HOLLAND, MI—Betsy DeVos was skimming across Lake Macatawa with her husband, Dick, a few years ago on a paddle board when she saw a nasty algae bloom up close.
It was the same naturally forming but potentially toxic algae that has made water sourced from Lake Erie undrinkable in the past.
In 2012, when the DeVoses saw the widespread algae bloom near her waterfront home, drought was the culprit. The bloom was so bad it led to the closure of public beaches off and on throughout the summer.
The Michigan power couple, known for their philanthropy and Republican politics, decided something needed to be done. Betsy DeVos put in a call to Jim Brooks, a neighbor on the lake and prolific donor known for his work in Holland.
"She said, 'This is ridiculous. Is anyone doing anything to clean up the lake?'" recalled Brooks.
Three years later, there is Project Clarity, a $12 million initiative to do just that.
The lake's poor water quality has been an issue for decades. The state had told area leaders something needed to be done. But a fix wasn't quick in coming for the water affectionately known as "Lake Mac" because there wasn't enough data to pinpoint where the high volumes of sediment and phosphorus that fed the problem were flushing into the lake.
"They are the catalysts in all this happening," said Travis Williams, of the DeVoses and Brooks.
Williams is the executive director of the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway, the nonprofit organization overseeing Project Clarity. Brooks describes Williams as the project's champion, and the leader of its boots-on-the-ground effort.
Brooks and the DeVoses began by meeting with the two groups working on the issue, ODC and the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council.
The latter, which represents nine local governments and two counties, launched the Macatawa Watershed program in the late 1990s. It was in response to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality determining the lake had too much phosphorous, which sped up underwater plant growth when the sun came out.
The state DEQ and federal Environmental Protect Agency set a goal for the lake to become 70 percent clearer in 2000. It hasn't happened yet.
$500,000 for research
After meeting with the experts, the philanthropists rounded up 20 families and businesses to raise $500,000 to pay for two years of research that quadrupled the sites in the watershed being tested.
"We went from monitoring 13 tributaries to 50," Williams said.
Brooks says the research money was to understand objectively what was happening and how to address the problem
As a result, a big part of the solution is restoring wetlands, which act as a natural filter for sediment, nutrient and bacterial pollution that runs into the 1,700-acre lake.
Macatawa feeds into Lake Michigan, thanks to a canal dug by the area's Dutch settlers.
But it turns out those same industrious immigrants are to blame, in part, for the current water woes. Development of Lake Macatawa area that began in 1800s has destroyed 87 percent of the area's historic wetlands, Williams said.
Now the plan is to turn back the clock on the damage.
Once the data was gathered and a plan put in place, the philanthropists brought in Lynn Kotecki, a former Huntington Bank vice president. She has raised about 80 percent of the $12 million needed to restore the wetlands, along with a fund for their maintenance. Local and state tax dollars account for around 7 percent of the $9.7 million raised so far.
The success doesn't hinge as much on money as it does on buy-in from the community, the philanthropists believe.
"There are tens of thousands of people who will benefit," Brooks said.
Brooks and the DeVoses approached Dick Haworth, retired chairman of the largest privately owned furniture company, to join their effort. It wasn't a hard sell for Haworth, who has a home on neighboring Lake Michigan.
His family's namesake company was a natural partner for Project Clarity because a stream that feeds Lake Macatawa is located on land the corporation bought in the 1980s for future expansion. It's in the third-worst polluted area in the 175-mile Macatawa watershed.
The company donated cash and 70 acres of land. Dick Haworth acknowledged its value was in the millions of dollars, although he declined to give a specific amount during an interview with reporters when he spoke about Project Clarity in June.
"I want to see the quality of what is going down the stream into Lake Macatawa and into Lake Michigan improve," Dick Haworth said.
Haworth and Betsy DeVos, both staunch conservatives, criticize government regulations for slowing down the environmental initiative.
The Haworth phase of the project was delayed six months by red tape, leaders say.
"You only have to live it to realize how regulated we are and how slow at times those processes are," Haworth said. "My point is, there is a lot of things that are regulated that aren't important to regulate. Those things we should eliminate."
Like most companies in the office furniture sector, Haworth has made sustainability a priority by reducing waste and sourcing environmentally friendly materials.
Betsy DeVos, the former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican party, says people can be more motivated by a vision than with the stick of regulation to make changes to improve the environment.
"Travis (Williams) has done an awesome job of painting a big picture of how we can all be part of the solution. It's compelling," Betsy DeVos said of Project Clarity's leader.
She downplays her role in getting the ball rolling on what is a significant environmental project for the region.
"I would say it is really a testament to private-public initiatives with private citizens and private organizations taking the initiative to fix something and do something that ultimately results in action," Betsy DeVos said.
She and her husband were in attendance at a groundbreaking at Haworth headquarters on Tuesday, June 23, kicking off the Haworth phase of the Project Clarity Initiative.
West Michigan philanthropists have a long history of using that strategy to get public sector projects completed in a timely fashion.
Betsy DeVos' dad, the late industrialist Ed Prince, was the visionary behind Holland's heated downtown sidewalks. Her father-in-law and Amway co-founder Rich DeVos propelled several projects that bear his name in downtown Grand Rapids, including DeVos Place convention center.
Betsy and Dick DeVos live on Lake Macatawa during the summer in a home they built in 2010. It serves as a family retreat for their four grown children and their families.
Betsy DeVos seems confident Project Clarity will finally address the water quality issues that earned the lake the nickname "Lake Macatoilet" over the decades.
"I think it is in everybody's interest to pay attention to this project because Lake Macatawa and our water is one of our greatest resources and one of the greatest calling cards for the Holland area," she said.