Using trees to keep water sources pristine

Using trees to keep water sources pristine

A forestry expert from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is putting together a program to use trees to keep drinking water sources cleaner.

Forests slow down water. During heavy rains, trees can help reduce rapid runoff that can wash debris into streams and lakes. The shade of the trees cools the water, which is becoming increasingly critical as climate change warms lakes and streams. Forest floors also filter water and help keep it clean.

Lester Graham


Michigan radio

Mike Smalligan is the Forest Stewardship Coordinator for the Forest Resources Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He works with 12 conservation groups to start the Forest to MI Faucet program.

Mike Smalligan is the Forest Stewardship Coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.

As part of a slide show at DNR headquarters, he shows me a map outlining how much of each Great Lake’s watershed is forest, agriculture, and urban. Thanks in no small part to Canada, the Superior and Huron watersheds are largely forested. This is less true for Lakes Michigan and Ontario. The Lake Erie watershed consists primarily of agricultural and urban areas.

  • Lake Superior 91% forest cover in the watershed
  • Lake Huron 67% forest cover in the watershed
  • Lake Michigan 49% forest cover in the watershed
  • Lake Ontario +50% forest cover in the watershed
  • Lake Erie 19% forest cover in the watershed

“So if you just look at the land use of these watersheds, it becomes pretty clear and intuitive to people that if we replace forests with factories and farms and urban sprawl, that’s where we’re going to have an impact on our water quality,” Smalligan said.


Province of Ontario, Esri, HERE, Garmin, FAO, NOAA, USGS, EPA, NRCan, Parks Canada

Map of forest, agriculture, and built-up areas in the Great Lakes watersheds.

Therefore, the DNR created a program called Forest to MI Faucet. It builds on a federal program that educates landowners and others about the connections between forest and water. The Michigan idea is to plant trees in places where they can improve the quality of the water we ultimately drink.

Learn more about the state of the Great Lakes here.

The Department of Natural Resources uses funds from the USDA Forest Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. This will support 12 conservation groups in different regions of the state, each receiving $50,000 for a three-year project.

These conservation groups need to join forces with the people who are responsible for our drinking water.

“We turn to municipal water suppliers in particular and ask them: How can we help you with the implementation of your spring water protection plan? How can we help you reduce your treatment costs by taking good care of the land in the upstream part of the watershed,” explained Smalligan.

A few days later on a trail near Traverse City. DJ Shook pointed to a project of his group, the Conservation Resource Alliance (CRA). From a vantage point we saw where the Boardman River was once dammed and the valley below was a lake. This part of the Boardman is now a free-flowing river again. And along the course of the river through the valley are young trees planted by the CRA.


Lester Graham


Michigan radio

DJ Shook of the Conservation Resource Alliance.

“We had this great opportunity to restore the lowland forest buffer right on the riverbank, which has many benefits including protecting and improving water quality,” Shook said.

The Boardman River empties into Grand Traverse Bay. Traverse City gets its drinking water from the bay.

And keeping the water clean before it enters the water treatment plant can result in lower treatment costs for potable water. DJ Shook says the Forest to MI Faucet idea makes a lot of sense.

“Increasing by far the forest area that drains into a body of water is the cheapest way to protect it over the long term and keep the clean water clean.”

So the Conservation Resource Alliance is speaking to the city and asking what the Alliance can do to keep the water flowing into the bay cleaner.

Frank Dituri is Traverse City’s chief of public services. He hiked with us to this spot overlooking the Boardman River.

“Anyone with an ecological conscience recognizes that the quality of the water on land that enters our streams and lakes is something we all need to take care of,” Dituri said.

He pointed out the eastern sandhill cranes and deer below.


Lester Graham


Michigan radio

Frank Dituri is Traverse City’s chief of public services. He said the conversation about protecting spring water was “long overdue”.

Dituri says there are many water sources that flow into Grand Traverse Bay. The rapidly growing area is becoming more urban. Upstream of some of the rivers that enter the bay, many of the homes and lakeside communities use septic tank systems. The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy says about a quarter of the state’s sewage systems are failing.

Thinking about water quality and using nature to filter it before it hits the bay is kind of a no-brainer.

“If you really think about it, well, it’s long overdue. I think once we start to broaden our mindset and we understand how interconnected everything is, how could we not have these kinds of conversations about our water resources,” Dituri mused.


Lester Graham


Michigan radio

Amy Beyer says planting trees benefits water quality, can save water treatment plants money, and improves fish and wildlife habitat.

Conservation Resource Alliance leader Amy Beyer has spent decades planting trees along creeks to help create wildlife corridors. These tree-lined rivers and streams connect green spaces in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The corridors allow wildlife like bears, owls, and mink to bond with comrades and find food in the streams. She says there are even more benefits to this type of partnership, which the DNR supports.

“It saves the city money, it improves the quality of people’s drinking water, and it improves the entire fish and wildlife ecosystem of the watershed to do one thing, which is plant trees,” she said.

The Forest to MI Faucet program encourages foresters and municipal water treatment companies across the state to come together to review spring water assessment plans. If they can pinpoint areas where planting trees could protect a stream or lake, it could make a real difference in the quality of the water that ultimately comes out of your faucet.