<span class='image-credits'>Joe Powers Insitu Photography</span>  <span class='image-credits'>Joe Powers Insitu Photography</span>

Sterling Heights

From dirty word to popular placemaker: Reclaiming the Clinton River

When he was growing up Kyle Langlois always thought of the Clinton River as a bit of a “dirty word”.

“It didn’t flow very well, there was not a lot of wildlife,” Langlois says. “The joke was always that ‘yes, you could swim in it, but I wouldn't recommend it’ or ‘yes you can fish, but I wouldn’t eat what you catch’.”

Now, the Sterling Heights Parks and Recreation director knows just how much that reputation is changing. And how important it is that it does.

Sterling Heights is one of the many communities lining the river (which traverses over 750 square miles across Oakland, Macomb, Lapeer and St. Clair counties) looking to the waterway for its placemaking potential. A recent push to realize the river as an asset has made substantial changes in the city, along with other efforts further along the waterway in Mount Clemens and even proposals for daylighting the river in Pontiac.

Sterling Heights Parks and Recreation director Kyle Langlois has seen attitudes change towards Clinton River.
Taking pride in place

For almost three decades, the Clinton River has been listed as an environmental “Area of Concern”. The U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement pointed to the river as having one of the worst legacies of toxic contamination and environmental degradation in the Great Lakes ecosystem.

In Sterling Heights, Mayor Michael Taylor says improving the river has to be coupled with changing people’s impression of, and the way they interact with, the natural feature.

“If you look at a map of the city, the river runs diagonally right through it,” he says. “It shapes everything in our city.”

Taylor says the river provides a great environment around it, and that the future of the city involves making the most of that. It will take a slight shift, however, in the local psyche.

“Even a lot of our residents who have lived here for 20 years or more don’t realize what a tremendous asset it is.”



Cleaning up its act


A few years ago, Sterling Heights received a  $4.5 million grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, along with the city of Utica, for a Clinton River Restoration Project. The grant was one of the largest in the city's history, and provided improvement to the habitat along nine miles of the Clinton River, upstream from its confluence with the Red Run Drain.

Contractors repaved paths, installed bank plantings, reseeded bare areas, stabilized banks, and removed woody debris blockages.

“It’s been amazing,” says Langlois. “The river is flowing, and flowing water is cleaner water, and there's water that fish can live in. It’s a beautiful river.”

“It’s been a tremendous benefit to the residents of Sterling Heights,” says Taylor. “It really is a gem that I think not a lot of people know about.”



Recreation returns

Jerry Reis will be the first to tell you about the potential for enjoying the Clinton River. He and his team at Clinton River Canoe & Kayak have been working with the city over the last four years on the restoration project and plan to open a new shop front this year at 37328 Utica Rd.

“It’s a beautiful part of the river to paddle, and will only get better,” Reis says. “It’s like being up north, but in the city.”

As part of the city's Recreating Recreation initiatives, a permanent EZ Launch Dock will be added as well as the kayak and canoe livery. It’s something the city want to see more of.

“One of the most fun, and unique, things you can do in Sterling Heights is get on a kayak,” says Taylor.

“So we’ve been happy to partner with private companies and we’re working on having kayak and canoe landings and liveries that the city will maintain and support.”



Real estate revival

One of the benefits of restoration projects that Langlois points to is a reduction in flooding along the river. It’s not something that has escaped the notice of homeowners.

Builder Joe Nahas has seen a renewed interest in homes along the river, and an increase in value.

“There used to be stigma about the Clinton River, but in the last ten years a switch has flipped and people want to be near it."

Both Nahas and his son have built homes along the river, a move that has paid off when it comes to resale value.

“My wife and I are looking at downsizing,” Nahas says, “And we have another couple basically just waiting for us to move so they can purchase our house, because of its great location.”



Tackling invasive species

Cleaning up the river isn’t just about aesthetics on the river banks. It’s also about improving water quality, which is where Six Rivers Land Conservancy comes in.

The non-profit fiduciary for the Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA) in Oakland and Lake St. Clair counties recently gained support- courtesy of two $60,000 grants. Each grant supports a CISMA coordinator based in a geographic region, and their efforts to address invasive species.

Sounding like an flu-ridden Australian visitor, phragmites australis is one of the main invasive species concerns for Macomb. Phragmites thrive in disturbed areas and roadside ditches, and CISMA Coordinator McKenzi Bergmoser says it is a persistent, robust species that it requires a cooperative effort to control it.

“Phragmites treatments along road right-of-ways have been taking place around Macomb County, including areas of 16 Mile,” she says.

But it will take a combined effort, which is why the Macomb County Department of Roads has been involved in the project as well.  

“All water is part of a larger hydrologic process, whether it be the water contained in a lake, river, stream, or puddle,” says Bergmoser. “By coordinating our efforts, municipalities and nonprofits can share best management practices and gain an economy of scale.”



Seeing the bigger picture

Sterling heights isn’t the only community taking advantage of its waterways. Eric Diesing, Watershed Ecologist at the Clinton River Watershed Council says lots of neighborhoods are waking up to what the river provides.

“A healthy river helps promote healthy living, both economically and socially,” Diesing says.

Habitat projects have occurred along several of the river’s locations, including the Clinton River Spillway, Galloway Creek and projects in Shelby Township, all in association with the EPA’s Area of Concern Program.

Today, after eleven restoration projects since being declared an “area of concern”, Diesling says the river is beginning to move towards becoming a renewed resource for wildlife and people to enjoy.

With 1.5 million people and 72 communities living within the Clinton River watershed, it’s no wonder people are looking to reclaim the natural feature. It seems that sooner or later the negative connotations surrounding the river will become just water under the bridge.
 

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor, currently based out of Detroit. Contact her at kate@wanderoff.com.au
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