Spring Cleaning Metro Detroit’s Waterways

Almost $2 billion has gone into cleaning up the Rouge — and there is still a long way to go. Here’s how you can help.
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Detroit’s Rouge River was once so polluted with oil it caught fire and shot flames 50 feet into the air. // Photograph courtesy of Friends of the Rouge

The sight of a river catching fire is undoubtedly shocking, yet in 1969, that’s precisely what occurred on the Rouge. According to the Michigan Environmental Council, “the oil-matted Rouge River in Detroit caught fire, shooting flames 50 feet in the air and sending smoke billowing near the I-75 highway bridge.” Refuse and other pollutants clogged the waterway, threatening human and aquatic life.

It was a different era — when sensitivity to the health of the environment was in its infancy.

In 1972, the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a pact aimed at improving the quality of the Great Lakes. In 1987, the Rouge watershed was designated an “area of concern” under the GLWQA.

Just a year prior, the Friends of the Rouge was established. A nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Rouge watershed, it assumed the role of its predecessor organization Rescue The Rouge — the first organization to clean the river from 1970 to 1973.

In the early 1980s, an informal group of locals started Rouge Rescue, an annual volunteer event responsible for removing years of accumulated trash and debris from the river that Friends of the Rouge later took over.

The scope of the river may surprise some. Consisting of four principal branches (Main, Upper, Middle, and Lower) and innumerable tributaries, the Rouge River runs for a collective 127 miles. All the branches converge along the Dearborn-Detroit border before emptying into the Detroit River at Zug Island. There are also over 400 lakes, ponds, and impoundments (the bodies of water formed when a dam is constructed) in the Rouge watershed, which covers 467 square miles and overlaps three counties.

There are specific goals for cleaning up the river to remove the “area of concern designation. The Rouge River Advisory Council’s most recent report card covers many metrics, including the health of the fish and wildlife populations, the presence of invasive species, the number of beach closings, and the overall cleanliness of the river from an aesthetic perspective.

Compared to the report’s baseline (1994), considerable progress has been realized on
most of these fronts: Dissolved oxygen once regularly reached zero; by 2018, it rarely went under 5 milligrams per liter. The same year, the EPA reported a healthier fish presence in the Upper Rouge. Yet it hasn’t been enough to remove the “area of concern” designation.

“There have been several millions of dollars invested in cleanups and habitat restoration that have been implemented in the Rouge River,” says Marie McCormick, executive director of the Friends of the Rouge.

Despite these past efforts, the biggest challenge lies ahead: dredging the lower industrial areas of the Rouge to remove the thick bottom layer of sediment. “This is by far the biggest-ticket item. It should run north of $500 million.”

Another major project is a modification of the concrete channel through which the river flows in the Dearborn-Melvindale area. Built in 1975 to control flooding, the channel is a poor habitat for fish and wildlife. Modifications will include cutting the concrete in places to improve water flow and diverting water to create adjacent wetlands.

McCormick points out that her organization is still very much volunteer-oriented. While the Rouge Rescue event still occurs every spring, it has been augmented by a host of other activities.

“We now plant trees, remove invasive species, host rain garden-building workshops, and offer educational opportunities. These don’t happen on just one day anymore but over a period of time.”

To volunteer, please visit therouge.org/volunteer.

Outdoor Volunteer Opportunities

Friends of the Rouge is a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring and protecting the Rouge River. // Photograph courtesy of Friends of the Rouge

Does Earth Day (April 22) have you in the mood to pitch in to a park cleanup? In addition to the Friends of the Rouge, here are a few more organizations you can check out this month and all year round..

People for Palmer Park

This organization works to sustain and improve one of Detroit’s legendary parks. Volunteers are needed for beautification work, staffing the urban educational garden, and other duties. Visit peopleforpalmerpark.org/volunteer.html.

Belle Isle Conservancy and Nature Center

Here you’ll find a bevy of volunteer opportunities, from greeting visitors at the aquarium to serving as a docent at the nature center. Visit belleisleconservancy.org/volunteer or belleislenaturecenter.detroitzoo.org/volunteer.

Detroit Riverfront Conservancy

Maintaining the Detroit Riverwalk’s status as the best riverfront walkway in America (according to USA Today’s readers’ choice awards) requires scores of dedicated helpers.
A few examples: serving as a Riverwalk ambassador, working with Reading & Rhythm on the Riverfront (a children’s summer literacy program), and assisting with special events such as the Kids Fishing Fest. Visit detroitriverfront.org/volunteers.


This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on April 5.