Lakes are the sunfire part of our summers; they’re often linked to our greatest childhood memories and happiest family moments. Measuring 3,288 miles, Michigan has the longest freshwater coastline in the world. The western shoreline alone accounts for more than 300 miles of summer fun.
As the largest freshwater system in the world, the Great Lakes face a variety of environmental threats, which is why the Alliance for the Great Lakes fights to protect them.
“The Great Lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people in the United States and Canada,” said Jennifer Caddick, vice president of communications and engagement for Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Once you start thinking about that, it’s incredible to know their impact. This is the water coming out of the tap in your house and gets people to stop and think about how important that water is.
“What is happening in Lake Michigan and what comes from your tap may look fine, but there are so many ecological aspects, and that’s why we do what we do,” she said. “No matter where you’re from or your political viewpoints, we are all drinking that water and it’s important to protect it.”
The Great Lakes’ biggest advocate
The Alliance for the Great Lakes has been protecting our water system for more than 50 years. It is the largest and oldest citizens’ environmental organization dedicated to the protection of the Great Lakes. Originally the Lake Michigan Federation started by Lee Botts, the group was critical in some of the earliest environmental victories in the ’60s and ’70s before the Clean Water Act went into effect in 1972. In the early 2000s, the Lake Michigan Federation board realized protection wasn’t just needed for one lake, but all five Great Lakes because they’re all interconnected. The Federation expanded its mission and rebranded as the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
Today, its efforts are focused on two areas: advocacy and policy work at the federal, state and local levels — and community involvement. Its policy work focuses on a range of issues, from stopping invasive species like invasive carp to agricultural runoff and drinking water challenges.
More than 20% of the world’s freshwater is in the Great Lakes. Astonishingly, tens of billions of gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater end up in the Great Lakes each year. The main cause of the sewer overflows are heavy storms, and poorly designed and aging sewer systems. The alliance has been urging Congress to invest in updates to America’s outdated wastewater systems by increasing funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
“We work on stopping industrial pollution and work with communities to ensure their waterways are used in ways that are beneficial to the lakes,” Caddick said. “We also work on plastic pollution, making sure everyone has clean, safe and affordable drinking water. That means getting people involved through our volunteer programs.”
Almost 15,000 people across the Great Lakes participate in the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-A-Beach program, and the western coast of Michigan is home to one of the largest volunteer bases.
The idea is simple: an organizer or organization adopts a local beach, then they set up a clean-up event to collect litter and debris. Volunteers use a simple system to track every picked-up item, and the alliance now has about 15 years of data. Through the findings, the alliance uncovered 85% of what is being collected across our beaches is made up of partial or full plastic material.
“For years, we were finding cigarette butts,” said Erika Fatura, a Pentwater middle and high school science teacher who participates in the Adopt-A-Beach program every summer. “And while we still find them, the last few years it has been the plastic — so many little pieces. It often looks like the beach is clean from a distance, but when we get in the sand and look, we find more and more plastic each year. When my students are there playing volleyball or hanging out on the beach in the summer, they have that awareness to take care of their trash. They take pride in what they do.”
Fatura also coaches cross country and track, and is the school’s Green Schools Club Coordinator — a program that encourages Michigan schools to participate in environmentally friendly and energy-saving activities. Fatura’s classes have participated in the Adopt-A-Beach program for the past 18 years, and even prior to her time at Pentwater under the guidance of another teacher.
Fatura said cleanup events hit close to home when the Pentwater students participate in the annual Adopt-A-Beach program. There’s gratification and a sense of ownership felt by each student.
“What makes my heart happy is I can provide these opportunities for the kids, but the call to action really lies with them and they’re so passionate about it,” Fatura said. “The kids love talking about their cleanup efforts, and it gives me so much hope that these kids are our future. These kids are leading.”
From cigarette butts and soda cans to straws and food wrappers, the Adopt-A-Beach cleanups prevented more than 54,000 pounds of trash — most of it plastic — from entering the Great Lakes in 2019.
“What the students have learned and probably the most eye-opening thing for them is how society affects their beach,” Fatura said. “They see the shorelines change throughout the year. Sometimes the lake levels are high and other times we can get farther down the beach. We have some awareness conversations about things like balloons because they become evident when you’re doing the actual cleanup. Balloons are something that seem like a great idea for a celebration or in memoriam, but in the long run, it does end up somewhere like our lakes. It becomes someone else’s problem.”
More work to be done
According to scientists at the Rochester Institute of Technology, about 22 million pounds of plastic pollution enter the Great Lakes each year. While the Adopt-A-Beach cleanups help keep plastic pollution out of the lakes, the Alliance for the Great Lakes keeps fighting for government support as well as community awareness.
“Small things add up over time, like having refillable water bottles and not using plastic,” Caddick said. “If more people do it, it starts to make a difference. Other simple ways to help include getting involved as an advocate, signing up for our email list, and encouraging people to send a letter or call their elected officials.”
The Alliance for the Great Lakes also has an ambassador program to help with outreach, and it encourages anyone interested in learning more to join the 200-plus volunteers who are currently enrolled.
“People may say, ‘How can one hour of volunteering or a $50 donation make an impact?’” Caddick said. “But if you multiply those by thousands of people making donations, using water bottles or volunteering at a cleanup — piece by piece, when we come together with a big goal — that makes a difference.”
Fatura, a native of Ovid-Elsie who came to Pentwater 18 years ago, fell in love with the quaint beach town, and never left. She said Lake Michigan is something to be envied, cherished and defended. Her future students depend on it.
“I’m a runner and the lake is such good therapy,” Fatura said. “I always look out at the lake and I’m in awe. What a beautiful thing it is. Our school is exactly one mile from the beach, so the fact that my athletes can see the sunset and shoreline on their runs every day … it never gets old, and it never will.”
Donations to Alliance for the Great Lakes can be made at donate.greatlakes.org.