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DNRE Celebrates 40th Anniversary of Michigan's Natural Rivers Program
May 12, 2010
Water is a distinguishing characteristic of Michigan. The Great Lakes form most of its borders. Inland lakes offer outstanding recreational opportunities. But Michigan is also blessed with moving water; its citizens enjoy more than 36,500 miles of rivers and streams, including 12,500 miles of cold-water trout streams.
Michigan has numerous programs focused on the protection and enhancement of those river resources. One prime example is the Natural Rivers Program, which is administered by the Habitat Management Unit of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment's Fisheries Division.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Michigan's Natural Rivers Act. In the late 1960s, conservation officials recognized the state's rivers and streams as important natural resources. But they knew the beauty and quality of the state's rivers were fragile, threatened by numerous factors including development. On December 3, 1970, Governor William Milliken signed into law Michigan's Natural River Act, Public Act 231 of 1970 (now known as Part 305, Natural Rivers, of Public Act 451 of 1994).
The law authorized the DNRE to develop a system of Natural Rivers to protect them for present and future generations. The program was designed to help preserve and enhance a river's values: aesthetics, free-flowing condition, recreation, boating, history, water conservation, floodplain protection, and fisheries and wildlife habitat.
Since 1970, 2,091 miles encompassing 16 rivers or river segments have been designated as Natural Rivers. The system includes (in order of designation): the Jordan, Betsie, Rogue, Two Hearted, White, Boardman, Huron, Pere Marquette, Flat, Rifle, Lower Kalamazoo, Pigeon, Au Sable, Fox, Pine, and Upper Manistee rivers.
Designating a Natural River begins with a comprehensive river management plan written by an advisory group. Advisory groups may include any group, agency, unit of government, property owner or citizen with an interest in protecting the river system. The management plan contains background about the river system, the segments proposed for designation, and recommended public- and private-land development standards. The lengthy process includes draft plans, public hearings, the Natural Resources Commission, and adoption of regulations.
The Natural Rivers Program authorizes the DNRE to utilize basic development standards that influence the Natural River district, including all lands within 400 feet on either side of a designated river, thus creating a seamless corridor of protected land.
All Natural River protection or development standards apply within the Natural River district. In addition to a required buffer of vegetation, other land-use standards within the district include a minimum lot width and parcel size, to control the density of stream-side development. Minimum setbacks from the water's edge are required for all structures to reduce the effects of structures on the river and to protect the scenic quality. A septic system setback from the water's edge reduces nutrient flow into the river. Land uses (residential, commercial, etc.) within the district are limited or prohibited in order to prevent inappropriate activity.
When compared to the entire watershed or landscape-scale variables -- such as climate, geology, or topography -- the narrow zone of influence within the Natural River district will not account for all factors that can affect a river system. Landscape-scale alterations, such as urban development or agricultural uses, can threaten or influence habitat, water quality, and the flora and fauna within a river system.
"Natural River designation really involves a small portion of the watershed, but provides significant protection to the overall river resource," said Steve Sutton, who oversees the Natural Rivers Program for the DNRE. "By protecting the critical lands near the water's edge, many of the important values of a Natural River can be maintained."
The riparian area, floodplains, and associated vegetation are important for protecting in-stream communities of macro invertebrates and natural processes, such as controlling inputs of organic matter (including dissolved organic carbon in leaf litter), regulating the amount of water entering a stream as runoff, and reducing in-stream nutrient concentrations.
Protecting the riparian area and its vegetation is important to the biological function and stability of river systems, Sutton said. It helps provide bank stabilization through root systems and manages the input of large woody structure. Vegetation plays a part in natural processes from reducing water temperatures by shading the river's surface to reducing storm-water runoff and sediment transport, all of which can affect fish communities. Headwater streams and their riparian areas are considered especially important as they provide the initial sources of stream energy, water, nutrients, sediment, and organic matter to a river system.
Natural River designation protects a river's free-flowing condition by prohibiting dams and harmful stream-bank stabilization projects, influencing the ecological integrity of the entire river system and affecting water quality, energy sources, habitat, and biological interactions.
The Natural Rivers Act allows local units of government to adopt Natural River zoning standards and become the program administrators on private lands within their jurisdiction. Partnerships with local units of government are critical to the program; nearly 60% of designated mileage is currently subject to locally administered Natural Rivers zoning.
On-the-ground administration of the program works through a permit process, similar to any local zoning permit. In state-zoned areas, a property owner who wants to undertake a development project applies for a state Natural River zoning permit. Program staff reviews applications, schedules on-site inspections to verify information, and meets with landowners as needed. When the development standards are met, a permit is issued within a few days. If the development standards can not be met, a variance may be requested from the Zoning Review Board. The Review Board is a seven-member board comprised of representatives from each affected county, township, Natural Resource Conservation Service, local citizens and the DNRE.
In a locally zoned area, the Natural River permit review process becomes part of the affected county or township zoning ordinance and is administered as any other district within the jurisdiction. Permits are applied for and received at the local level. In locally zoned areas, Natural River staff become involved in review of local ordinance language amendments, comment on variance requests, and assist in compliance activities when needed. Locally zoned areas are routinely monitored to ensure uniform administration within each river system.
Along with local units of government, the Natural Rivers Program relies on many other partners who work closely with the resource. Landowners, watershed councils, Resource Conservation and Development councils, the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited chapters, canoe livery owners, and DNRE staff members are just some of the partners.
Although there are no current stream segments under consideration for Natural River status, the DNRE staff is studying and prioritizing a number of the state's rivers to decide which ones might deserve designation. It is likely additional stream segments will be proposed as Natural Rivers in the future.
For more information regarding the Natural Rivers Program, please visit our web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr..
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