[river2]The Red Cedar River has been a symbol of Michigan State University since the university’s founding in 1855. Unfortunately, the river is known to many as a junkyard for bicycles, port-a-potties, phones and dead bodies – yes, even dead bodies. However, the negative image the Red Cedar presents to many students here on campus is simply an exaggeration. Once an ideal location for festering bacteria, the river is now on its way to being transformed into a clean, life-sustaining aquatic habitat.
Myths surrounding the Red Cedar lead many people to believe something as minuscule as getting a drop of water from the river on their skin would result in sprouting an extra limb – or four. While walking on a bridge over the river, I heard mumblings about the color and odor of the water. “It\’s so gross once you actually look at,” said human biology senior Allison Long. This is not an unusual comment.
But things really are looking up for the rippling, brown river – just ask John Hesse, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Bailey Scholars Program. He said the Clean Water Act of 1972, which provided a structure for regulating pollutants discharged into American waters, has greatly improved the water quality of the Red Cedar. “For most of the river, I suspect dissolved oxygen and most other measures of water quality are consistently more favorable for sustained aquatic life now as compared to pre-1972,” said Hesse. “Except for a few localized areas, macro invertebrate [animals without backbones but large enough to be seen] and fish population studies generally indicate a healthy environment.”
Contrary to popular belief, Hesse also revealed the Red Cedar River is safe the majority of the time for fishing and even swimming. Can you imagine taking a quick dip between classes on those warm spring days? Most students maintain that the river is just too foul looking to take chances. “The Red Cedar River just looks vile,” said microbiology sophomore Frankie Iannucci. “I always see trash and used condoms floating everywhere.”
The color of the water, which students view as “gross” or “dirty,” comes from soil erosion, natural tannins and healthy algae growth. Hesse said the water color might never change greatly because of the natural origins in the watershed, although soil erosion control would help a little.
However, before you grab your water wings and prepare for an expedition in the Red Cedar, make sure to check current E. coli levels. Every week between April 1 and November 30, the river\’s E. coli levels are sampled. The results, which come from the Farm Lane bridge area of the river, are posted in a case near the canoe livery at Bessey Hall. The river water has been monitored weekly since 1999. Elevated levels of E. coli generally occur for only two to three days following significant rainfall events.
[man] According to the MSU Water Quality Web site, E. coli serves as an indicator of possible pathogens entering the water by raw sewage or animal fecal matter. Hesse said the presence of E. coli at low levels is normal for surface waters and few strains of E.coli are lethal. Hesse also said one exception is known as E.coli O157:H7, which has sometimes caused human fatalities upon consumption of improperly prepared hamburger or other foods contaminated with animal or human feces. Fortunately, this strain of E. coli has never been found in the Red Cedar. Whew.
In order to meet Michigan’s Total Body Contact Standard, which would permit swimming, E.coli levels have to be 300 counts per 100 milliliters or lower. Levels between 300 and 1,000 meet Michigan’s Partial Body Contact, which permits fishing, wading and canoeing. When results are higher than 1,000 counts per 100 milliliters it is suggested to avoid contact with the water. However, Hesse said swimming in such water does not necessarily make people become ill; it just increases the chances of being exposed to disease-causing organisms.
Sample results provided by Betty Wernette-Babian, the university sanitarian during fall 2005, indicate a wide range of E. coli levels. There were 1,433 counts per 100 milliliters on Sept. 27; 987 counts per 100 milliliters on Oct. 4; only 77 counts per 100 milliliters on Oct. 11; 200 counts on Oct. 18; 960 counts on Oct. 25 and an astounding 4,176 counts on Nov. 1. The last reading, which exceeds the Total Body and Partial Body Count standards, occurred after a rainfall of .74 inches.
Hesse said a “point-in-time” sample does not reflect the health of the river over a 30-40-year period. “I think it would be safe to assume, although I can\’t prove it with actual data from back then, that the average E. coli levels are much lower than in 1972 and also that the temporary spikes of high levels likely occur much less frequently now,” he said.
Many student organizations have been established to help improve the quality of the Red Cedar River. These organizations include: the Fisheries and Wildlife Club, the RISE Program (Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment), the Sport Fishing Club, the Resource Development Undergraduate Organization, ECO and the Outdoor Club. The Fisheries and Wildlife Club, along with the help from other students, conducts a river clean-up on campus each fall and spring semester. The next Red Cedar River Clean-Up is scheduled for late March or early April.
“The Fisheries and Wildlife Club organizes the day and the logistics of the clean-up, but ECO is always a supporter in assisting with any issues that arise,” said Lauren Olson, an ECO member and environmental economics and policy senior.
The clean-up allows those mysterious lurking objects to be removed from the river. “The Red Cedar River is a lot cleaner than most students think,” said Michelle Rosen, the vice president of the Fisheries and Wildlife Club and fisheries and wildlife senior.
Kile Kucher, recent graduate and former president of the Fisheries and Wildlife Club, said in an e-mail that the club\’s goal is for a cleaner river. “By hosting the Red Cedar River Clean-Up twice a year, our goal is to remove trash from the river, as well as get more people to appreciate the river, so less trash finds its way there in the first place,\” he said.
[class]“I’m ashamed at how students treat the Red Cedar River,” said Long. So why does the river remain contaminated with debris? Hesse said the lack of education about the river might cause students simply not to care about its well-being. Some students feel the river is already so polluted an extra bike or two won’t make a difference. “After finals, I threw my chemistry notebook in the river,” said psychology junior Iva Basic. “I did feel bad afterwards, but everyone throws stuff in the river.”
But Terry Link, director of the Office of Campus Sustainability, thinks the river is doing better despite some students’ lack of respect for the body of water. “I think the water is improving,\” he said. \”We have found pipes that were delivering pollutants to the river and have stopped them. Unfortunately, the annual river clean-up still shows that too many people still consider the river a junkyard and throw bikes, tires and other discards into the river.”
Despite its bad image, the Red Cedar has actually provided people with an assortment of activities from canoeing to bird watching. “I love the part of the Red Cedar River by the Administration Building, where all the ducks hang out,” said French sophomore Katherine L. Jones. “Sometimes, I go down there and have a picnic and listen to music; it’s so pretty.”
The river has also created an interactive classroom for many students who test and study the water. Some classes on campus have employed the Red Cedar River as a learning tool, such as Geoff Habron’s Introduction to Fisheries and Wildlife Management Principles course (FW 100), Terry Link’s course on sustainability (Resource Development 491) and another on Environmental Conflict Management (Resource Development 300). “I am glad that I took the FW 100 class,” said no preference freshman Leah Armock. “We did many labs related to the Red Cedar River and the management of its habitats and biota.”
The negative image of the river is slowly disappearing as word spreads that the Red Cedar isn\’t quite as toxic as previous rumors would have you believe. “I heard it’s actually cleaner than people think,” said physics junior Bill Martinez.
The annual improvements of the river have many people excited and establishing further goals to make the Red Cedar a river of outstanding quality. MSU’s 2020 vision, the university’s plan for beautification and development of campus in the first 20 years of the century, includes the river, said Hesse. The plan includes trails, bridges, walkway improvements and essentially an overall beautification of South Campus that will hopefully make the Red Cedar a river to be proud of.
Practicing good ecological hygiene will ensure MSU has a clean place for learning and leisure, but caring for the river is also part of a larger philosophy about nature. “I think it is important for all of us to be more clearly aware and attuned to the places we\’re part of,” said Link. “Since we\’re here, at least for this time, we should look to our places and care for them so that we can pass them on in good shape to those who will come after.”

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