has cost hundreds of billions in tax dollars. The same can be said of the entire Great Lakes system in the 60s when Lake Erie was declared biologically dead at the same time ninety percent of the biomass in Lake Michigan was alewives. The ongoing cost of cleanup to the taxpayer has been staggering. This story has been repeated time and again throughout the country, and while there is no historical precedent that could ever support degradation of any waterway as beneficial, it would seem that history should have taught us all a great lesson by now.
But no! The same Michigan Department of Environment Quality (MDEQ) and State Administration responsible for the Flint River fiasco has recently approved a proposal that would allow a commercial fish farm utilizing the old Grayling State Fish Hatchery to dump 8.64 million gallons per day of raw untreated wastewater into the pristine headwaters of the upper Au Sable. Long considered a natural treasure to both Michigan and the rest of the country as well, the effluent containing a staggering 3,540 pounds of phosphorous and 274,234 pounds of solid waste per year would enter the river below the city of Grayling and just above the nine-mile acclaimed section referred to as the Holy Water. Known as a Mecca to trout fishermen near and far, this revered portion of the Au Sable sets the standard for water quality and blue ribbon fly fishing, but more importantly, it is considered to be the ultimate retreat for those seeking to replenish their souls in a setting of peaceful solitude.
Under what some might regard as a misguided allegiance to the agricultural lobby, MDEQ admits that the water quality of the river will undoubtedly suffer by allowing the discharge, but the agency also states that this collateral damage is necessary to support “important social and economical development in the area.” The owner of the fish farm Dan Vogler is dismayed by the voices of opposition to the plan and expresses disdain for the mean-spirited individuals with “two-thousand dollar fly rods” who are intent on destroying the livelihoods of hard working farm families. His operation will employ four workers.
The bigger question might be whether it is ever justifiable to allow one person to benefit financially from the intentional degradation of a valuable resource at the expense of so many other individuals and long standing businesses that depend upon a clean river. Josh Greenberg of Gates Au Sable Lodge employs thirty people and is troubled that this discharge could impact his business. Also, there are canoe liveries, four fly shops, guides, restaurants, motels, and many other concerns that provide goods and services to sportsmen, recreationists, and even those who buy two-thousand dollar fly rods. Not only does this MDEQ decision potentially threaten the stability of these businesses, but there is no way to predict the deleterious long term effects this policy may have on the public health and welfare of everyone associated with the river.
As a sacred sanctuary for so many, there is a reason that the hallowed section of the Au Sable is referred to as Holy Water, and its potential desecration would be like allowing a herd of goats to roam the aisles of the Sistine Chapel. It is ironic that the state department in charge of environmental integrity would be the agent of such egregious environmental defilement, and its decision ought to outrage fly anglers, nature lovers, and all who believe that there are far too few of these special places of environmental quality still left on the planet.
In a recent statement by Governor Rick Snyder after the firing of two mid-level DEQ officials for their perceived roles in the Flint incident, he said, “Some DEQ actions lacked common sense and that resulted in this terrible tragedy in Flint. I look forward to the results of the investigation to ensure these mistakes don’t happen again.” The friends of the Au Sable can never let the Governor forget his words.
Five months before his death, Grand Rapids native, environmentalist, artist, and friend Dr. M.C. “Bud” Kanouse sent me a delightful story he wrote about his memorable experiences on the Holy Water. In response to a book I had just written, his final letter to me concluded: “Your writing takes me to the unconscious, constant presence of the trout, the fly and to the excellent environment of the trout. As Michigan author John Voelker (a.k.a Robert Traver) said, the attraction of the trout is for the most part, ’the environs where they are found.’ Unfortunately, the very part of the world we are trying so hard to destroy.”
In the name of all that is Holy, sportsmen and citizen’s alike need to stand up and tell those responsible for the callous disregard of facts leading to the health disaster on Flint River that the willful pollution of the Au Sable, or any other river for that matter, can no longer be tolerated.