Restoring the Rouge is 'about getting the community to the river'

"I’m not a scientist, I was just an interested citizen," says Livonia resident Bill Craig. "I don't work for anybody and I didn’t go to school for any of this."

At 68, Craig is retired from his former job working for Wayne County. In the last several decades, he's dedicated much of his time to protecting and improving the environment of the Rouge River watershed.

Standing on the lower branch of the Rouge River in Wayne, Craig explains that his environmental interests began as a child. But his volunteer career began 25 years ago after learning of a proposal to use part of the 500-acre William P. Holliday Forest and Wildlife Preserve in Westland for a golf course.

"If you have trees and a forest, and no one is using it, people come by and say, 'Hey, why don't we cut down these trees and put a building on it, or put a golf course there and get something out of it?'"

Craig speaks with a sardonic grin, just visible behind a long white beard billowing in the wind coming off the river.

He says there was public push-back against the golf course proposal all those years ago, and from that opposition, the Holliday Nature Preserve Association (HNPA) was born.

Since then, Craig has been volunteer president of the HNPA, where he acts as a self-described "steward and watchdog" for the nature preserve. The Holliday Preserve has a portion of the Rouge River running through it, and Craig says that connection is how he became acquainted with the nonprofit stewardship organization Friends of the Rouge.

The Rouge River watershed includes 48 different southeast Michigan communities. As a result of more than a century of misuse and abuse, the entire watershed is considered one of 43 Areas of Concern (AOC) throughout the Great Lakes. The AOC program was established in 1987 as part of the binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada.

"[That designation] doesn't mean the whole thing is terrible," says Craig. "It means there are some good places and some bad places." 

Craig is a member of the Public Advisory Council for the Rouge River, and in 1989, was part of the group that helped create a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) to tackle some of the problems negatively impacting the Rouge.

Each Area of Concern has Beneficial Use Impairments (BUI's), and the nine BUI's in the Rouge stem from the fact that it sits in southeast Michigan’s most heavily industrialized area. The root causes of these problems can be largely attributed to, according to Craig, "Our legacy of pollution and what we carelessly and unknowingly dumped into the river."

He explains that environmental problems created over the course of 80 or 90 years cannot be solved easily or quickly. With proper planning and funding, however, some of the damage from the river's storied past can be remediated.  

"We're going to see something that isn't there," Craig says with a laugh, as he points to the area that used to be the site of the Wayne Road Dam.

The dam was originally built as a water source for fire hydrants in the Village of Wayne in the early 1900s. But by 1939, the City of Detroit Water Board took over the Wayne water system, rendering the once-useful dam obsolete.

For years it
 was an obstacle for fish and caused accumulations of sediment and debris. It was finally removed in 2012 through a $1 million dollar grant from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The removal of this dam meant that 11 miles of the Rouge River became reconnected with the Great Lakes. Craig says removing the dam has been one of the biggest accomplishments in restoring the river’s health, improving its fish species, and creating wildlife habitat.

While pointing out a man fishing for trout in his canoe, Craig says that he saw two other people fishing further down the river earlier in the day. He credits projects like the Wayne Road Dam Removal for improving the quality of life for people who live near the Rouge. 
It's even drawn the attention of the community for events like the 3rd annual Rouge-A-Palooza, which offers canoeing, education, entertainment, and food.

“It's kind of like a mini city fair, says Craig. "It’s about getting the community to the river.”

This series about restoration in Michigan's Areas of Concern is made possible through support from the Michigan Office of Great Lakes through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Read more articles by Annamarie Sysling.

Annamarie Sysling is a multimedia journalist based in Hamtramck.
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