Water Warrior

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

By Beth Anne Eckerle
Legal News

Michigan's water resources are the most beautifully defining characteristics of this state. It's easy 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. 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 and she has the ear of policymakers whenever a water-quality policy or issue is on the table.

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.

Little Traverse Bay is the center of the community here, and 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, and inspired hundreds of volunteers and 2,500 members to pitch in with time and money.

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 still sitting through law classes in Oregon, back in Michigan a group interested in conservation and protection of Michigan's water resources had formed an organization, spurred by the presence of biologists at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston. That handful of conservationists could see a trend: Development of homes and lawns along Northern Michigan's 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 with her law degree. This group of early Watershed Council founders needed a staff attorney, and Gruenwald dove in headfirst.

"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."

With her legal knowledge, license and passion for preservation, Gruenwald set out to tackle the issues facing Michigan's waterways. She helped to manage day-to-day office duties while working on policy, education, and advocacy.

Gruenwald recalls the early days and the resistance the Watershed Council faced about wetland protection, waterfront setbacks and greenbelts for shoreline homes.

"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 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, 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."

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

Today, Gruenwald is joined by 14 staff members divided into teams: Watershed protection, policy, outreach and administration. 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.

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, a multi-county medication drug-take back initiative to provide a convenient and environmentally sound way to dispose of medications.

Staff also assists with shoreline, stream bank and wetland restoration efforts. Issues include unplanned development, wetland filling, soil erosion, storm water runoff, old and failing dams, invasive species and water diversion requests.

One of the biggest environmental concerns is the Enbridge oil pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac. 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 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."

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."

There are literally hundreds of issues facing Michigan's water resources, and those in neighboring states and around the U.S.

"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."

To help them monitor such threats to the region's bodies of water, the Watershed Council relies heavily its 2,500 members and several hundred volunteers.

Published: Mon, Jun 13, 2016

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