The 2021 Flint River Flotilla returned in-person after the event went virtual in 2020 due to COVID. (Photo courtesy of the Flint River Watershed Coalition)

Flint, MI—Organizers of the Flint River Flotilla have decided against hosting the event due to the construction work planned for restoring the Flint Riverfront and their ongoing concerns of a chemical spill. 

Last year, the Flint River Watershed Coalition (FRWC) replaced the annual flotilla with an on-land event because of the June 2022 spill by Lockhart Chemical Company. But officials at FRWC, which aims to protect the Flint River ecosystem, say uncertainties remain around the spill’s health risks. 

“The decision was made for this year to cancel the event,” said Jaime Welch, FRWC’s paddle program manager. “We plan to bring it back next year. It’s one of our favorite events. We absolutely love putting it on. We love all the people coming out.” 

This summer, FRWC still plans to host a celebration as the nonprofit organization is aiming to move into its new office at 630 W. Kearsley Street, Flint, Mich., in August. The community will get the chance to see the new space at an open house planned for the month after. Plus, there’ll be fun activities for kids and families, Welch noted. 

Though FRWC’s program Kayak Flint canceled renting out kayaks last year after the Lockhart spill, rentals will be available this season with guided paddling trips along routes upstream of the spill and various waterways, just as they were for the summer of 2022. They include trips at Thread Lake, Mott Lake and Holloway Reservoir. 

“The stretches that are still available are just gorgeous stretches and I’ve seen some of the most incredible things between Holloway and Mott Lake, and you think you’re up north,” Welch said. “All of the Lapeer stretches, you pretty much are up north the whole time, and it’s just beautiful out there.” 

That goes for Thread Lake too, she noted. 

“Thread Lake is an amazing lake that is overlooked by so many people,” Welch said. “It’s this hidden gem. It’s one of my favorite places to hold a paddle because it’s so unexpected. You get out there and you’ll get on it and because of a couple of placements of islands on the lake, you don’t realize how big it is, and we always see wildlife out there.” 

Meanwhile, she advises paddlers to avoid the stretch of the Flint River downstream of Lockhart’s spill until additional testing shows it’s safe to be in physical contact with the water. 

It’s been almost a year since the spill was discovered. After Lockhart filed for bankruptcy this past October, bankruptcy trustee Natalie Lutz Cardiello has taken authority of the facility.

An update from Cardiello wasn’t available at this time, but Jill Greenberg, a spokesperson at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), said EGLE and various government agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regularly meet with Cardiello and Lockhart’s staff to discuss the site’s conditions.

“The Trustee has been working with EGLE and EPA to address violations and achieve compliance with state and federal laws and regulations,” Greenberg wrote in an email, adding that products and chemicals onsite are currently being sold or disposed of appropriately.

Lockhart’s spill prompted FRWC to begin planning for the expansion of testing along the Flint River with researchers at the University of Michigan-Flint. Separately, FRWC has requested EGLE to expand testing of the river as well.

Taken together, FRWC Executive Director Jennifer Raymond said the coalition hopes that increased testing will help paint a more comprehensive picture of Flint River’s health.

Nicholas is Flint Beat’s public health and education reporter. He joins the team as he graduates from Santa Clara University, Calif. Nicholas has previously reported on dementia and brain health, as...