Gail Gruenwald the executive director of Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey reflects on her time at Tip of the Mitt and the work that has been accomplished in the last 30 years and what the future holds. Find the original Q&A in the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
It was a lifelong love for the Sleeping Bear Dunes that inspired Gail Gruenwald to pursue a career in environmental law. So when she moved to Oregon for law school, a framed photo of the dunes came with her, causing friends to speculate she would inevitably return to the Big Lake. And return she did, almost right after her schooling was done, for a job at Petoskey’s Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. She has now worked at the organization for more than 30 years, with most of that time spent as its executive director, shepherding the nonprofit in its mission to protect the water quality of lakes, streams and wetlands in Northern Michigan. Here, Gruenwald reflects on her time at Tip of the Mitt and what lies ahead:
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen at Tip of the Mitt?
The biggest external change has been the growth and awareness of watershed protection. When I first started here, nobody knew who we were and what we had to offer—and now we are sought after. Water issues are first and foremost on people’s minds—not just here in Michigan, but across the globe—so the level of concern over water quality has skyrocketed. People are much more willing to be good stewards and do what’s necessary to protect water resources.
What are some of the issues that still threaten our water?
The three biggest concerns currently related to water quality and quantity in Northern Michigan: invasive species, which have a broad-scale and very harmful impact; the ongoing pollution from stormwater in our lakes and streams; and the changes we’re starting to see from climate change. We’re working to be very resilient to those changes.
Tell us about the council’s new school program, which just completed its first year.
It’s called the Watershed Academy, and it’s for ninth- and 10th-grade biology students. They meet to learn about water resource management and the watersheds around them, and then they go out into a stream in their area and do what the Watershed Council does to measure the health of that stream. Then all the teams come together for a summit and they share their findings. All that information—which is real science—will be included in the watershed council’s database. The kids had fun; they learned not only about the science of protecting resources, but what a career would look like doing that kind of work.
How has working at Tip of the Mitt changed how you live in Northern Michigan?
To some extent it’s hard to completely enjoy visits to lakes and streams without noticing problems. We’ll do staff field trips every year, and we go out on water, and we almost always see something we have to come back and investigate. And also, there are other things, too: It’s hard to enjoy watching freighters in the St. Mary’s River when I know that their ballast water contains invasive species. I work here because I enjoy lakes and streams but after 30 years it’s hard not to notice the problems and the vulnerabilities and take those to heart while I’m enjoying them.
For more info on Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and the Watershed Academy, which will be expanding this year, visit them online.