Freshwater Metropolis: the underground scene

It's a Saturday morning in late March, and about 70 people from across the city are converging on Wayne County Community College's Eastern Campus to talk about water.

They've come to the Sierra Club's inaugural "Green Your Neighborhood" forum to consider their day-to-day relationship with the resource that's so regionally abundant it's easy to take for granted. They're here to learn how to decrease water consumption, save money, and reduce the disposal of harmful chemicals into the water system. Because some of the topics covered in the three hour gathering also include neighborhood green infrastructure projects, the forum necessarily touches on blight reduction and neighborhood revitalization, too.

Since December, Matt Lewis has been exploring the subject of greater Detroit's water and related infrastructure in his series "Freshwater Metropolis," produced by the Erb Family Foundation and published in Model D and Metromode. I'm joining him this week with a dispatch from the Sierra Club's forum, which we hope will offer interested Detroiters some inspiration as well insight into everyday actions they can take to help conserve and protect our water. From choosing DIY non-toxic cleaning products to fixing leaks and disconnecting downspouts, it all counts; by making more water-conscious decisions together, we have a greater opportunity to effect real change.

The forum begins with the Sierra Club's Melissa Damaschke, who takes the stage with an important reminder about what the Great Lakes states have (and what we have to lose): the largest surface freshwater system in the world. She goes on to describe the harmful effects of the periodic combined sewer overflows that take place in Detroit (as well as 771 other US cities), during which untreated human and industrial waste is dumped from the overburdened sewer system directly into the Detroit River (a river, of course, that's an integral component of the Great Lakes system).

One way to prevent these overflows is to reduce the amount of water that enters the sewer system in the first place. "This is our vision," Damaschke continues, showing a satellite image of downtown Detroit in which green roofs have been digitally inserted on top of nearly all the buildings. (In urban environments, infrastructural elements like green roofs, gardens, targeted plantings and permeable pavement all allow water to be usefully absorbed into living systems, rather than dumped into sewers as runoff.)

A bit later, Khalil Ligon from the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP) describes a neighborhood beautification/green infrastructure project that LEAP organized at the Latham Playfield near Warren and Van Dyke. Last June, volunteers from LEAP, the Greening of Detroit, and the Burns Seneca Fischer Block Club planted a stormwater infiltration forest of more than 200 trees on the formerly vacant lot. The trees, Ligon explains, capture rainwater through their roots and absorb it into their canopies, helping to reduce runoff. Among other benefits, projects like LEAP's also reduce runoff through the trees' fallen and decomposing leaves, which create optimal soil conditions for maximum rainwater absorption.

LEAP's forest offers an inspired example of a sustainable rainwater management project for other organized Detroit neighborhoods with vacant land to spare, but what about those small-scale decisions that Detroiters can make every day?

The bulk of the forum consists of six workshops in two sessions dedicated to just that. The topics are: disconnecting home downspouts that lead to Detroit's combined sewer system, designing rain gardens with native plants to combat runoff, using rainwater to maintain a home garden, building a rain barrel, making DIY natural cleaning products, and saving water and money at home. An apartment dweller with no yard, garden or downspout to speak of, I choose to attend the latter two.

Erma Leaphart-Gouch of the Sierra Club leads the workshop on saving money and saving water. We start off by filling out a worksheet to approximate how many gallons of water we each use per day in our homes. (An average dishwasher, for instance, uses 10 gallons per load. Watering your lawn with a sprinkler? 140 gallons per hour.) Some of the tips to reduce that number are pretty common sense (take shorter showers, fix leaks ASAP, before they really add up), and others involve recognizing and changing wasteful habits. Turn off the water while brushing your teeth, for instance, and you could save 25 gallons per month. Going to dump that half-full water glass down the drain? Why not use it to water a plant instead?

Erma also points out some technologies that we can use to help reduce water usage, like faucet aeratorslow-flow toilets, and new showerheads that can reduce shower water output by half.

Down the hall, Chelsea Maralason of Wayne State's Office of Campus Sustainability leads the workshop on DIY cleaning products. "We've thought for so long," she says, "that the chemical smell of household cleaners means that whatever we're cleaning is really clean. But it doesn't. It just means those products are toxic." And it's not just that we're using toxic products, we're dumping them down the drain and into our water system when we're done.

Chelsea describes several easy-to-make, effective, affordable, and non-toxic replacements for common household cleaners: one part vinegar to one part water for an all-purpose cleaner, for instance (add a bit of rubbing alcohol to make a streak-free glass cleaner), and two cups of olive oil and one cup of lemon juice for a wood polish. She has a recipe for weed killer, too (one gallon white vinegar, ¼ cup liquid soap and two tablespoons of salt) because toxic chemicals used in lawn care are applied directly to our groundwater.

After the session break, I talk to a few people who've attended other workshops. Beverly Wiley, a resident of the east side, learned about rain barrels. Having recently retired, she and her husband are looking for ways to save money and reduce their water consumption. She's excited about what she found out, that she could use water collected in a rain barrel, instead of from the hose, to wash her car and water her lawn.

Julia Ball has come to the forum because she and some of her west side neighbors would like to start a community garden to beautify a nearby vacant lot. She'd been considering using a rain barrel to water it, but learned from that workshop that she'd need to have it connected to a downspout, which wouldn't work on the vacant lot. She's leaving with some good ideas from the rain garden workshop, though, where she learned about the hardiness of Michigan native plants.

It seems, by the end of the day, that just about everyone at the forum is leaving with some valuable new information. (One lucky raffle winner leaves with a brand new rain barrel, too.) We're a long way yet, in Detroit, from making decisions en masse that keep the health of our water firmly in mind. But as this well-attended gathering of interested and enthusiastic Detroiters makes clear, we're getting there.

Matthew Piper writes Green City Diaries, the Green Garage and Model D's everyday sustainability series. He'll be returning to the subject of water later this month in his next diary entry.  

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at
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