Photos courtesy Flint River Watershed Coalition/Flickr

Michigan’s Flint River can’t catch a break. Despite drastic improvements in water quality, habitat, and infrastructure, the Flint River’s long industrial history makes it challenging for locals to view it as a place for recreation and beauty. In recent years, avid paddlers, outfitters, and nonprofit organizations have encouraged people to experience the real Flint River first-hand and counter these negative perceptions of the 80-mile waterway.

And now with the recent declaration of a federal state of emergency for the city of Flint, the river is in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons, a huge messaging blow to the work of these advocates. The problems began in 2014 when the city changed its water supply from Lake Huron (via Detroit) to the Flint River. Though the river’s high chloride concentrations pose of no immediate health hazards to humans, fish or wildlife, they certainly do cause problems for old lead pipes. Flint’s citizens complained about the taste, smell, and appearance of the water, which was soon found to contain high levels of lead. Once the water from the Flint River left the water treatment plant it corroded old pipes that leached lead into the water supply, causing a range of serious health problems in the community.

Not surprisingly, the Flint River received press that bolstered its negative stigma. For the river’s advocates, the water contamination crisis briefly brought recreational outreach efforts to a standstill: Flint River Fest (pictured below), planned for early October to highlight positive work on the Flint River, was postponed to later this spring.


“We wanted to be sensitive to the community,” said Rebecca Fedewa, Executive Director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “It didn’t feel right to host an event highlighting all of the positive work on the river at a time when so many people were suffering from the water supply.”

“But it’s not the river. It’s the pipes,” explained local paddling enthusiast Jon Mason, addressing a widespread misunderstanding in the community. The Flint River does not contain lead, according to recent water samples from the Flint River Watershed Coalition. Water quality has actually improved in recent years, making it a great place to paddle, fish, and bird-watch. Lead in the water resulted from outdated infrastructure that corroded faster than usual due to the city pumping chlorine into the system, according to a recent New York Times article. The city has since returned to Lake Huron for its water supply.

While the recent water crisis may discourage many, the paddling community is stepping up its efforts to bring even more people out to canoe, kayak, raft, or paddleboard on the river. “There are gorgeous stretches of the river where you can get the ‘up north experience’ right in your backyard. You can paddle for 2-3 hours on the Flint River and not even encounter a bridge,” said Rebecca. The Flint River Watershed Coalition is leading 14 paddle trips this year spanning several stretches of the river.

A notoriously dangerous but historically significant stretch of the river (pictured below) in the downtown area goes through an old General Motors industrial site. Paddlers in the community are anxiously awaiting the construction of a new city park and kayak launch, where there are currently concrete channels, which will increase downtown access to the water. There is even talk of dam removal-whitewater park project similar to that in nearby Ann Arbor, and a potential National Water Trails designation.


“The future looks bright for recreation on the Flint,” said Mason. There is a strong sense of hope and pride in the paddling community. River advocates hope to increase recreation on the Flint River to change people’s perception of the waterway and encourage the community to understand the river’s role in the recent water crisis.

According to Rebecca, new paddlers often get off the water and exclaim, “Wow. I had no idea.”

— Read Natalie Warren’s recent installment in North America’s Next Best Paddling Towns, on nearby Ann Arbor, Mich.