Blog: Laura Rubin

Laura Rubin is the Huron River Watershed Council’s Executive Director. Laura has served as Executive Director since 1998 and oversees the Council’s programs, administration and fundraising; serves as spokesperson for the Council on local, regional, and state committees and boards; and works with Board of Directors to set goals and policies for the organization to meet strategic plans.  

Under Laura’s leadership the HRWC has tripled it’s operating budget in five years; increased staff size; created financial and operations policies and procedures, and expanded its programs and gained visibility within the community.

Prior to the Council, Laura worked with small and medium sized manufacturers on pollution prevention for the Energy and Environment Center at the Industrial Technology Institute. Her previous work experience includes an economic development consultant on the Navajo Reservation and a Program Director at Greenpeace. She received an MBA and a Masters of Science from the University of Michigan’s CEMP program and a B.A. from Colorado College.

The Huron River Watershed Council, founded in 1965, is Michigan's oldest regional river protection organization. Through hands-on education, advocacy, research and technical assistance the Council seeks to inspire attitudes, behaviors and economies that foster sound stewardship of local natural resources. 

Laura Rubin - Most Recent Posts:

Post 4: Bringing it home

In the Huron River Watershed we have a 1995 DNR Fisheries study that guides prioritization of dam removal. The top three priorities for removal are:

  • Dexter Dam at the Mill Pond
  • Argo Dam in Ann Arbor
  • Peninsular Dam in Ypsilanti

None of these dams provide hydropower. There are only a few dams on the river that provide hydropower. Low-head hydropower does not pay to produce it in Michigan (presently) as you can see that the majority of the dams are held by municipalities or non-profits. Private industry, mainly utility companies, sold the dams off to the local municipalities or parks agencies for sometimes as little as a dollar decades ago. 

None of these dams serve as flood control dams. These dams are operated as run of the river, which means that what comes in goes out. Kind of like a big bathtub. Rather than help control or minimize flooding, these dams are greater safety hazards as they age. If they fail, they could potentially flood residents and businesses downstream. 

The Dexter Dam at Mill Pond is being removed this summer. You should visit it.  The dam sits below the bridge leading out of Dexter on the West side of the Village. It looks muddy and messy, but that’s dam removal.The contractors have struggled with the large amounts of sediment and some unexpected
"disappearance of the stream and downstream bubbling up" but all in all, the stream is cutting a new channel and the upstream area is filling in as a beautiful floodplain and future park. 

The next dam downstream is Argo. The City of Ann Arbor is heading a public process to get input on the management of the river, mainly Barton, Argo, Geddes, and Superior ponds. With Argo Dam we need to balance the needs of the rowing community with the ecological and economic benefits of removal. 

Peninsular Dam lies further downstream in Ypsilanti. The Huron River Watershed Council is just starting discussions with the City of Ypsilanti about removal options and teaming up with the City of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and other partners to talk about conducting some feasibility studies on Argo and Peninsular Dams. 

I realize when I talk about dam removal many people envision a stinky, muddy flat where the pond used to be. I picture beautiful wetlands and floodplains mixed with parks, paths, and benches along a free-flowing, fast, and cool river.  In a preliminary study of Argo Dam removal, an estimated 50 acres will be reclaimed by the City as parkland with dam removal. Whether it’s a whitewater park, a great canoeing or kayaking stretch, a nice place to walk, or active recreation, dam removal will change the view of the river for us all, but in the process, add attractive amenities to our communities, improving the quality of the life in the area and the quality of the Huron River.

Post No 3: Dams, Dams, Dams

Dams, dams, dams. Isn’t this dam business fun. Well, it’s becoming a hot topic and fairly contentious. or good reasons, too. As the majority of the dams in this country are or have reached their planned life expectancy, dam removal is a very effective way to restore rivers.

First let me give a bit of background on how we got all of these dams and the predicament we face. Then I’ll bring it home to our watershed and talk specifics.

We have been as busy as beavers erecting dams on American rivers. Across the country, 2.5 million dams of all sizes block and harness rivers; of those, 80,000 dams are greater than 6 feet high and store a combined total of approximately 1 billion acre-feet – the equivalent to one year’s runoff (Graf, 1999). The 900-square mile watershed in Michigan that I call home has no fewer than 98 dams. Dams serve a wide range of purposes such as hydroelectric power, water supply and irrigation, recreation, shipping, and flood control, and have become integral to the identity of some communities. 

Yet, dams have egregious impacts on rivers as they alter chemical, physical and biological processes. Downstream environmental costs of dams captured scientific attention only recently as obvious effects have resulted in the past 2 decades. Dams block free-flowing river systems and impede a river’s flushing function that enables transport of sediment and nutrients downstream; instead sediment builds up behind the dam. Dams fragment rivers and block movement of fish, mussels and other species. Dams have contributed to or caused many species to become threatened, endangered or extinct, in part, because they are located on prime spawning habitat. Many fish species require high gradient, well-oxygenated water and gravelly streambeds for spawning, which are the same parameters that provide a favorable dam site. Dams alter water temperatures, dissolved oxygen levels, turbidity and salinity both upstream and downstream of the structure. Essentially, dams prevent a river and its tributaries from fulfilling their most basic need – to flow. 

Many dams across the country have aged beyond their planned life expectancy, causing safety risks for communities downstream. With most dams constructed since the 1950s, many are reaching the end of their typical 50-year design life. At present, about one-quarter of dams are more than 50 years old. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the figure to reach 85% by 2020. In many cases, owners are pursuing dam decommissioning as the best option for unsafe dams that are no longer economically viable and that no longer serve a purpose. Often, dam removal costs less than dam repair. Experience with dam removals in Wisconsin has found removal to be 3-5 times less expensive than reconstruction. 

Three main factors are converging to change national dam policy from one of expansion to one of removal and maintenance. The dam building era has ended, economic effectiveness of dams has decreased, and safety concerns related to aging dams have placed significant liability burdens on owners. In addition, threatened and endangered species and the continuing evolution of watershed science are drivers in the shift toward river restoration.

Certainly, dam removal is not appropriate for all dams as some are economically viable and, in some cases, environmental health could be worsened with removal. However, a significant number of dams in the Great Lakes basin are small dams that provide no economic benefit and serve no purpose, and are the most eligible for removal consideration. 

Despite dozens of examples across the country, dam decommissioning still is an emerging field. While no uniform decision-making process exists to determine whether to remove a dam, several factors are essential for reaching a successful outcome. Identify stakeholders and key players and encourage their participation in the process early in the discussions about the dam’s future. Involve citizens by providing notice of meetings and opportunities to collect information to aid in decision-making.

Dam ownership and dam regulation are two key factors that will need to be considered in the early stages. Many issues need to be reviewed including engineering, hydrology, hydraulics, ecology, water quality, fluvial morphology, recreational uses, socioeconomic factors and construction options. Even with these factors present, there is no guarantee that removal will happen. But without these factors, removal almost certainly will not happen. Engineering issues rarely prevent removal of a dam; more often individuals in opposition to a removal stymie the process and prevent a successful outcome. Each situation is unique and will require a particular set of economic, legal and environmental quality tools. 

As more dams age, the nation will need a comprehensive plan at state and national levels to handle dams. What to do about a dam is a question that will face increasing numbers of communities, dam owners and government agencies. Dam safety concerns will continue to drive assessments of a dam’s value. Dam removal experts identify tying dam removal to community redevelopment as a future trend as restoring rivers generally increases property values in the community. Also, removal will need to be placed more in the context of its role in water quality management, including evaluating dams in watershed management plans. 

With watershed-level restoration gaining ground and public appreciation for rivers continuing to grow, our ability to remove dams that do not make sense will increase. And that’s very good news for our rivers. 

Post No 2

I want to tell you a story about people connecting to the Huron River. Twelve young women gathered together one warm June evening to swim in Portage Lake. While each one of them was an accomplished young athlete and member of the Dexter High School Girls Swim Team, none of them had ever done any training in a natural body of water, let alone the Huron River, which runs through Portage Lake. 

They entered the water a bit nervously, setting aside their common belief that the Huron is not safe for swimming and not quite knowing what to expect. They left the water with an understanding of what it means to truly experience the natural beauty of our River and with greater appreciation for why we should work hard to protect it. 

The Dexter High School Girls Swim Team joined Liz Elling for a pre-swim training session – the start of her 120 mile swim of the Huron River during the summer of 2007.

This is one of the hundreds of stories of the Huron that resulted as Liz made her way through the watershed. Stories that show how people connect to the River. Stories that were told by the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit Free Press, the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, and others. Stories that were witnessed by Liz’s friends and family, HRWC members and staff, volunteer paddlers and the countless people who helped with the swim and who donated money in support. 

HRWC along with an astounding number of volunteers, donors, members and supporters like Liz Elling, works every day to study and protect the Huron River.   

Join us. We have tons of volunteer opportunities with a big one next month. 

Monitoring the River is a huge task, covering 72 sites over the 910 square miles of the watershed.  Come join us in our River RoundUp where we find the coolest bugs ever!

On Saturday, September 20th we check the condition of the Huron River and its streams by finding the small creatures that live on the river bottom, where they construct teeny fishing nets and homes. Teams of trained and untrained volunteers leave at 9:00 am or 10:30 am and stay out for 5-6 hours. Contact Joan Martin at if you are interested.  Please reply by September 6th if you can join us on Saturday September 20th. 

Post No 1: So, How's The River

During the dog days of summer, I get a lot of people asking me if they can swim in the river, eat the fish, or simply the most popular, "So, how’s the river?" 

Well, despite some serious challenges, nearly every indicator of the river's health is good—and getting better.  

As director of the Huron River Watershed Council, I've spent ten years studying and protecting the Huron. HRWC's research data goes back more than 40 years, making the Huron one of the Midwest's most-studied rivers. We understand the Huron's problems and challenges as well as anyone. We know there's a lot to fix.  

The Huron River is cleaner than it's been in decades—it's the cleanest urban river in Michigan. It provides safe drinking water to Ann Arbor and other communities. It is home to thriving populations of fish and wildlife. It bolsters our economy and home values. It's beautiful, and it's safe to enjoy. 

But there are challenges……. 

Its primary threat is excess phosphorous, the active ingredient in many farm and lawn fertilizers, a result of soil erosion, and a product of sewage. Phosphorous runs off of fields and yards during rain storms, then flows into creeks and the river. There, under the right conditions, it causes rampant plant growth and algae blooms that deplete the water's oxygen, killing the creatures that live there and creating an ugly muck.  

The Huron's high number of dams make things worse, slowing the current and letting phosphorus accumulate in weed-ravaged ponds.   

But local governments—and you—can help. One easy step is to reduce phosphorous at the source by replacing phosphorous-based fertilizers with other kinds, and support regulations that restrict its use.

Another problem: stuff we eat and drink. The river literally flows through many of us: we drink it from our taps, and as it passes through our bodies, that water soaks up compounds like ibuprofen, caffeine, cholesterol, and birth-control hormones. Then, after we flush, it makes its way to the river. This is troubling, to say the least, but one bit of good news is that the Ann Arbor water treatment plant has only found trace amounts of these chemicals, does a good job of removing these chemicals from our drinking water, and now that we know about it we are able to monitor it. 

The next important step is to make sure that our waste-water plants keep these compounds from getting into the river in the first place. You can help by safely and properly disposing of excess prescription drug and over-the-counter personal care products instead of flushing them. 

A third problem—E. coli—is the most immediate threat to anyone swimming in the river. No one should drink untreated water from the Huron—or any natural body of water. And there are some smaller streams where E. coli concentrations are dangerous. But the Huron River is certainly safe for contact and for boating.

With common-sense precautions, it's even safe to swim in. Last year, Liz Elling inspired the state by swimming 100 miles down the Huron to raise awareness and funds for clean water. I personally have swum in upstream stretches and lakes of the Huron, and I've waded down many of its tributaries.  

If you do plan to swim in the river, or any natural body of water, take some basic precautions.  
  • Don't swim within 48 hours after a rain. Storms wash fecal matter into the water (most of it from wildlife), and you don't want to be swimming among—ahem—fresh deposits. But after a couple days, the river flushes the contaminants away.
  • Be aware of hazards. Dams can kill you. So can fast-moving currents and rocks, logs, and other objects that are in the water.

The Huron's problems aren't unique. Virtually every body of water in the country faces something similar. The challenges are serious, but they're no cause to fear the water. 

Meanwhile, good news abounds.

This summer, Dexter Dam is being removed, freeing Mill Creek. That's a huge boost for water quality, fishing, and ecological diversity, plus it will create new park land near downtown Dexter. 

Phosphorous levels in the middle Huron dropped over the past five years, thanks to ambitious, innovative new programs. 

In many stretches, critical fish and insect populations are up or holding steady, signaling an improvement in water quality. 

An astounding number of people care enough about Huron to make protecting it part of their lives. Just last month, more than 200 volunteers with HRWC's Adopt-a-Stream program came out on a rainy Saturday to get their hands wet collecting data about the river.

The Huron continues to nourish our economy and quality of life. More than 100,000 people will paddle the Huron this year, not to mention the thousands of anglers, walkers, runners, bikers, and birders who come down to the Huron because they know what a treasure it is. 

So the answer to those questions about the Huron River is good news. Cleaning up the river doesn't happen quickly or easily, but together, we're doing it. We invite everyone to join us in celebrating the Huron and restoring its natural splendor.