A lifetime on the water: Robert Burns on why public access is key to fixing the Detroit River

Listen to Robert Burns speak.

Detroit Riverkeeper Robert Burns has spent his life in the middle of the Detroit River. Growing up on the island of Grosse Ile, Burns partook in hunting, fishing, camping, and boating in and around the river.

"I’ve built up quite an affinity for the natural parts of the island,” Burns says.

The Detroit River is one of 43 Areas of Concern (AOC) throughout the Great Lakes. The AOC program was formed by both the American and Canadian governments in 1987 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and that same year, the Detroit River was designated an AOC.

Sitting at a picnic table in a small marina along the Trenton Channel, Burns, 59, points out the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge just across the river..  

In the 1980s, Burns worked in marine construction, and did some dredging work in the Rouge River and parts of the Detroit River. He says it was an important chapter in his understanding of this area’s environment.

“I got a first-hand view of what the river looked like when it was at the peak of some of the problems,” he explains.

In the early 1990s, he received a notice from the Friends of the Detroit River about the battle they were fighting to preserve what was considered the last coastal mile of wetlands in the lower Detroit River, the Humbug Marsh. He was familiar with the marsh because he had hunted and fished in that area his entire life.

“I attended meetings for that group, ended up joining, and 15 years later, I’m working on habitat restoration projects,” he says.

The Friends group started out with concerns about habitat loss and contaminated sediments in the river, but became frustrated by the lack of available funding to fix the problems.

In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality asked the Friends of the Detroit River to run the Detroit River AOC’s Public Advisory Council (PAC), a group responsible for carrying out a plan of action to correct the problems negatively affecting the river’s health. Then in 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding program launched with a focus on fixing up AOCs.

"It changed everything," says Burns. "It allowed the group to finally take action on various projects that had been in the planning stages for years."

The Detroit River is also part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national organization based in New York. In 2003, Burns was appointed Detroit Riverkeeper. In this role, Burns acts as technical advisor to the Detroit River PAC.

“30 years ago, I would never have guessed I'd be working on the environmental side and doing what I’m doing now,” says Burns. 

Stewardship is a primary part of the Friends of the Detroit River's activities. Burns says the group realizes that the highly commercialized and industrialized history of this shoreline has led to a public both disconnected and removed from the river.

But the water has cleaned up over time, and public access points have grown in number. "People can get down to the water, they can see it, and they start to make a connection to the river,” says Burns.

He says the legacy of various sediment pollutants are still a factor in improving the 32-mile-long international channel, but the river and the fishery are both getting better all the time. The Friends group invites people to learn about the river through various programs, including Water Festivals on Belle Isle with students in Detroit schools, and an annual cleanup in the river's lower region.

Burns says the goal is to get people to understand the connection between the river and their own quality of life. With a membership of close to 600, interest is growing and the river’s future looks bright.

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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