VIDEO: On the banks of the Red Cedar
MSU students and alumni alike value the Red Cedar River as an important landmark on campus, but pollution and widespread neglect may be affecting its legacy.
The Red Cedar River — it’s in our fight song and flows right through the heart of campus. MSU wouldn’t be the same without it. Students surf, fish and swim in its waters, but according to experts and students alike, the river has gained the reputation of being polluted and deteriorating.
“I think a lot of students see bikes and stuff in the river and think it is not being cleaned up very often, but the reality of the situation is that people continue to throw junk into it,” said Andrew Stables, who graduated in May with a degree in international relations. Stables also worked for the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council.
Ruth Kline-Robach , an outreach specialist for the Institute of Water Research at MSU, said the water quality of the Red Cedar is not bad for an urban river. Although, this does not mean students should jump in. Kline-Robach doesn't recommend swimming in the river, but a number of different activities are safe as long as they are done with caution.
“I don’t want to say that you can’t enjoy the river,” Kline-Robach said. “You can enjoy kayaking, fishing and canoeing if caution is used. I think it is important to help people experience the resource so they will be more apt to help take care of it.”
Most of the concern with swimming and participating in other activities on the river comes from the buildup of bacteria. Bacteria can come from a number of different things, including improper operation of septic tanks and animal waste from pets, wildlife or farming practices. Michigan water quality standards should be kept in mind during activities.
The state of Michigan requires levels of E. coli to be below 1,000 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water for partial contact with water. Partial contact includes activities such as kayaking or rafting. To swim in the river levels should be below 300 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water. These levels are tested weekly by the Ingham County Health Department on campus, from the bridge on Farm Lane. Students can use the results, posted online at ingham.org, when deciding to use the river on a particular day.
The test results for E. coli per 100 milliliters of water saw increase in the month of May. On May 4 the result was 98 colony forming units . That number then spiked to 1,027 colony forming units on May 25 , which is slightly above the Michigan partial contact water quality of standard of 1,000 colony forming units. The latest on-campus test was June 1 and yielded a result of 318 colony forming units.
It should be noted that elevated levels of bacteria, such as those seen in late May, are caused by heavy rainfall. Kline-Robach said if some of this bacteria-filled water is accidentally swallowed during activities, such as swimming, gastrointestinal problems will occur. Caution should also be taken not to expose skin that has cuts or scrapes to the river due to the potential for bacterial exposure which could lead to infection.
In addition to the bacteria-causing material that find its way into the Red Cedar River from somewhere in its 450-square-mile watershed, there is also potential for heavy metals, oils and paints to infiltrate the river from catch basins. Still, the Red Cedar River is not as polluted as many on MSU’s campus believe it to be.
Perhaps it's the number of different activities the river is used for that have made it what it is today. The river is used for hook-and-line fishing, which is allowed on campus grounds between the western edge of Brody Complex and what is commonly called "Sparty Bridge" on the north bank of the river only. Students and residents of East Lansing also use the river for kayaking, walks, as a place to do homework, watching animals and even as a place of reflection.
“The river is just something that, no matter who you ask, if they know anything about MSU than they associate the river with campus,” said Joy Speas, who spends her work breaks by the river. Speas is a university curriculum administrator and works inside the Hannah Administration Building.
Although sometimes abused, the Red Cedar River has become more than just a river since the founding of MSU in 1855. Some consider it a trademark of campus.
A lot of students don’t realize, although the river isn’t 100 percent accessible for human use, there is a thriving ecosystem within it. Kline-Robach said there are 33 species of fish, as well as other smaller aquatic animals on the bottom in the river, which indicates a very healthy ecosystem. Students can keep the river healthy and thriving through a number of ways, Kline-Robach said. Picking up pet waste and washing cars only at commercial washes are two ways students can protect the river, but these won’t fix all of the issues the MSU community faces when it comes to the river's health.
“One of the issues we have with the river is that students are coming to campus with a preconceived idea that the river is polluted and it’s dirty,” Kline-Robach said. “This makes it easier for them to abuse and pollute the river.”
In addition to its recreational and relaxation uses, the river serves an educational purpose. According to Orlando Sarnelle, a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, students in his ISP 217L Water and the Environment lab measure the discharge and sediment load of the river and relate them to weather conditions.
Sarnelle said in an email, this allows students to understand why the river behaves as it does and teaches them about the nature of floods and erosion. Perhaps education on the river could lead to a brighter, healthier future for the Red Cedar.
Anthony Botros is visiting MSU from Egypt this summer for research study on molecular genetics. “I was thinking how the river goes really slow, drifting until the point where it goes really fast,” Botros said. "It made me think about my life and how it goes from all these different stages and how I can cope with it. I really love this place, where I can see all the stages and all the animals around you. It makes you feel like home.”
Maybe someday the MSU community and people of East Lansing can come together to eliminate the pollution and abuse of the Red Cedar River. Whether this is possible or not, the river will always be as much a part of MSU as the colors green and white, and MSU will always have an influence over the river.
“I think the river is kind of unique to us and it just adds to the beauty of our campus,” alumnus Andrew Stables said. “Our fight song, our alma mater, everything really relates to it. I think it is something that unites the campus. It is a great natural beauty we have on campus.”