Grand Rapids once turned its back on the river. But no more.

Grand Rapids once turned its back on the river. But no more.
May 9, 2017 Mary Ellen Geist
Great Lakes Week 2014 - Grand Rapids Michigan

River Rally comes to Michigan for the first time

That’s what Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said as she spoke at the opening reception for River Rally 2017.  She said like many cities across the country, “We have used our river to float logs and power industry  –  the amazing industry that has built our city –  and even,  unfortunately,  as a place to dump our sewage and industrial waste.”

Photo courtesy of

Rosalynn Bliss, Mayor of Grand Rapids, courtesy of

She said “We dammed. We drummed out. We walled in; we excavated our very own river. Our own namesake, the rapids.”

Mayor Bliss said, “Grand Rapids turned its back on the river. And as I said many cities throughout this country have done that. But no more. No more are we doing that. “

In fact, she says over the past three decades Grand Rapids has invested 400 million dollars to improve the river, improve water quality, begin to restore the river to its natural state, and make it accessible.  Mayor Bliss said, “We are so proud of the work we’ve done.”

The story of the restoration of the Grand River is a success story for the River Network. That’s one of the reasons it chose to hold its River Rally conference here this year.

Alice Srinivasan, Director of Community Engagement with River Network, based in Boulder, Colorado, tells Great Lakes Now, “We really are the only national organization that exists to empower and connect local and regional and state groups all over the country who work on river conservation and water issues. “

Srinivasan says, “One of the plenary sessions is on the restoration of the Grand River and the way the corporate sector came together with the non-profit sector and the government to restore the Grand River.”

The four-day conference includes 60 workshops, dozens of exhibitors, and 10 field trips as well as various river-related types of entertainment (which include yet another type of water Grand Rapids is known for: its beer!)

Another reason River Network chose Michigan for this conference: the tragedy of what happened to the water in Flint.

Photo courtesy of creative commons via flickr

Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, University of Michigan, courtesy of creative commons

The keynote speaker is Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, who will discuss  “Water, Power, Privilege and Environmental Protection.”

Srinivasan says, “A really big focus this year is on the drinking water crisis. It’s a problem in many communities around the country.”

She says topics will range “from keeping pollution out of the water, and cleaning up our water, to figuring out how to restore the natural flow.”

Another speaker on opening night was Levi Rickert, a representative of the United Tribes of Michigan.

He talked about what Native Americans have done to help protect water, from South Dakota,  – where 10 thousand Native Americans camped near the Keystone Pipeline – to Flint, where Michigan tribes “prayed that legislators would do the right thing”. He said, “Water is Life” was the rallying cry at Standing Rock. He says it’s also the rallying cry here in Michigan.

For more information on the River Rally in Grand Rapids , go to



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