Clinton River Watershed Council making a difference for fisheries conservation

A student takes a water sample as part of the Clinton River
Watershed Council's Adopt-A-Stream program.
Odds are you’ve never heard of the Clinton River Watershed Council (CRWC). Formed more than 40 years
ago, the non-profit conservation organization is dedicated to education, stewardship and watershed-management planning. The group has quietly and effectively gone about its tasks, so much so that it has recently been recognized by the Department of Natural Resources with a “Partners in Conservation” Award, an honor bestowed upon groups and individuals who go above and beyond to foment conservation of Michigan’s natural resources.

Fisheries Division’s Lake Erie Management nominated the council for the award.

“They’ve got a lot of on-going information, education and outreach work throughout the watershed,” said Jim Francis, a DNR fisheries biologist in southeast Michigan, who works with the CRWC regularly. “We have a really good relationship with this group.”

The Clinton River Watershed consists of about 760 square miles, mostly in Oakland and Macomb counties, that includes 80 miles of Clinton River and about 1,000 miles of streams.

Francis said two projects that the council took on – removal of dams that have outlived their original purposes on the North Branch of the Clinton River and on Paint Creek – are excellent examples of how a citizens’ group can have a positive effect on conservation.

“On the North Branch, they received the grants to do the work – one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and one from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation,” Francis explained. “They conducted the project oversight and administration, and the DNR did the actual work with our heavy equipment crew. That was a really good collaboration.

“Removal of that dam restored fish access to 21 miles of the mainstream, including 15 miles of trout water as well as another 18 miles of tributaries and 54 miles of intermittent tributaries. Just the fish passage alone is huge, but to me, removing the dam allowed for important stream-bank restoration. That’s where you get the fish habitat.”

Students sample for aquatic insects as part of the Clinton
River Watershed Council's Stream Leaders program.
The second project was recently completed on Paint Creek, which is a noted trout-fishing destination for
anglers in southeastern Michigan, where trout water is rare.

Removing the dam at Paint Creek was a difficult, Francis said, as some landowners were opposed to it. But the CRWC stuck to its guns and worked through the system to prevail.

“The council got the grant, it hired the engineering firm, it oversaw the project from start to finish,” Francis said. “They took their lumps, but they knew they were doing the right thing for the resource.”

The dam at Paint Creek was causing erosion that resulted in the deposition of 46 tons of sediment into the stream every year, Francis said.

“Think about that – that’s like taking dump-truck load after dump-truck load of sediment into the creek,” Francis said. “That sediment is settling over the gravel that the trout and aquatic insects need. So while we focus on the fish passage when we talk about dam removal, it’s the overall health of the stream that’s being restored.

“Both of these projects had a direct benefit on rare and important resources in southeast Michigan.”

Formed in 1972 as an association of local governments under the auspices of the Local Rivers Management Act of 1964, the CRWC coordinates the efforts of local governments, businesses and community groups to improve water quality and celebrate the value of the Clinton River as a natural and recreational resource.

In 1994, the CRWC reorganized as a non-profit organization, which allowed it to apply for funding from governmental agencies and private entities. The CRWC is funded by dues from county government members; business partnerships; state, federal, and private grants; and individual donations.

Anne Vaara, who joined the CRWC in 2007 and serves as executive director, said the group was thrilled when it heard it would receive an award from the DNR.

DNR personnel reconstruct the stream bed after the dam
removal on the North Branch of the Clinton River.
“We’re deeply honored,” she said. “The DNR has been a great partner for us for years. We wouldn’t be
able to do much of our work at all without partnerships, and having a partnership with the DNR has been essential.”

Although Francis specifically cited the dam removal projects as the reason the CRWC was nominated for the DNR award, the group maintains a number of on-going programs for the betterment of the watershed.

Stream Leaders, for instance, is an educational program designed to give local students an in-depth knowledge of how natural systems operate. The program gives youths a background in water-quality monitoring, data interpretation and citizen action, while producing information for local officials about the watershed’s qualities. Students and teachers get into the river to understand the chemistry, physical conditions and land uses that impact the river. Students take water-quality samples and survey the biological communities to help evaluate the health of the river.

About 4,500 middle school and high school students participate each year, Vaara said.

The Adopt-A-Stream Program is designed to empower community members to help protect local rivers and streams. Volunteers are assigned to teams and are equipped to gather information on the habitat and invertebrate communities. Twice a year (May and October), Adopt-A-Stream members visit assigned sites to collect invertebrates that live in the streams and adjacent vegetation. The data collected is used by the council as well as municipalities and the state of Michigan to assess stream health and make recommendations for protection and restoration of the habitat. Volunteers of the Clinton River Coldwater Conservation Project, for instance, have collected data that has been used to select sites for trout habitat restoration.

There are 55 sites, each about 200 linear stream/feet, in the program, Vaara said. Some 220 volunteers are involved.

The CRWC is one of numerous organizations that partners with the DNR in fisheries conservation programs.

For more information and the Clinton River Watershed Council, visit