Water Warrior


– Photo courtesy of the Watershed Council

The pristine beauty of the Maple River in Emmet County served as the backdrop for this May 2015 photo of Watershed Council staff members (l-r) Dylan Hescott, intern; Kate Laramie, intern; Dan Myers, water resource specialist; Debbie Esposito, data manager; and Executive Director Gruenwald.

Attorney draws on legal background to fight for health of the Great Lakes

By Beth Anne Eckerle
Legal News

Michigan’s water resources are the most beautifully defining characteristics of this state. Inland lakes are a recreational paradise for summer boaters, while blue-ribbon streams beckon fishermen all year round. The further north you travel, the more the waters resemble the aqua blue of the Caribbean, if only in color and not degree.

We splash in it with our children, tow water-skiers atop it behind zippy speed boats and set sail into the sunset, waves lapping at the bow and spray wetting our faces.
It’s easy for most of us to take for granted the clear, clean waters that constitute almost half (41.5 percent) of Michigan’s total square miles.

But not Gail Gruenwald. She knows what lies beneath, and what it takes to ensure Michigan’s water quality is not further comprised in the face of new and old threats alike. Ask her to talk about what’s facing Michigan’s lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands and this attorney-turned-watershed policy expert demonstrates how exceptionally well-versed she is on reciting them.

For the past 30-plus years, her work with the Petoskey-based Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has centered around keeping the Great Lakes and Michigan’s thousands of liquid acres robust and thriving. She’s as connected to these issues as sand is to Sleeping Bear, and she has the ear of policymakers whenever a water-quality policy or issue is on the table.

“As someone who has done policy work for over 20 years, I can tell you it is quite wonderful to work in a shop that has the science people, right down the hall,” said Grenetta Thomassey, in her 11th year as Program Director at the Watershed Council.  “I could go on and on about the Watershed Council, but the bottom line is that we are reputable and effective, and this is a design that Gail fosters. The result is an organization that produces quality work products, year-round. We have an impact that is measurable, when it comes to fieldwork and policy initiatives.”

The alliance of policy supported by science under one roof have combined to make Gruenwald one of Michigan’s most prominent voices in the effort to keep threats to Michigan’s pristine water quality at bay. And enviously to many of her downstate legal colleagues, she is able to perform this important work while making her home in Harbor Springs, an idyllic shoreline community in Northwest Michigan’s Emmet County, home to a year round population of about 1,000.

Little Traverse Bay is the center of the community here, and also of Gruenwald’s professional and personal life.

“We are so blessed to be able to do what we do from home base in a town like Petoskey,” said Gruenwald, who has worked for the TOMWC since 1984 and for the last 29 years as its Executive Director.

More than 30 years after accepting the job as staff attorney/office manager, she has helped to create a well-watered machine of advocacy, policy, educational outreach and scientific research, all while inspiring a cadre of hundreds of volunteers and 2,500 members to pitch in with their time and money to help the cause.

“This is really a magical area for nonprofits to operate,” said Gruenwald, of the Northern Michigan region overall. “The support that is here for the work of nonprofits is truly amazing. People ask us all the time, ‘How do you guys do that?’ I tell them that it’s because of the region where we are located and the generosity of people who for generations have grown up on these bodies of water and want to see them protected. There is a strong sense in this community of people who value what this area has meant to their families, and what it has afforded them. They want to give back.”

Environmental lawyer, environmentalist

Gruenwald is a Farmington Hills native who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Central Michigan University in 1979. She had her mindset on environmental advocacy post-undergrad, and earned a law degree from the University of Oregon in 1983. 

While she was still sitting through law classes in Oregon, back in Michigan a group of folks interested in conservation and protection of Michigan’s water resources had formed an organization with that mission in mind. They were spurred by the presence of biologists at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, a summer camp for U-M students studying the sciences. That handful of concerned conservationists could see a trend that was quickly growing: Development of homes and lawns along Northern Michigan’s coveted shorelines, both inland and along Lake Michigan.

They officially incorporated the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in 1979 with a couple staff and a part-time biologist.

Gruenwald’s path met theirs when she returned to Michigan from Beach, Wash., with her law degree in hand. This group of early Watershed Council founders needed a staff attorney, and the 25-year-old Gruenwald dove in head first when offered the position. 

“In the 1970s, the local Little Traverse Conservancy (land conservation) group was forming and there was a lot of thought being put into quality of life in the area,” Gruenwald recalled. “Nonprofits were emerging all around the region. The Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council’s mission was to utilize sound science and policy to effect change, and that remains the same today. Everything we do gets vetted through the science involved and appropriate policy.”

Tom Bailey, long-time executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy in Harbor Springs, recalled meeting Gail in the early years of career.

“In typical early nonprofit fashion, Gail was acting simultaneously as secretary-receptionist and attorney,” Bailey said. “She has always been passionate about protecting water resources and it was no surprise that she soon rose to the leadership of the organization. She has guided the group through a maze of regulatory and advocacy issues to become a leader not only in Michigan but nationally when it comes to water resource protection and policy.”

After arriving in Northern Michigan, she passed the Michigan bar exam, complementing her license in Washington state. With her legal knowledge, license and passion for preservation, Gruenwald set out to tackle the issues facing Michigan’s waterways. She found herself helping to manage the day-to-day office duties while working on policy, education, and advocacy. She was on the ground floor with three other staff and five or six lake associations whose residents were concerned about maintaining water quality in the face of growth.

Gruenwald recalls the early days in her career and the resistance the Watershed Council faced about subjects like wetland protection, waterfront setbacks and greenbelts for shoreline homes to prevent fertilizers and other household chemicals from reaching the water.

“People were saying about wetlands, ‘These are wastelands, these are swamps, why would we want to protect them?’ There was a lot of skepticism,” she recalled. “Now if you’re going to build, local officials will say, ‘Have you talked to the Watershed Council yet?’”

That change in direction and emphasis on the opinion of the Watershed Council has much to do with the educational and outreach efforts under Gruenwald’s leadership.

The Watershed Council is now a sought-after partner in Michigan and Great Lakes water policy decisions.

After three years in her early role, Gruenwald was named Executive Director, leading the organization with her keen understanding of the legal ins and outs of
developing policy. 

“Anyone can read a statute,” she says. “But I can bring that administrative-branch look and the administrative approach to what we do.”

Adds Thomassey, the program director: “Gail’s legal background is something we rely upon, often. “There are many circumstances when we challenge decision makers, based upon legal arguments and reasoning. Our policy team has also hired several law students to do externships with us – a program that I put in place and recruit for, every January, so I know and can say with certainty that they have all had a meaningful experience.”

What has also set the Watershed Council apart is its melding of scientific research with policy experts; scientists and policy staff in the same room, working together on solutions, with science driving policy.

“Typically you’d either do one or the other. We merged them,” Gruenwald noted.

The result: Nearly 40 years of water quality data which are often used to support policy decisions and recommendations.

“The Watershed Council has become a great resource for government at all levels, lake associations, property owners’ groups and others involved with waterfront property and water resource issues.  Gail’s long tenure in her position has given her a broad, long and deep perspective on water issues and the people and organizations involved in water policy and water resource protection,” noted the conservancy’s Bailey.

A statewide leader in issues affecting all

Today, Gruenwald is joined by 14 staff members divided into teams: Water­­shed protection, policy, outreach and administration. Along with their staff, the number of issues they face has also continued to grow from the early origins based mostly around lake associations’ issues.

Staff can be found wearing waders, carrying beakers and paddling canoes on any given body of water throughout the year as they gather samples and monitor impacts.

Year round they consult on policy, create educational literature, host forums and keep tabs on large-scale efforts like the Great Lakes Compact, which led to legislation requiring agreement of governors of states bordering Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario on issues that impact water quality, like water diversion.
“We were instrumental in the adoption of the Compact and helped to develop it,” Gruenwald said.

They’re continually on the leading edge of new initiatives. Several years ago, recognizing the impact of medications on aquatic and human lives, the Watershed Council helped to create the Prescription and Over the Counter Drug Drop-off (POD) program. For years, most people have flushed unused medications down the toilet or sink, which pass through sewer and septic systems, which cannot treat all of the substances. As a result, pharmaceutical contaminants have been found to be a source of chemical exposure for aquatic species and drinking and recreational water sources. POD is a multi-county medication drug-take back initiative to provide a convenient and environmentally sound way to properly dispose of medications, and one that is serving as a model for other communities.

Staff also regularly assists with shoreline, stream bank and wetland restoration efforts, often as the leader in those endeavors. The pressures are many: unplanned development, wetland filling, soil erosion, storm water runoff, old and failing dams, invasive species and water diversion requests.

Pipeline No. 5 controversy

One of the biggest environmental concerns in Michigan at the moment is Pipeline No. 5, the Enbridge oil pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, parallel to the Mackinac Bridge. Clearly, it has also been an important topic for the Watershed Council. 

Gruenwald said she and her staff are regularly asked to opine on what should be done about the aging infrastructure: “Our position is that the pipeline should be decommissioned. We are also working with the appropriate agencies and with Enbridge to make sure that a rupture or spill is prevented and that the local communities are prepared for a spill if a disaster does happen.”

The Watershed Council has been and continues to be in frequent conversations with Enbridge, whose representatives Gruenwald described as willing to listen and perhaps new to the position of being asked to publicly answer for their practices.

“This is a whole new animal to them,” she said.

The Watershed Council has asked Enbridge to divulge its pipeline monitoring practices and to meet regularly to discuss preparedness and emergency plans, particularly in the event of a winter pipeline break which Gruenwald says “would be disastrous.”

Policy Director Jennifer MacKay represents the Watershed Council on a Pipeline Advisory Board, along with Chris Shepler of the Mackinac Island ferry service bearing his family’s name, and a rep from the National Wildlife Federation.

“One thing that is very typical of us is that we want to keep relationships going and keep a seat at the table,” Gruenwald said. “We want to stay in a position where they’ll continue to take our calls, and respond to our request to take action.”

In her conversations with Enbridge, she said she has gotten the impression the company is continuing to weigh options without committing to a course of change in the near term: “They spent over $1 billion in the clean-up of the Kalamazoo River; they don’t want to do that again. Even if it’s just economics and not out of environmental concern, that is not a sustainable business practice. They really want to prevent spills.”

Gruenwald also noted that they are concerned about the entire length of the underground pipeline that bisects the state of Michigan, putting countless water resources (and land resources) at risk in the event of a break.

“We have significant concerns about that whole stretch,” Gruenwald said. “But until we end our dependence on oil, transportation by train, truck and pipeline will be there. We have got to be looking at alternative energy sources.”

Deeply committed

There are literally hundreds of issues facing Michigan’s water resources, and those in neighboring states and around the U.S.  Some are more simple fixes, like adding a greenbelt at your shoreline home to prevent yard runoff from entering the body of water you enjoy off the back porch; others are much more complex, like what to do about the growing list of invasive species taking over lakes.

“The two biggest threats in the last 10 years are storm water run-off into our lakes and invasive species. The impact on the ecology of our water systems is great,” she said. “Storm water, you can manage; it’s easier to treat. The invasives, they are a whole lot more difficult.”

On a recent monitoring excursion in Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City, staff reported they could see though the clear water 78 feet down – a remarkable feat, but not in a positive way. To an outsider, the aquamarine, crystal clear water appears beautiful and beguiling. Gruenwald and her staff know, however, that it’s so clear because zebra and quagga mussels have filtered the water column and outcompeted native species for food. They also affect all classes of algae species, resulting in a shortage of food sources to native species of mussels and fish.

“Zebra and quagga mussels really change the equilibrium of a body of water that they invade,” Gruenwald noted.

To help them monitor such threats to the region’s bodies of water, the Watershed Council relies heavily on a willing volunteer base. The TOMWC has 2,500 members (it is governed by a board of directors) and has marshaled a volunteer force of several hundred people. These folks help with lake and river clean-up efforts, monitoring lake conditions and much more.

“They do thousands and thousands of hours of work for us throughout our service area,” Gruenwald said.

That region includes Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties, though its impact and decisions go much further -- and also close to home at the same time. Not only did Gruenwald choose the field she is in for the health of her community, but also for personal reasons. Living in Northern Michigan is a lifestyle centered around the outdoors and the natural beauty found in all seasons.

“I love the outdoors, I need to be outside every day,” she said.

After more than 30 years looking into the waters of the region, Gruenwald is asked to conclude with a summary of the health of Northern Michigan’s water resources.
“We are in very good shape,” she offered.

Thanks in large part, it should be noted, to her guidance and expertise.


Watershed Council lands $640,000 federal grant in invasive species fight

In early May 2016, the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council learned it would be the beneficiary of $641,077 in federal grant funds to help in the fight against invasive species in the Great Lakes, as part of the $4.2 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the grants that will be used throughout the Great Lakes. More than $1.4 million will go toward projects in Northern Michigan.

The funds earmarked for the Watershed Council will be used toward new treatment efforts against zebra and quagga mussels. Treatment includes a new application called Zequanox, a sterilized bacteria cell used in industrial application to clear buildups of zebra mussels, resulting in high mortality rates of the nuisance species.

To help prevent further infestations and the spread of the mussels, part of the initiative will go toward educational outreach, such as clean boating practices to reduce the transfer of species among Michigan’s lakes. Other Northern Michigan organizations receiving grants from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative include $301,340 for the Grand Traverse Conservation District and $499,370 for the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed.


Consider impact when visiting your seasonal home up north this summer

Northern Michigan is getting ready to welcome back its tens of thousands of seasonal homeowners, from Grand Traverse Bay to Little Traverse Bay to the Straits of Mackinac. The vast majority of these homeowners want to do the right thing when it comes to protecting water quality at their home-away-from home and maintain that special “Up North experience” for their family and the generations to come.

The Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has a vast collection of resources for homeowners in Northern Michigan, which are useful for those around the state. Some of the publications and tip sheets available on the TOMWC web site are listed below. For the complete guides, visit www.watershedcouncil.org

Other guides to peruse:

“A Homeowner’s Guide to Watershed Protections”

Simple, practical and water-friendly ways to protect Little Traverse Bay

“After the Storm – A Citizen’s Guide for Understanding Stormwater”

“Natural Shorelines for Inland Lakes”

“The Water’s Edge: Helping fish and wildlife on your lakeshore property”

“Northern Michigan’s Native Plants”

“A Field Guide to Invasive Plants of Aquatic and Wetlands Habitats for Michigan”

“A Landowner’s Guide to Phragmites Control”

“Sensible Shoreline Development: A guide for shoreline homeowners”

About Gail Gruenwald: Married to Wil Cwikiel for 25 years. Wil is principal of Harbor Springs Middle School and formerly worked with his wife at the Watershed Council for 18 years before moving into the education field.

Daughters: Kate, 23, University of Michigan graduate and Sadie, 19, a student at Stanford University. Both are Harbor Springs High School graduates. Kate joined the Watershed Council staff in 2015. She works on the development and communications teams updating the membership database, promoting the Watershed Council’s programs, planning events and learning photography and videography.

Along with her duties at the Watershed Council, Gail has also served on the board of Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood, Harbor INC., Northern Community Mediation Board of Directors, the Michigan Environmental Law Center, and the Michigan Environmental Council.


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