319 Flat River Watershed Planning Project

Flat River
Reading an E. coli plate

Flat River

Analyzing IDEXX E. coli trays.

Project Background


The Flat River drains a watershed of approximately 564 square miles in Kent, Montcalm, Ionia, and Mecosta Counties. The River is a Michigan Natural River (Part 305, Natural Rivers: Public Act 451 from 1994), is rich in history, and supports a very high-quality small-mouth bass fishery and biologic community. Several of its tributaries contain populations of naturalized brook trout as well.

According to NOAA's 2006 Coastal Change Analysis Program (CCAP) land use data, 54% of the watershed is used for agriculture, 22% is forested, and 16% is wetland. The remaining land is housing and smaller proportions of other, less significant uses. Compared to other watersheds in southern Michigan, the degree of dredging and draining of wetlands appears to be limited. Local knowledge indicates that land use changes have been moderate to substantial in the previous 10 years in some sub-watersheds. For example, in the vicinity of Murray Lake and its major outlet, construction of homes, a school, and the paving of roads has recently occurred. The three major communities along the Flat River - Greenville, Belding, and Lowell - have developed waterfronts and parks that focus on, and provide access to, the resource.

The Flat River Natural River Plan (1979, with revisions in 2002), which focuses on the entire Flat River Watershed, lists the objectives of the plan as; "Maintaining water quality consistent with the designated classification of the river and adhere to the concept of non-degradation of water quality," and "Prohibiting development or activities which may damage the ecological, aesthetic, or historical values of the river and adjacent lands." To this day, these objectives remain consistent with those of the Kent Conservation District (KCD) and our major partner, The Flat River Watershed Group (FRWG).

Though generally thought of as being high quality, relatively little work has been completed in recent years to determine the water quality of the Flat River. The watershed is one of the few rivers in the lower Grand River that does not have an approved watershed management plan, and due to its large geographic coverage, this represents a major information gap.

Existing information includes a 2003 DEQ survey of the macroinvertebrate community at 20 locations, the fish community at 3 locations, and water chemistry at 25 locations throughout the Flat River and its tributaries. Both the macroinvertebrate and fish communities were found to be acceptable to excellent at all stations sampled. Water chemistry data results suggest that nutrient levels exceed the ecoregion averages at 17 of the 25 sites sampled. Uncontrolled livestock access was mentioned in a report as being the possible source of pollution. Similar findings were reported by the DEQ in 2009.

Work completed as part of the 2011 and 2012 Flat River Monitoring Project (CMI #2011-0505) (FRMP) supports the previous DEQ efforts and the perception that the river contains a high quality biological community. Fish sampling in two tributaries found self-sustaining brook trout populations. Macroinvertebrate populations were generally found to be good to excellent.

However, despite the high quality biological community and  the common perception that the Flat River is a "clean" river, many problems have been noted in recent years.

A major non-point pollutant documented in the watershed is Escherichia coli (E. coli), which was found in Lincoln Lake and an inlet, Clear (Black) Creek (AUID: 040500060107-02), and is detailed in the DEQ TMDL for Lincoln Lake dated July 2006. Sources of E. coli were speculated to be from wildlife, agriculture, and septic systems. One sample was analyzed for human gene biomarkers and came back negative. A recent study (FTCH 2012) also confirmed the presence of elevated E. coli levels in the tributaries, but failed to identify specific sources or causes of pollution, likely due to an inadequate number of source tracking samples (two) and the lack of an on-the-ground assessment.

The above referenced FRMP also found that E. coli contamination may be widely spread throughout the watershed. Sampling conducted on July 26, 2012 found E. coli to exceed water quality standards for total and/or partial body contact recreation at 15 of the 20 stations sampled. E. coli exceeded 1,000 colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml at eight of the stations. Follow-up sampling, conducted on September 26, 2012, found conditions to be much improved, but E. coli still exceeded 300 cfu/100 ml at 5 of 20 stations.

Dickerson Creek is of particular concern. The stream is listed as a designated trout stream and has historically been stocked with trout. However, recent monitoring data suggests that the stream is warm water, based on average July water temperatures (FRMP). Fish sampling conducted in 2012 did not result in the collection of any trout. These data indicate that the designated coldwater fishery use may be threatened or impaired. In addition, E. coli levels were found to exceed 1,000 cfu/100 ml at all three stations sampled and the highest levels of nitrates and suspended sediment concentrations in the entire Flat River Watershed were found in Dickerson Creek.

In 2011, Schrems West Michigan Chapter of Trout Unlimited (Schrems) commissioned a county wide coldwater assessment that noted problem areas on some of the Flat River tributaries, such as Page Creek, where bank erosion and associated sediment loads appear to be causing a problem. Bank erosion due to undersized or perched culverts was also noted at several locations in the Flat River Watershed.

Several apparent issues have also been noted by project partners over the last several years. Violations of the Natural Rivers Act include: unauthorized activities adjacent the river within the required buffer zone, and illegal placement of bridges over the river. These violations are indications that local municipalities and residents are either unaware of or unclear of the Act's requirements. Other anecdotal information suggests that there has been a general increase in the amount of nuisance weeds (macrophytes) in the impoundments. Preliminary Flat River discharge data collected in 2013 near Lowell by a Western Michigan University graduate student suggests that a dam operator is not complying with their run-of-river requirements.

In summary, it appears that the perception of the Flat River as being exceptionally clean and unimpaired by man, may in fact, be misleading due to an overall lack of information. The fact that a large number of problems have recently been identified with relatively little effort is of great concern to the KCD and project partners. A watershed management plan (WMP) that addresses documented E. coli problems, along with other locally known or suspected pollutants including; sediment, nutrients, altered hydrology, and water temperature, will serve as a framework for future decision making.


Project/Task Description and Objectives


The goal of the proposed project is to complete a WMP that will serve the Flat River community in ensuring the long-term protection and improvement of our resource, including the restoration of the designated uses at Lincoln Lake. As previously mentioned, a large amount of field work has been completed by local partners over the last several years to collect baseline information regarding the physical, chemical, and biological parameters of the Flat River Watershed. Completion of a WMP is the next logical step to ensure that partner time and resources are being spent most efficiently, for measurable water quality improvement efforts. An attempt was made to make the proposed project as low cost as possible, while still meeting the stated goal and objectives.

The WMP will cover the entire watershed (both 10-digit HUCs) since the watershed crosses jurisdictional boundaries that are not easily broken, there is significant interest and momentum for getting the entire watershed done at once, project partners are committed to ensuring a thorough job, and the Natural River Plan also covers the whole watershed.

We will meet the project goal by achieving the following objectives:

  1. Complete a Watershed Management Plan that includes the "nine elements," as required by the United States' Environmental Protection Agency.
  2. Concentrate sufficient resources and efforts on determining sources and causes of E. coli contamination, as addressed in the Lincoln Lake 2006 TMDL.
  3. Conduct watershed wide E. coli and nutrient monitoring to determine the extent of the problem.
  4. Complete a detailed inventory of all 18 HUC-12 sub-watersheds within the two HUC-10 Flat River Watersheds.
  5. Use the SIDMA tool for information and Education strategy.
  6. Complete a WMP that provides a level of detail sufficient for protection and improvement goals at the sub-watershed scale.

Page last modified February 12, 2020