Overcoming a bad rep: Detroit and Rouge River headed for recovery

A bad reputation is hard to overcome. Even if you clean up your act, that reputation will still be what comes to mind when people think of you. It's true for people, and it's also true for rivers.

The Detroit and Rouge rivers acquired some of the worst reputations around. As two of the most heavily industrialized waterways in the world during the last century, they were polluted with industrial waste during a time when many thought it would all simply vanish into the vastness of nature without a trace.

Of course, it didn't go away. Much of it is still around today.

But time — and the dedication of many people who care — has mellowed the reputations of these two waterways. 

The Detroit and Rouge rivers are among 43 "toxic hot spots" designated as Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) by the United States and Canada under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. These rivers, lakes, and bays have been singled out for special attention in cleaning up and correcting pollution and environmental damage.

While federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers play significant roles, much of the oversight for individual AOCs is handled by the state, in Michigan by the Department of Environmental Quality.

Local communities play a significant role in AOCs as well. Each has a public advisory council (PAC) made up of representatives who identify needs, set priorities, and advocate for specific projects. 

AOC restoration efforts have been getting a lot more backing recently. After years of modest progress, Congress enacted the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in 2010, which authorized funding and established a framework for environmental restoration in the Great Lakes.

Since then, with bipartisan support, the GLRI has provided about $300 million a year for restoration efforts, supporting some 2,500 projects in the AOCs and elsewhere over the first five years. Supplemental funding and in-kind support are commonly provided by the states and community partners involved.

But the question still remains: How much can you really clean up and restore rivers that have been subjected to more than a century of intense industrialization and urbanization?

Map data source: USEPA. Acquired with the assistance of ECT Inc.

What is a "Beneficial Use Impairment"?

The status of an AOC is judged by what are called Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs). These are any of 14 negative impacts caused by changes in the physical, chemical, or biological integrity of the natural system in question.

The Detroit and Rouge rivers share a number of these in common:
  • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption 
  • Degradation of fish and wildlife populations
  • Beach closings 
  • Fish tumors or other deformities
  • Degradation of aesthetics, in the form of visible pollution such as oil slicks and trash.
  • Degradation of benthos, the community of bottom-dwelling organisms.
  • Restriction on dredging activities to avoid stirring up toxins in the sediment
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat
The Detroit River is also listed for bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems, while the Rouge is listed for eutrophication/excess algae, a problem often associated with excess nutrients in the water from sewage overflows, leaking septic tanks or fertilizer runoff from lawns and farms.

Two of the Detroit River's BUIs have been removed in recent years; those dealing with tainting of fish or wildlife flavors, and drinking water tastes and odors. 
The goal of restoring an AOC isn't to restore it to a pristine, natural condition. 

"We're not trying to go back to a pre-settlement condition," says Mary Bohling, chair of SPAC, the Statewide Public Advisory Council representing all 14 of Michigan's AOCs. "What we're trying to do is make things good enough so that our conditions are no worse than other areas that are not an AOC."

Mary Bohling, a Michigan Sea Grant educator who also chairs the Detroit River PAC, points to the Huron River as a benchmark.  It isn't pristine – for instance, there are consumption advisories on fish caught anywhere in the state of Michigan – but if they can bring an AOC up to that level, the worst of its problems have been addressed.

An expensive fix

Contaminated sediments – toxic wastes like oil, PCBs, and heavy metals that settle to the bottom of a body of water and intermingle with the mud, sand, and clays there – are usually the main reason a body of water is declared an AOC. They're also one of the most expensive issues to resolve.

There have been several contaminated sediment cleanups in the Detroit River over the year. One of the more notable was a spot called the Black Lagoon, an inlet of the Strait of Trenton that flows between Grosse Ile and the mainland, which got its name from all the oils, grease, and hazardous chemicals that accumulated there over the years.

"What happened is a lot of the contaminants floated down the river until they reached an eddy, so they flowed into a backwater that allowed them to settle out," Bohling says.

The Black Lagoon was the first project completed under the Great Lakes Legacy Act, a federal program established to clean up contaminated sediment in Great Lakes AOCs. Some 115,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment were dredged out in 2004 and 2005, containing nearly half a million pounds of contaminants, including PCBs, lead, zinc, mercury, oil and grease.  
The $9 million project was funded by USEPA and the Michigan DEQ, with the latter covering about a third of the cost.

The cleanup dramatically improved water quality and saw a return of fish and birds to the lagoon. In recognition of the successful effort, the city of Trenton renamed the lagoon Ellias Cove in 2007, after the family that gave the land for what became the adjacent Meyer-Ellias Park. There are plans to build a marina there.

Other sediment cleanups for the Detroit River are in the planning stages, with samples being taken to identify and prioritize areas for cleanup. If current funding levels continue, it's hoped that all sediment removals in the river can be achieved in the next 5-10 years, according to Bohling.

"Before the cleanup, that's an area where I wouldn't have allowed my kids to play," Bohling says. "Now people are enjoying the park that's there on the shoreline."

There have been some preliminary studies for contaminated sediment removals in the Lower Rouge, but the first actual cleanup isn't scheduled to get underway until next year, owing to the challenges of the site.

"It's not your typical 'go in there, dredge the sediment and be done,' kind of project," says Jennifer Tewkesbury, coordinator of the Rouge River AOC for the MDEQ Office of the Great Lakes.

The lower four miles of the Rouge are an active shipping channel, so the dredging efforts need to work around shipping schedules. Water quality is also an issue, as steelmaking and other industries have specific parameters their water supply must meet to support their operations. Stirring up the sediment could compromise that.

Problems of urbanization

In addition to the heavily industrialized zone in the lower Rouge, much of the rest of the watershed is heavily urbanized. That means much of the land has been hardened, made impervious, so that rainwater and snow melt runs right off, rather than soaking into the land and gradually percolating through.

Many of the restoration projects in the Upper Rouge watershed focus on controlling stormwater runoff. Rainwater picks up things on the land like sediments, fertilizers, pesticides, spilled oil and gasoline, animal wastes, leakage from faulty septic systems and the like, and wash them down to the nearest river or lake.

"It’s still difficult for people to understand that what happens in their front yard can affect the river, even though it's a mile away," says Brandy Siedlaczak, stormwater manager for the City of Southfield and chair of the Alliance of Rouge Communities.

Making people aware of that connection is one of the reasons for the near-ubiquitous signs around the region, letting drivers know when they are entering the Rouge watershed, helping create that identity.

Communities around the Rouge Watershed are now engaging in a variety of "green infrastructure" projects, such as wetland restorations that absorb runoff and filter out contaminants in the process. 

On a smaller scale, some communities are creating rain gardens, a type of mini-wetland full of plants that love soggy soils and help soak up moisture in low-lying areas. Siedlaczak describes them as an alternative to underground drainage pipes, only less expensive and more aesthetically pleasing. 
Restoring habitat

Meanwhile, out in the Detroit River, Riverkeeper Bob Burns and the Friends of the Detroit River have been working on habitat restorations to help bring back fish populations.

On Belle Isle, the group is working with USEPA and the City of Detroit to restore fish habitat in the Blue Heron Lagoon and Lake Okanaka at the north end of the island. The lagoon was closed off from the Detroit River in the 1950s to maintain water levels in the more than two miles of canals crisscrossing the island, connecting its lakes and the lagoon, so that paddle boats could use them.

That worked fine as long as the system was maintained, but once it fell into disuse, the water stagnated.

"There was no water movement, no flow connection to the river and the water stagnated," Burns says. "The water would heat up in the summer, and the fish would die."

With money from federal grants, the group set out to reconnect the island's waterways to the river and restore flows within the system. A few weirs were removed that opened up the lagoon to the river, which along with some wetland restoration created habitat for fish spawning and a safe nursery for young fish to grow before heading out into the river.

Another habitat project on one of the island's other lakes, Lake Muskoday, was carried out by the Friends of Belle Isle, restoring 1,500 feet of shoreline, creating fish habitat and osprey platforms with a grant from the MDEQ.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created a 2.5 acre spawning reef in the Detroit River, basically a field of stones of various sizes, targeting species such as sturgeon, whitefish and walleye, whose historical spawning beds in the river were degraded when shipping channels were cut through the rock a century ago.

"The river is being brought back to what it was," Burns says, noting an increase in boating, fishing ,and other activities. "People are coming back down to the water."

Hope for delisting

What does the future hold?  With a new administration and Congress due to arrive in Washington come January, funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is uncertain. But Burns and many of the others involved are optimistic the restorations will continue.

"There're no guarantees. The budget's approved on an annual basis," Burns says. "But there's been a lot of bipartisan support for this, on both sides of the aisle. Because who doesn't want clean water?"

Despite the progress, neither the Detroit nor Rouge River AOCs are expected to be fully delisted, with all impairments removed, until sometime in the next decade.

"It's such a large watershed, there are always a lot of areas that need to be addressed," Tewkesbury says.

Authorities hope to be able to remove the impairments on beach closings and degradation of aesthetics in the Detroit River AOC soon. Depending on continued funding and the rate of sediment cleanups, they hope to be able to remove the other U.S. impairments as early as 2019-20, though it could take some years longer than that.

But things have already come a long way. Bohling notes you can already see a big difference, particularly in the abundance of fish.

"We have a world-class walleye fishery here," she says. "If you come out in the spring, a few weeks from now, it's going to be just covered in boats. You could walk across the river on the boats."

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.
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