Communities’ support of Water Trail will provide for ongoing maintenance

A paddlers’ view of the Paw Paw River between Paw Paw and Lawrence.  Photo courtesy of  Southwest Michigan Planning Commission

    What do 17 municipal, tribal, and civic organizations spread throughout Berrien and Van Buren counties all have in common? They have all made a financial commitment to fund the Paw Paw River Water Trail (PPRWT) in 2019.
    This water trail for canoes and kayaks is 68 miles long, including two dam impoundments in Paw Paw, and runs from the Village of Paw Paw in Van Buren County to Benton Harbor in Berrien County. Below Maple Lake Dam in Paw Paw, the river runs for 66 miles through an extensive and wildlife-rich floodplain forest unique in SW Michigan. Along the way the river runs through or near the communities of Lawrence, Hartford, Watervliet, Coloma, Riverside, and Benton Harbor, which have all enthusiastically embraced the concept of a recreational paddle trail through an environmentally significant natural area.
    After two years of funding, through an appropriation from the state legislature, 2019 is the year that the immensely successful PPRWT transitions to a local funding model. Marcy Hamilton, senior planner at Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, explained why this is important. “Although we have cleared a paddle pathway through log jams on more than 50 miles of river each of the last two years, there has to be annual maintenance every summer to take care of trees that fall over the winter. It is wonderful that so many communities and stakeholders along the Paw Paw River recognize its recreational importance and are willing to commit to yearly maintenance.”
    According to Hamilton, “to get a sense of how many people are using the water trail, all you have to do is drive past bridge crossings over the Paw Paw River on a nice weekend in the summer. Everywhere you go there are parked vehicles with empty kayak racks on top.”
     Another measure of the water trail’s popularity is its Facebook page  (@PawPawRiverWaterTrail) which has over 1,400 followers.
    The popularity of the PPRWT actually creates a problem early in the season when warm weather encourages people to go paddling before the river level has gotten low enough to allow contractors to remove downed trees newly fallen during the winter months. Hamilton cautions paddlers to always check the water trail website ( to determine which segments are most appropriate for their paddling skill level and to learn where pathway clearing work has taken place.  “We also encourage paddlers to report downed trees on our Facebook page or contact the Southwest Michigan Planning Com-mission at (269) 925-1137 x1521,” added Hamilton.
    Another indicator of community support are the many improvements at launch facilities along the water trail, ranging from the new universal access kayak launch at Sunset Park on Maple Lake in Paw Paw, to the new Berrien County park in Watervliet, which also has a universal handicap kayak access. And just in the last few weeks, construction has begun on the recently approved kayak park in Riverside in Hagar Township, which will also feature a universal handicap kayak launch.  In addition, the Village of Lawrence has installed portable restrooms at their park downtown that serves as a trailhead for the water trail.
    While at first it was challenging to get everyone on board, Hamilton applauds the wide variety of stakeholders that have come together to support implementation of the PPRWT. Townships, cities/villages, economic development and chamber organizations, the Two Rivers Coalition and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi are all participating. But it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some communities are contributing funds that SWMPC uses both to hire contractors to clear the pathway in their area and to pay for promotional activities. However, the communities of Coloma and Watervliet (both townships and both cities) are funding their own pathway maintenance and contributing a pro rata amount to SWMPC for promotion of the water trail.
    Hamilton is confident the many communities who are supporting the water trail this year will appreciate its importance and continue to fund maintenance annually. She points out that there appear to be two distinct groups using the water trail.         
    “One group is tourists from outside southwest Michigan, and obviously, their use of the water trail has a beneficial economic impact on local communities,” noted Hamilton. “But the other user group is local residents, some of whom are discovering the natural beauty of the Paw Paw River for the first time.”
    According to Hamilton, some townships decided to financially support the water trail because there were no local parks for their residents and the water trail was a very cost effective way to provide a local recreational opportunity.  “With the rapidly growing popularity of paddling throughout the nation, the Paw Paw River Water Trail seems like an idea whose time has come,” said Hamilton.

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes
32280 E. Red Arrow Hwy. • P.O. Box 129
Paw Paw, MI 49079
(269) 657-5080

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