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.