BAYKEEPER® Heather Smith is Protector and Educator Too

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Grand Traverse Bay is one of the Great Lakes watershed’s special places.  Protecting, restoring and preserving it is the job of many, but a special role goes to Heather Smith, the Grand Traverse BAYKEEPER® at the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay since August 2016.  FLOW was curious about Heather’s work, and she graciously agreed to answer our questions.

Heather grew up in Leelanau County and attended schools in Suttons Bay.  She earned her undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Science from Michigan State University and a graduate degree in Water Resources Management from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


First, what are some of the most interesting facts about the bay and why we should be proud of it? For example, I did a calculation and found it has 8 times the volume of Lake St. Clair, which seems pretty impressive.

The bay is an impressive water body! It’s a very unique embayment of Lake Michigan, and the bathymetry is wild – all resulting from glaciers that retreated about 11,000 years ago. At the deepest point, the bay is around 600 feet deep. The east arm of Grand Traverse Bay is significantly deeper than the west arm, and it gets relatively shallow near the outlet to Lake Michigan. We have some unique underwater features as well – underwater bluffs and riverbeds – that we are learning more about as Northwestern Michigan College’s Marine Technology Program further explores the lakebed.  

Besides the geeky bathymetric and geologic stuff, the Grand Traverse Bay watershed is home to hundreds of native plants and animals, some only found in this region. Thousands of people depend on Grand Traverse Bay for their drinking water. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on lakes, streams, and wetlands within the Grand Traverse Bay watershed for recreation, transportation, fishing, and their way of life. These waters are worth protecting. They are the lifeblood of our community.

Are there characteristics or features of bays that are unique or not like lakes?

Yes, Grand Traverse Bay is a bit different than a lake. We are directly connected to the larger Lake Michigan system. About 261 billion gallons of water flows into Lake Michigan from the bay each year.

When people come up to you and ask you what the BAYKEEPER® does, what is your quick reply?

I am the eyes, ears, and voice for Grand Traverse Bay and its watershed. I advocate for swimmable, fishable, and drinkable water in our region.

What do you think is your most important BAYKEEPER® task?

I am a consistent and persistent advocate for decisions and policies that preserve and protect YOUR water.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned as BAYKEEPER®?

Local decision-making plays a big role in the protection of our environment as local decisions directly affect water quality in Grand Traverse Bay and its watershed. There are a number of zoning tools and land use policies that local governments can employ to help protect our water.  

If we, as the people that work, play, and live here, value our water, we need to speak up to ensure it’s protected. Local governments can represent community values and respond to community concerns in a way that state and federal governments can’t always do. We need to ensure there is not a disconnect between the community value of our water and local decision-making. Ensuring that citizens are actively engaged in local decisions can and will largely impact the future of the community we live in.

What is the biggest problem facing the Bay?

The Great Lakes are faced with challenges that we created. As the Grand Traverse BAYKEEPER®, I spend the majority of my time focusing on hyper-local issues. Stormwater runoff and intense development that threatens to fill our valuable wetlands and alter our natural shorelines are our biggest threats to the Grand Traverse Bay watershed. Sediments, nutrients, bacteria, and other pollutants enter our surface waters through stormwater that washes from roads, parking lots, and driveways. Wetlands and naturally vegetated shorelines play a critical role in filtering and purifying runoff before it enters our waterbodies.

It’s worth noting that I am not here to halt development in our beautiful corner of Michigan, but rather to advocate for sustainable development practices that treat and infiltrate stormwater onsite using natural processes and preserve wetlands and natural shorelines. There are engineering solutions and design principles that work in harmony with nature. I’ll argue that nowhere else in the state is it as important to utilize these eco-conscious design elements as the Grand Traverse Bay watershed. Our livelihood depends on the health of our water.

What shaped your appreciation for water and made you interested in a career in environmental issues?

Growing up on the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay – swimming, sailing, fishing, kayaking – significantly shaped my life and inspired my career path. My days spent on and in the bay cultivated my interest in and passion for freshwater ecology. There are few days a year, weather permitting, that I am not outside enjoying our vast network of water resources. And watching my daughter enjoy this same body of water motivates me to continue fighting to protect our water.   

Can you suggest one or two things anyone can do for the Bay?

Take action, and speak up about projects and policy decisions that affect your water. To learn more about receiving updates on public meeting and comment periods where you can voice your concern or support for water related projects and policies, contact me at hsmith@gtbay.org or 231.935.1514 x3.


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