posted January 12, 2009

Book Discusses Lake Macatawa Watershed

 The aerial photograph on the cover of a new book about the Lake Macatawa Watershed was chosen not just because it presents an inviting view of the lake on a picture-perfect summer day, but because of what it shows, literally, beneath the surface.

Taken from high above Lake Michigan and facing eastward, the image shows how the deep blue of Lake Michigan turns green near the channel, an effect of eroded topsoil washed into the big lake through LakeMacatawa.  The sight is just one indication of man-made problems with the 179-square-mile watershed that have endured for years and will continue if left unchecked, according to Dr. Graham Peaslee of the Hope College faculty, who edited the book, "An Environmental History of The Lake Macatawa Watershed," which was co-authored by area high school teachers Carl Van Faasen and Jennifer Soukhome.

The book, published through funding provided by the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council (MACC) and Hope, is intended for a general audience.  It is based on the trio's research together concerning the watershed, and has been written to help those living in the area to understand the watershed, how it came to be the way it is and how it can be healed.

"We hope that it will be part of the education initiative of the Watershed project to enlighten the community about how we arrived at the current state of the watershed," said Peaslee, who is a professor of chemistry and chairperson of the department of chemistry and also a professor of geology/environmental science at Hope.  "If because of this book more people understand why LakeMac is polluted, then it will be well used in my opinion."

Peaslee has been conducting research focused on the watershed for more than a decade.  Soukhome has taught science at Zeeland West High School for 12 years, and Van Faasen, who is a 1991 Hope graduate, has taught chemistry at Holland High School for 15 years.  Reflecting their own longstanding and ongoing interest in the watershed, which has included integrating related lessons into their teaching, Soukhome and Van Faasen each spent multiple summers working with Peaslee, from 2004/05 through 2007.

"An Environmental History of The Lake Macatawa Watershed" takes the long view, charting the watershed's development from its formation through the present.  It points out features such as the ridges and plain east of Zeeland that mark the course of the "Glacial Grand River" that ran through the area thousands of years before.  It discusses the massive bogs that once made it impossible to travel from Holland to Zeeland in a straight line.  It presents an overview of early human presence that included the Ottawa Indians, French fur traders and failed communities like Superior on the north side of Lake Macatawa.

Most of the book, though, is devoted to the past 160 years, since the Dutch pioneers who arrived in the 1840s began carving out settlements throughout the watershed and shaping and affecting the land and its resources accordingly.           

However, even as they chronicle the negative impact of development on the watershed, the authors emphasize the context of the settlers' decisions.  Seeking literally to insure their survival, they note, the pioneers understandably felled trees and drained wetlands to create their communities and farmland that could sustain them.

Thus, the book's emphasis is not on lamenting the pioneers' choices but instead on considering the current state of the watershed and how some of the decisions and practices of the past and present might be mediated to bring the watershed to a healthier condition and, ultimately, to enhance the quality of life in the area.

As one example, the book explains how draining the area's bogs to gain arable land - and to cut down on the mosquito population and related diseases - removed a natural filtration system that had helped limit the amount of soil and pollutants that washed into Lake Macatawa.  The pollutants include nutrients such as phosphates that encourage algae and discourage other types of plants.  The change in plant life and related changes in the amount of oxygen in the water, in turn, reduce the variety of species of fish that can survive in the lake.

Among other solutions to the phosphate problem, the Upper Macatawa Restoration Project has devoted more than 576 acres to create new wetlands and readjusted the flow of the river to a more natural meander to help limit runoff.  In 2006, OttawaCounty limited the use of phosphate-containing fertilizers.  And the MACC is working with area farmers to work on reducing runoff.

The idea for the book, Peaslee noted, originated with Soukhome and Van Faasen.  Although they originally envisioned developing a textbook for use in high school classes, they opted instead to produce a more generally accessible "coffee table book" that they hope will be enjoyed by and inform a broader audience.

"I hope people will learn what they can do to help be a solution to the problems in our watershed and then take action to do their part," Soukhome noted.

"By learning the structure and history of our watershed, we can learn from our mistakes, and make sure that decisions made in the future keep the health of this resource in mind," Van Faasen said.

With their initial classroom goal in mind, Soukhome and the other two co-authors have developed a companion laboratory manual that features 12 watershed-related investigations, some of which are inquiry-based and some involving field work.  It will be published this spring by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Press.

Copies of "An Environmental History of The Lake Macatawa Watershed" are available for $15 at the college's Hope-Geneva Bookstore.  The bookstore is on the ground level of the DeWittCenter, which is located at 141 E. 12th St. on Columbia Avenue at 12th Street, and is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. as well as until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays, and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.