by Martin Miron
Sixty-seven local governments in the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) have the power to determine the location of houses, farms and businesses throughout the watershed. These land use decisions have tremendous impacts on water quality and natural areas. One of the most powerful ways local citizens can affect change that will protect the Huron River is to get involved in their local governments.
In January and February, HRWC hosted workshops in Green Oak Township, Belleville and Chelsea teaching 50 local residents about the impacts of development on clean water, how local governments make decisions and the many ways to connect with and influence the process. Participants learned about local river-friendly policies that protect clean water, and that local governments are comprised of volunteer boards and commissions made up of regular people—anyone can get involved, regardless of expertise.
HRWC offers Change Makers workshops to help citizens become advocates for smart land use and water resource protection. The long-term goal of the Change Makers program is to support those that want to learn about land use, local government and water quality, and get involved in protecting the Huron. Prior to the availability of the Change Makers program, many concerned residents around the watershed have learned by diving into an issue on their own.
Self-taught “change maker” Carol Westfall and her neighbors learned the importance of being involved in local government when it came to protecting Pleasant Lake, in Freedom Township. Carol shares her story: “Who protects my lake’s interests? Lake property owners often ask this question and assume the responsibility rests with local officials or their lake association.” She says.
“I learned this the hard way. A few years ago, our lake residents were invited by township officials to provide input into a new Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance, but very few residents showed any interest. That was our mistake. Later, we were caught by surprise when some parts of the new zoning ordinance did not reflect our lake’s needs. Changes to the new ordinance were made, but not without enormous resident effort,” she recalls.
“After almost 10 years of lake living, I now believe there is only one person truly accountable for maintaining lake or any other natural area or water quality protections: you! Yes, you and your fellow residents are the only ones who can fully represent your lake, river and water Lessons learned yield helpful tips You can learn from our mistakes and help protect your community’s water resources,” explains Westfall. “Here are a few tips to get you started.”
TIP 1: Regularly attend local planning commission and board meetings. Local officials need to know residents are involved and watching over actions and policies that affect local lakes and water resources. Get to know your officials and build relationships with each of them—before you have an issue. You must help them act in the best interests of local water resources. Just as you’ll flag something when they get it wrong, be sure to acknowledge and thank them when they get it right.
TIP 2: Educate yourself and your neighbors. Study your local zoning ordinance and determine how each section affects natural resources. Join HRWC’s Change Makers program and get lots of resources, including the Land Use for a Healthy Watershed guidebook.
TIP 3: Build a coalition of residents to support advocacy efforts. When a problem occurs, you will need the support of your fellow environmentally minded residents (officials respond to local constituent feedback and groups in attendance at meetings, etc.).
TIP 4: Create connections with local media. Get to know your local editors and writers. Educate them about your efforts and challenges. Most have limited budgets and staff so you must do the leg work. Make it easy for them by submitting articles and pictures to get your message in the news and let the public know what’s going on.
TIP 5: Don’t give up! Advocacy for vital yet voiceless interests like lakes, rivers, wildlife, forests, and wetlands is not for the timid. Your persistence will be rewarded and your lakes, clean water and natural areas will be the beneficiary.
TIP 6: Even better, get interested residents appointed to the planning commission and committees. Run for office. HRWC’s Change Makers program is providing resources to those running for local office.
Become a Change Maker. Michigan needs leadership from local residents. There’s never been a better time to step forward.