Kalamazoo River Leaning Trees

River history & renewal

A History of Exploitation and Degradation

During the 1800s, people used the abundant water resources of the Kalamazoo River for waterpower, navigation, and fisheries, among another uses. Hydroelectric dams built along the river provided power as early as 1900, with seven dams along the main river and over 100 in the overall watershed by the 1930s. Later the river became crucial for the development of manufacturing, including the paper industry. Unfortunately the river was also used to dispose of wastes, resulting in dramatic degradation of water quality. In 1953 a photo of a massive fish kill on the Kalamazoo River was featured on the cover of Life Magazine, and public reaction contributed to the awakening of the U.S. environmental movement. Contamination of fishes with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) led to the designation of the lower river as a federal Superfund Site in 1990. The history of industrial and sewage contamination as well as growing recognition of the PCB contamination problem resulted in the widespread impression of the river as unsanitary and worthless.

Renewal of the River

The condition and appearance of the river are greatly improved now. Diverse fishes and clams are back, and the water is safe for recreation. Point sources of pollution from sewage and industrial activity are treated before being discharged into the river due to federal and state regulations. Increasing attention is paid to more diffuse sources of pollution such as stormwater runoff and groundwater pollution. Waterfront property in urban areas is being redeveloped for other purposes, and natural floodplain forests are recovering.

However, fish consumption advisories remain in effect and options to clean up contaminated sediments are still being deliberated, and though little action has been taken so far, actions are accelerating. There are many projects and many partners currently involved in watershed management detailed on this website.

The Kalamazoo River Watershed Council believes that everyone has a say and a stake in watershed management. Rivers and streams are no longer viewed as places to dispose of waste, and these days, communities up and down the Kalamazoo River Valley are increasingly viewing their rivers and streams as valuable natural assets to be protected and celebrated. Indeed, the water quality of the Kalamazoo River system has steadily improved over the past three decades, and fishes and mussels are returning to reaches where they had been eliminated. The future will surely see much more attention to restoration of our rivers and streams, making this an exciting time for the region.