The cleanup crew

By Sam Inglot

River conservation program still going strong after two decades

Booze bottles, syringes, old cars — just a sampling of what’s been pulled out of the Grand and Red Cedar rivers since the Adopt A River campaign debuted 20 years ago.

The river cleanup program began with an idea from journalist Mark Nixon, who was working at the Lansing State Journal at the time. (Ed. note: Nixon is a restaurant critic for City Pulse). Nixon said he grew up around rivers and lakes and always had a fondness for history. Those two aspects of his life, along with some encouragement from his executive editor, helped him formulate the idea.

“The Grand was used and abused over the centuries,” he said. “In the early 20th century it was used poorly, and in the latter part it was simply neglected. At the time, Lansing was really struggling to save its own identity. It dawned on me that we have a beautiful river and natural resources, and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have festivals and restaurants overlooking the river?’”

Inspired by the river’s potential, Nixon wrote a series of editorials called “Grand Vision” and organized community summits that eventually wound up in the creation of the Adopt A River program.

The inaugural event launched on May 21, 1994 and it’s still going strong. The 20th Adopt A River program will be 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

The Lansing Board of Water and Light has always been the main sponsor of the event, but over the years different community groups and organizations have taken turns. For the past few years, the folks at Impression 5, a children’s museum and science center, have been at the helm.

Erik Larson, the executive director of Impression 5, said they are taking pre-registrations for volunteers throughout the week. He said once all the volunteers have been tallied, he assigns groups of 15 to 20 people to clean up a quarter-mile stretch along either the Grand or the Red Cedar. He said past years have averaged 500 to 600 volunteers.

Volunteers will traverse the 10.2 miles of the River Trail — as well as the banks and shallows of the rivers — to remove trash and rubbish.

“Unfortunately people don’t respect the river,” Larson said. “We find couches, bed frames, we found a washer and dryer once and lots of tires, but it is getting better. The whole point is to bring awareness to this beautiful natural resource in the middle of our city. We want people to take care of it and take pride in it.”

Larson said he doesn’t know precisely how much trash has been pulled out of the river over the last two decades, but he wishes he did.

“It’s gotta be tons and tons,” he said. “Typically, we have two 20-yard roll-off containers, and this year we’re folding in some recycling.”

“Everybody acknowledges this too, but we’re the victims of our own success,” said Nixon, who will be there Saturday passing out tree seedlings. “There’s not as much rubbish to clean up as there used to be. That’s why they’re branching out with things like kids activities — they’re trying to do more than just a river cleanup.”

Volunteers will receive a picnic lunch and free admission to Impression 5 and an environmental fair, which was organized by the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Julie Powers, the executive director of the environmental group Mid-MEAC, has been involved with the program for several years. She said the health of the rivers is greatly improving.

“The Grand River, first and foremost, is pretty darn healthy,” she said. “And the Red Cedar is in the best shape it’s ever been in. A river can come back from completely dead in 27 years if you leave her alone — nature will find a way — but it helps if we keep the trash out of the river.”

Powers said there is an aspect to the Adopt A River program that is steeped in urban legend.

“There (used to be) a fountain in the river in front of the Lansing Center, and then it disappeared,” Powers said. “There’s an urban legend that says it was cut off, floated down the river and sank somewhere between the Lansing Center and the Brenke Fish Ladder in Old Town.”

Powers said whoever finds the fountain “wins Adopt A River forever.”

“It probably got thrown into storage or something, but I remember it as a kid,” she said. “(But I think) it’s somewhere in the river. I love telling kids that story — it’s good fun.”

Adopt A River
10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday
Impression 5
200 Museum Dr., Lansing
Register at