Reclaiming The Rouge

One of the most polluted rivers in the nation has come a long way thanks to the flood of support from communities, but it still has a long way to go.

Most people would say there’s something a little crazy about three guys crawling on a bunch of downed trees in the middle of the Rouge River, especially at night with a light rain falling.

Yet, there we were, trying to maneuver onto a massive logjam not far from I-275 in Canton Township. Sculpted by the forces of the Rouge’s Lower Branch, the logjam was an impressive tangle of woody debris and man-made junk discarded at various points upstream. The jam clogged the river from one bank to the other; parts of it reached nearly 20 feet high.

In the beams of our headlamps, though, we saw the prize. There, half-submerged in the rising, murky waters, was a 15-foot flat-bottom boat. Earlier in the day, somebody had tipped us off on its location. While it looked pretty well-battered, it appeared to be seaworthy.

We probably should’ve waited for better conditions, but we needed the boat and jumped at the chance to get it. As local volunteers who have been cleaning up the Lower Rouge where it traverses through our hometown of Wayne, we had been searching for just such a vessel to help us freight out trash.

It took us about an hour to pry the boat loose, and another hour to hike through some thick brush and carry it out of the surprisingly remote location to a truck we had waiting in a hotel parking lot next to the expressway.

In the two years since finding our “garbage barge,” we’ve used it to float out more than 100 tires and a couple dozen shopping carts, not to mention hundreds of trash bags filled with water bottles, liquor bottles, and Styrofoam coffee cups. We even used it to carry out a riding lawnmower found buried in the stream bank.

Of course, “our” stretch of the Rouge is only about 7 miles long — a fraction of a river system that drains 467 square miles of land and includes four main branches, all of which come together by the time they get to Dearborn and then head out to the Detroit River near the industrial wasteland of Zug Island. That’s an area that stretches from Rochester in the north, Washtenaw’s Salem Township in the west, and Van Buren Township to the southwest.

You Gotta Have Friends

Like thousands of others in the region, I was introduced to the plight of the long-neglected river by an event called Rouge Rescue. The annual cleanup takes place in dozens of metro Detroit communities, and will celebrate its 29th anniversary on May 30. The event is spearheaded by Friends of the Rouge (FOTR), a nonprofit that promotes stewardship of the much-maligned river.

Since the group formed in 1986 and organized the first Rouge Rescue, FOTR has galvanized an army of volunteers. More than 54,000 of these foot soldiers have removed an astonishing 47,000 cubic yards of trash — that’s enough to fill more than 9,000 dump trucks. That includes more than 1,700 tires, 500-plus shopping carts, and nearly 250 appliances. The group has also coordinated the removal of dozens of automobiles from the river.

All that trash is a sad testament to how we’ve historically treated the Rouge, which ebbs and flows through a mostly urban landscape. In fact, people have treated the river with disdain ever since Henry Ford decided to build the world’s largest manufacturing facility along the lower reaches of the Rouge. Since it opened in 1929, Ford Motor Company’s massive River Rouge Complex helped turn the Rouge into one of the most polluted rivers in the nation.

The Ford factory was not alone, of course. The area between the Rouge plant and Zug Island at the Detroit River is an industrial landscape filled with factories, refineries, and belching smokestacks straight from a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi movie. It is the very buckle of the Rust Belt — an area where the Rouge River famously caught fire in 1969.

But the Rouge watershed isn’t all industrial by any stretch. It includes numerous parks — a section even runs through the opulent Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills. Long before the industry-laden main branch, stormwater and sanitary pollution (i.e. raw sewage) are flushed into the river by municipalities all over Wayne and Oakland counties — every time there’s a major “rain event.” So you begin to understand how, in 1987, the Rouge was identified by the federal government as one of 43 “hot spots” or “areas of concern” (AOC) in the Great Lakes region. In fact, the Rouge watershed is one of just a few entire watersheds listed as an AOC. The nearby Clinton River is another.

The reality is, for years, much of the urban portions of the river system was off-limits to people, even though more than 1.3 million people live in the watershed.

A Tremendous Turnaround

The Rouge’s complicated story took a dramatic turn in the aftermath of the 1969 fire that made international news — and helped birth the environmental movement. Concerned citizens began to say enough is enough. Many came together to form FOTR. The goal was not only to begin removing trash from the river, but also to teach people how to be stewards of the creeks, streams, and rivers in their own backyards.

In 1972, the federal government began enforcing the Clean Water Act, which forced municipalities to reverse generations of awful engineering that treated resources like the Rouge as a convenient sewer when sanitary lines became overwhelmed during storms.

The Department of the Environment in Wayne County administered the Rouge River Wet Weather Demonstration Project (or Rouge Project, for short). It was a collaborative effort between the federal, state, and local municipalities with the primary goals of making the river safe for recreation, improve the health of the ecosystem, protect the Great Lakes, and ensure compliance with environmental laws.

During its 22-year lifetime (the program ended last summer), the Rouge Project funneled more than $350 million in federal grants, with additional funding from local communities. A main focus was addressing combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). Most of these have been eliminated, and as a result water quality has improved in most of the watershed.

We know this because of extensive testing. In fact, since the implementation of the Rouge Project, the Rouge has been one of the most monitored rivers in the nation, with constant sampling for E. coli (bacteria associated with raw sewage), dissolved oxygen, sedimentation, and other factors that determine water quality.

“There’s no question the Rouge has improved — dramatically in some cases,” says Sally Petrella, FOTR’s volunteer monitoring program manager.

If anyone would know, it would be Petrella. She has probably spent more time studying the Rouge than anyone. She and other staff members have helped train a virtual army of volunteers how to monitor water quality, including about 80,000 students who have participated in the group’s Rouge Education Project since 1987. The hands-on experience for the kids is vital in the group’s mission to reverse negative attitudes about the river.

“We can tell plenty of stories about students who learned about the river through the Rouge Education Project, and then went on to become biologists, or teachers, or environmental scientists because of that exposure,” Petrella says.

One of the ways their volunteers monitor water quality is to look for benthic macroinvertebrates, aquatic insects that live under the gravel and sediment at the bottom of streams. The presence of these aquatic insects, such as mayflies and caddisflies, indicates good water quality. Since they began the monitoring, Petrella says the group has documented increased numbers in most areas of the watershed.

FOTR has also trained volunteers to participate in annual frog and toad surveys. Their presence is an indicator of quality wetlands, vital to the health of the river. Thus far, the group has documented eight different species. And, in 2012, the group launched a survey team to determine what kind of fish are calling the river home. They have documented several new species not seen in the past. And one of the biggest surprises was finding 20 species in Dearborn’s Ford Field Park, where not so long ago biologists found no fish at all.

Of course, like the aquatic insects, the fish populations vary depending on where you go in the watershed. Trout and salmon have been found in isolated pockets, and the endangered redside dace — a small minnow found only in this region — is still hanging on in a couple creeks.

Wildlife is also returning to the wooded corridors along the watershed. Beavers have been documented for the first time in generations.

Embracing The Resource

All of this good news is beginning to change perceptions, and communities all over the watershed are rediscovering the Rouge. Southfield, for example, has used grants and other funding mechanisms to purchase land to preserve the wooded riparian corridor. As a result the beautiful Berberian Woods and Carpenter Lake properties will be enjoyed by future generations.

Millions of dollars have been spent in Dearborn and Canton to build recreation trails for biking and hiking.

Even in the most industrial area of the watershed, near the hulking Rouge plant, a green oasis is set to bloom as a result of the Fort Rouge Gateway Project (FRoG). The Michigan Department of Transportation is reconstructing the Fort Street Bridge, a historical drawbridge that spans the Rouge where Ford’s goons once attacked union members. As part of the project, the land adjacent to the bridge will become a pocket park featuring a kayak launch and environmental exhibits.

Adjacent to this new park, Marathon Oil Company has bought up most of the homes in Oakwood Heights neighborhood to create a green buffer around its refinery. And the city of Dearborn is trying to obtain grants to purchase Fordson Island, a man-made island the city wants to maintain as green space.

Wayne has embraced the Rouge as much as any watershed community. A couple of years ago, the city secured a federal grant to remove a dam — the only major obstruction on the Lower Rouge — that dated to the 1930s. Now fish — including salmon, steelhead, and other game species — are able to move up from the Great Lakes all the way to the headwaters in Washtenaw County where they can spawn with greater success.

Local volunteers (of which I am one) have hacked away at the many logjams that constantly clog the river, opening it up to canoeing and kayaking. FOTR has hosted an annual group paddle through the city each fall for about a decade. Some of the trips have attracted up to 50 paddlers.

The trips have proved so successful, Wayne has partnered with Wayne County, Canton, Dearborn, and even the National Park Service in an effort to develop an “urban water trail” — one that would be a 25-mile course to take paddlers on a daylong journey from Canton to the Detroit River.

For the last two years, Wayne has also hosted Rouge-A-Palooza. The idea was to celebrate all the work done to clean up the river. The one-day festival includes canoeing and kayaking, wildlife and environmental displays, a paper boat race for the kids, and even a canoe race (the aptly named Logjam Canoe Classic). The Third Annual Rouge-A-Palooza will take place Oct. 10.

Still Work To Be Done

Livonia resident Bill Craig, a long time volunteer, wears many hats. He has been coordinating Rouge Rescue in Westland since the first year of the event. People like Craig are the lifeblood of the movement to restore the Rouge.

He is also a former chair of the Rouge River RAP Advisory Council (RRAC), which was formed to develop targets to get the Rouge “delisted” from its AOC status.

While the Rouge has come a long way, there is still a long way to go. Craig is cautiously optimistic that the Rouge will be delisted, but there are still some major obstacles — the biggest of which are the remaining CSOs. Dearborn, Inkster, Redford, Detroit, and Dearborn Heights all have CSOs that still need to be addressed because they discharge raw sewage into the river during rain events. Detroit has 55 CSOs alone, and, because of its recent bankruptcy, has until 2037 to address them.

“If you’re on a journey of 10,000 miles, and you’ve journeyed 6,000 miles, you’ve come a long way, especially if you are walking uphill,” Craig says. “Yes, there are things that have disappointed me along the way, including the lack of political will that exists and the slow pace of getting things done. But we have come so far. Saving this river has been a roller-coaster ride.”

Having worked alongside so many volunteers in this effort, I’m optimistic, too. Yes, there are times when you get discouraged. I’ve stood in foul, knee-deep muck, seen the occasional oil discharge directly into the river from an outfall, and hacked through more logjams than I care to recall. But I’ve also caught trout and other game fish, and canoed through wooded areas you’d swear were in northern Michigan. And I’ve seen the smiles as children discover aquatic insects in the Rouge.

I think I can speak for most of the volunteers who have made saving the Rouge one of their passions. For every minute given to the cause, the Rouge gives back more in return. It’s provided me a place to fish and canoe, and my kids a place to explore virtually in our backyard. It’s full of surprises if you just take the time to look.

Heck, it even gave me a boat.