Area community foundations launch Water First initiative

MANISTEE — Michigan’s freshwater resources are not only a source of natural beauty; they also contribute to the environmental and economic health throughout the state.

A coalition of local community foundations have recently launched Water First, an effort to support communities in protecting the region’s freshwater resources.

Laura Heintzelman, president of Manistee County Community Foundation, said they are teaming up with peer community foundations from across Michigan through the Council of Michigan Foundations, and are working with the Great Lakes Protection Fund to address the topic of water quality.

“We are linking up with shoreline community foundations across northern Michigan, from Manistee up to (Mackinac) bridge,” she said. “We’re focused on the importance of freshwater resources both in the Great Lakes and our connecting waterways, and the importance of those resources to our quality of life here in northern Michigan, as well as to the economic vitality of our communities.”

The coalition includes the Charlevoix County Community Foundation, Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, Leelanau Township Community Foundation, Manistee County Community Foundation and Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation.

“It is a relatively new initiative,” said Heintzelman. “It is something that we have been working on for the past several months, and we’re at the phase where we are sharing our concept with the public and seeking input.”

In order to gather perspectives from residents living in northern Michigan, the coalition developed an online questionnaire which can be found at www.surveymonkey.com/r/waterfirst1 .

“We’re hoping a lot of different members of our community, each bringing different perspectives, will take the time to complete it and provide some feedback about what they view our greatest needs are,” said Heintzelman.

Although the initiative emphasizes the Great Lakes, it will also involve other freshwater resources in the region, according to Heintzelman.

“It really is all water resources, recognizing that our freshwater in our county ultimately makes it to the Great Lakes basin,” she said. “Whether we’re talking right on the shoreline or one of the rivers that are leading to the Great Lakes, we know that they all play a really important role in protecting water quality throughout our region.”

The Water First initiative, which is anticipated to leverage at least $500,000 toward the effort, will focus on the development of innovative water policies and green infrastructure in the eight counties served by the participating community foundations.

“Our work is part of a larger Great Lakes One Water Partnership supported by the Council of Michigan Foundations and the Great Lakes Protection Fund,” said Steve Wade, Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation vice president of gift planning. “After an initial planning process last year, our coalition has developed a proposed action plan to support emphasizing water as a first priority in local decision-making.”

The community foundation coalition has engaged regional partner Networks Northwest to design, seek feedback on and deliver a program to support communities in efforts to implement green infrastructure policies, practices and projects.

“Water First is proposing to support the creation of Water First Action Teams to build engagement and participation from local governments and other water partners in four of the region’s watersheds,” said Sarah Lucas, who is helping to coordinate the initiative on behalf of Networks Northwest. “These teams will identify watershed-wide priorities for action, using adopted watershed management plans as a foundation.”

Heintzelman said there has already been a significant amount of work in Manistee County to promote and protect water resources.

“We see the county as being really rich, both in our high quality water resources but also in the number of volunteer groups that are really dedicated to helping to educate our community about the importance of protecting our waterways,” she said.

The initiative will help support local volunteer groups that have been established throughout the region.
“This builds on the great work that has already been done,” said Heintzelman. “We have a number of watershed management plans that are in place, so we’re really wanting to provide an avenue of support for building on the momentum that has already been gained, and helping to provide additional resources, support and technical support for groups to be able to put those plans into action.”

Contact Jane Bond at (231) 398-3111 or email jane.bond@hearst.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MNA_Jane.

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