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Protecting a Fluid System

SWMLC has been awarded grant funding to protect the Paw Paw River Watershed.

Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy is pleased to announce that we have been awarded $455,493 in grant funding from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)!


These conservation dollars will enable us to permanently protect 269 acres and 10,000 feet of river and creek frontage in the Paw Paw River Watershed, one of southwest Michigan’s largest and most important natural drainage systems.
Looking out over the broad and pristine North Branch, just west of Wolf Lake. Photo, Hilary Hunt.
The Paw Paw River Watershed is big, beginning in the northeast corner of Van Buren County and flowing more than 60 miles before joining the St. Joseph River near Benton Harbor, and ultimately emptying into Lake Michigan. Protecting the quality of its water is essential, as it covers nearly 445 square miles and supplies drinking water to thousands of residents, provides important wildlife habitat, and irrigates prime farmland.

But where to focus our work in this vast area in need of conservation? One could almost put on a blindfold and start chucking darts at a map to hit waterways in need of protection.


Instead, SWMLC turned to the data to narrow down the choices . . .

Old beech-maple forest along the North Branch of the Paw Paw River. Photo, Hilary Hunt.
At this point, the East Branch of the Paw Paw River is only a small creek flanked by steep forested banks. Photo, Hilary Hunt.
Back in 2019, SWMLC collaborated with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission to create a new water management plan for the Paw Paw River Watershed, updating the previous one from 2008. Using publicly available data, Hilary Hunt, SWMLC’s Director of Land Protection, worked with geographers from Western Michigan University’s W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change to create maps that show the areas where conserving land would make the biggest impact.
The resulting color-coded maps ranked the areas according to wetland quality and functionality, existing surface water, potential for groundwater recharge, and healthy eco-systems. Pairing this information with our 2020 Strategic Land Conservation Plan, which focuses on land’s resilience to climate change, SWMLC was able to prioritize our potential work and reach out to landowners within the watershed.
Map ranking water quality in the Paw Paw River Watershed. Darker colors indicate areas where conservation action could have the greatest impact. Map by Bruce Howe, data provided by Claire Gilbert. | NWS PawPaw
Overlooking a large former farm field, this property is less than a quarter mile from the Paw Paw River's East Branch. Photo, Hilary Hunt.
Fast forward to the present, and SWMLC has been working with five families to protect their properties with conservation easements. The properties include frontage on the East Branch, the North Branch, and the main stem of the Paw Paw River – wild floodplain forests inhabited by pileated woodpeckers and mighty river bottom trees; towering hickory woods that stand atop high, steep banks; and an enormous, upland, former farm field that could easily have been filled with houses. If these areas were developed, it would have had disastrous consequences for wildlife and water quality in the Paw Paw River Watershed.

SWMLC is extremely grateful to these five families for acting upon their personal conservation ethics and working with us to protect these lands forever – and to Michigan EGLE for providing us with the funding to make it happen.

Backwaters of the Paw Paw River's East Branch, showing the clean, emergent wetlands that line the creek. Photo, Hilary Hunt.

Story, Amelia Hansen with Hilary Hunt.
Photos, Hilary Hunt.
Map, Bruce Howe  |  Map data provided by Claire Gilbert.