By: Todd Schulz

No matter where they stand, Michiganders are never more than six miles away from a lake, river or stream. Sometimes, we can take that wealth of water for granted.

Emma Nehan gets it. The 28-year-old Troy native and Lake Superior State University graduate grew up splashing in the Great Lakes as she hiked, backpacked and camped with her family.

“My sister and I joked we’d been to every state park in Michigan,” she says.

Nehan’s appreciation for her native water wonderland was renewed when work took her to New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. Beautiful states with stunning landscapes – but largely dry compared to Michigan.

“There’s no water there!” Nehan said with a laugh. “I really just had this pull and calling to give back to these natural resources in Michigan.”

Nehan is doing just that as coordinator of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) On the Water Program, a new, nonprofit initiative to help Michigan residents connect with their waterways through volunteer cleanup efforts with a focus on education, outreach and recycling.

Hands-on Habitat Help

On the Water was launched with support from the Consumers Energy Foundation, which awarded the program a $100,000 Planet Award grant in 2019. And the initiative is already making a positive impact from Sault St. Marie to the Saginaw Bay.

Through early August, more than 170 volunteers had participated in five On the Water field events, helping to remove 1,400 pounds of trash and 110 pounds of invasive species from nearly 200 acres of Michigan rivers, streams and lakes. In all, On the Water plans 11 field events for 2020.

“I love the opportunity I’ve been given,” Nehan said. “This program is my baby, my pride and joy.”

On the Water teams with local community partners to identify watersheds where support is needed. The groups then work together to recruit volunteers, and On the Water provides resources and supplies such as waders, trash bags and bug spray and lunch to make the events fun and effective.

In March, for example, On the Water teamed with the Ingham County Parks Department to help volunteers build wood duck houses that will be used at Burchfield Park in Holt. The group then kicked off its 2020 field event season with a trash pickup at Bay City State Park to help improve Saginaw Bay, as 35 volunteers removed about 350 pounds of trash in four hours.

“The local partners know where the trash is and where cleanup is needed,” Nehan said. “We’re statewide, so we don’t have expertise on every watershed in Michigan. What we can provide with the help of the Consumers Energy Foundation grant is all the resources these partners lack.”

COVID Sparks Creativity

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique challenges for On the Water, which has responded by creating virtual opportunities to learn about and help protect Michigan’s watersheds.

An online invasive species bingo game drew solid participation during the spring and On the Water is running a virtual trash clean-up with the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly throughout August. Participants are registering their teams online, picking spots to focus on within the 2,725-mile Muskegon watershed and submitting results virtually to earn incentives, including a chance for a cash prize.

In-person events have also been held this summer in the Upper Peninsula, Rochester Hills and the Kitchel-Lindqiust-Hartger Dunes Preserve in Grand Haven.

In Rochester Hills, 59 volunteers collected 614 pounds of trash along the Clinton River in just four hours. At Grand Haven, volunteers pulled more than 100 pounds of spotted knapweed, an invasive species that inhibits the growth of Pitcher’s thistle, an endangered species in the sensitive ecosystem along Lake Michigan.

For volunteers, the On the Water program provides a practical opportunity to preserve and protect Michigan’s water habitat.

“I can complain about litter in the rivers and streams, or I can do something about it,” said Patrick Hogan, a Temperance resident who served at the Saginaw Bay and Clinton River cleanup events. “The great part of On the Water is that it combines a lot of little efforts into a big effort so you can really see the results.”

Michigan United Conservation Clubs is the nation’s largest statewide conservation organization. Since 1937, MUCC has united citizens to conserve, protect and enhance Michigan’s natural resources and outdoor heritage. Visit to learn more.