Battling pollution's legacy in metro Detroit's 'Areas of Concern' waterways

Surrounded by heavy industry, few pictured the Fordson Island in the lower Rouge River as a candidate for a nature area. But the Friends of the Rouge wanted to clean it up anyway.

With the help of a $150,000 federal grant obtained by the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority in 2010, volunteers from the group hauled out what was left of about 20 decaying boats, half-sunken or overgrown with weeds, leftovers from an abandoned neighborhood that existed on the island in the 1970s. All told, they removed some 122 tons of debris from the site.

"They were terrible eyesores," says Sally Petrella, volunteer monitoring program manager for the Friends of the Rouge. "Some still had fuel in their tanks that had to be removed."

Long-term plans call for eventually converting the island to a nature area. It's one small part of an effort to restore the Rouge River and other "toxic hot spots" known as Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) in southeast Michigan and across the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes AOCs are bodies of water that have been singled out by the United States and Canada for special attention to correct environmental problems resulting from human activities. There are 43 of them, designated as such under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Five of them are rivers in the Metro Detroit region: the Rouge, Raisin, Clinton, St. Clair and Detroit rivers. The St. Clair and Detroit AOCs are binational, meaning that responsibility for their restoration is shared by the United States and Canada. The Detroit River gets most of the attention, but there's a lot of activity going on at the Rouge and other AOCs in the region.

"The river has come a long, long way with all the cleanup efforts," says Petrella, who notes the water quality has noticeably improved in recent years.

The Rouge smells better. The mats of floating sewage are gone. There's less garbage. Not only that, but the fish are coming back. And insects, snails, worms and other small aquatic creatures that are key indicators of water quality are rebounding as well.

Click and zoom on the map to find links to Areas of Concern websites .

Map data source: USEPA. Acquired with the assistance of ECT Inc.

Pollution's causes and effects 

One of the biggest problems in Great Lakes AOCs – and the primary reason that most were designated AOCs in the first place – is contaminated sediments, where toxic industrial wastes settled and mingled with mud, sand, and clay.

Sewage discharges are another big one, as are the loss of wetlands and other fish and wildlife habitats. Another is nonpoint pollution, a term referring to contaminants that are washed off the land and into bodies of water, among them sediment, fertilizer, pesticides, spilled gas and oil, livestock wastes, and more.

While these are root causes, it's often difficult to evaluate them directly. So AOCs are assessed according to specific impacts; how the underlying causes impair physical, chemical, and biological conditions. There are 14 of these "beneficial use impairments" (BUIs), and the list varies for each AOC. The goal of restoration efforts is to remove each impairment until there are none left and the AOC is delisted.

The 14 BUIs are:
  • Restrictions on Fish and Wildlife Consumption (there are actually consumption restrictions on all fish caught in Michigan, but are stricter in an AOC)
  • Tainting of Fish and Wildlife Flavor (i.e., oily or chemical taste)
  • Degraded Fish and Wildlife Populations
  • Fish Tumors or Other Deformities
  • Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive Problems
  • Degradation of Benthos (bottom-dwelling organism)
  • Restrictions on Dredging Activities (limitations on navigational dredging to avoid stirring up toxic sediment)
  • Eutrophication/Undesirable Algae
  • Restrictions on Drinking Water Consumption, or Taste and Odor Problems
  • Beach Closings (due to the presence of e coli or other bacteria associated with sewage and animal wastes)
  • Degradation of Aesthetics (visible pollution, such as trash or oil slicks)
  • Added Costs to Agriculture or Industry
  • Degradation of Phytoplankton and Zooplankton Populations
  • Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat

Local stakeholders drive the process

Each Great Lakes AOC has a public advisory council, or PAC, that works to identify needs, set priorities and advocate for specific projects. Members typically include local officials, public works staff, businesspeople, as well as representatives of volunteer and advocacy groups. The latter often plays a significant role in coordinating and doing the hands-on work in restoration projects.

While federal agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers do important work, much of the oversight for individual AOCs is handled at the state or provincial level. In Michigan, the lead role is taken by the Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

The local PACs play a prominent role in setting priorities. Mark Richardson, a former Macomb County prosecutor, chaired the Clinton River PAC for 10 years, stepping down in 2014. He still serves as a member.

"Every AOC is different and unique in its own way," he says. "In our AOC, we found a lot of wildlife and habitat beneficial use impairments. Our approach was to bring local communities to the table with proposals to address wetlands, water quality and habitat. And working with DEQ, we evaluated them and worked to secure funding for the highest priority projects."

Some of those problems can be quite thorny. Production of PCBs has been banned for years, but they still ooze out of old sites. It's not clear exactly where those sources are located. Tracking down sewage problems can be a challenge because few good records are available showing exactly where old sewer lines run and what they're connected to.

"You can't unravel it all with just one big project," Richardson says.

Industry and urbanization: Rouge and Clinton Rivers

The Rouge is still affected by all nine of its BUIs. Progress is being made, but it's not expected the AOC will be delisted until sometime in the 2020s.

Restoration efforts in Great Lakes AOCs have picked up in recent years. After years of modest progress, Congress gave them a major boost in 2010 by enacting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which established a framework for environmental restoration in the Great Lakes and authorized funding.

Since then, with bipartisan support, the GLRI has provided about $300 million a year for restoration efforts, supporting some 2,500 projects in the AOCs and elsewhere over the first five years. Supplemental funding and in-kind support are commonly provided by the states and community partners involved.

The main difference between the Rouge and Clinton rivers is that while the Clinton is relatively close to being delisted, with a target date of 2018.

But they have more similarities than differences. They are among the largest AOCs in the entire Great Lakes, with boundaries that comprise their entire watersheds. They also have similar problems. In addition to industrial activity along their banks, both have experienced rapid urbanization throughout their watersheds as the Detroit suburbs experienced explosive growth over the past half-century.

Both the Clinton and Rouge are "flashy," subject to sudden flooding after storms, largely the result of urbanization which "hardened" the land with parking lots and other impervious surfaces so that rain and snowmelt simply run right off rather than soaking in and percolating through the soil. This also means that what was on the land gets carried down into the rivers – road salt, fertilizers, pesticides, animal wastes, leakage from faulty septic tanks, gasoline spills, even the drips of oil that accumulate on driveways. It all eventually finds its way to the river.

"It’s still difficult for people to understand that what happens in their front yard can affect the river, even though it's a mile away," says Brandy Siedlaczak, stormwater manager for the City of Southfield and chair of the Alliance of Rouge Communities.

One of the primary reasons for wetlands restoration projects, which not only provide habitat for many species, but act as stormwater buffers as well, absorbing runoff and releasing it slowly, cleaning and filtering it in the process. One example in Southfield was the restoration of a wetland at Telegraph Road and I-696 two years ago, in a highly urbanized area subject to frequent flooding.

"Back in the day when it was developed, all that drainage basically just went right out into the river," Siedlaczak says.

Raisin River: Legacy of industry

In contrast to the Rouge and Clinton, the Raisin River AOC is relatively small – only the last 2.6 miles of the river, plus a portion of Lake Erie extending a mile north and south of the mouth of the river. The river there is an active port, handling commercial vessels that transport such products as coal, gypsum, auto parts, and wind turbine components.

Its primary problem has been contaminated sediments, primarily from PCBs and heavy metals, the residue of local industry that included a power plant, stamping plant, and former paper company that discharged paper pulp into lagoons along the river.

Much of the sediment cleanup is complete. One project that remains is a recently discovered "hot spot" of PCBs near the turning basin in the shipping channel. Sediment removal is planned for this year.

The River Raisin AOC has seen many successful habitat restorations as well, notably the restoration of nearly 400 acres of marshes and lakeland prairie in Sterling State Park on Lake Erie. Bald eagles other colonies of nesting birds have made a comeback in the area.

One of the impairments in the River Raisin has been a reduction in fish populations. A series of old, often obsolete, dams meant fish from Lake Erie had only a limited stretch of the river available to them for spawning habitat. So a project was undertaken in 2012 to remove or modify eight dams.

Funded by grants from the GLRI and MDEQ, two dams within the Monroe city limits were removed completely and four others were modified with rock arch ramps, a sort of artificial rapids on the downstream side of the dams, allowing fish to pass over. Along with bypasses created at two other dams upstream from the AOC, the changes allowed fish to go as far upstream as Dundee for the first time in 80 years.

Three of the Raisin's BUIs – eutrophication, beach closings and aesthetics – have been removed. The remainders are on track to be removed by 2017 pending assessments, meaning the river would be fully delisted.

Two nations, one St. Clair River

At the binational St. Clair River AOC, the restoration work on the U.S. side has essentially been completed with several of the impairments removed in recent years.

The major remaining problems in the AOC are on the Canadian side, where the city of Sarnia is home to more than 60 refineries and chemical plants, earning it the nickname "Chemical Valley." Those industries have been linked to many of the AOC's impairments, particularly ones related to drinking water, fish and wildlife, and the populations of other aquatic organisms (benthos) that inhabit the river bottom.

As a result, much of the work on the U.S. side has been related to habitat restoration and aesthetics, as well as correcting sewage discharges. Four of the five remaining U.S. impairments are due to be reviewed this year, with delisting expected to follow.

The difficult BUI that remains is drinking water restrictions, largely due to the risk of spills from Canadian industry. It's not clear when this might be addressed. A real-time spill monitoring system was installed at the water intakes of several U.S. communities a decade ago, but many chose not to continue funding the system once the original grant ran out.

Significant progress has been made on other aspects of restoration, though. Among the more notable projects have been the creation of three fish spawning reefs in the river. This entails stones of varying size spread across a total of six-and-a-half acres of river bottom. While primarily intended for sturgeon and whitefish, they seem to be attracting other species as well.

The AOC runs the length of the river channel from Lake Huron down through where the St. Clair Delta empties into Lake St. Clair. A project undertaken last fall on Harsen's Island cleared out silt and invasive phragmites plants from a nearly four-mile long channel called Krispin's Drain. The hope is to restore a migration of perch and panfish between the river and lake to nesting beds on the island, while also creating recreational opportunities such as fishing and paddling.

Perhaps the most prominent effort has been the Blue Water River Walk at Port Huron. The nearly one-mile stretch has been converted to a public park, with a more natural shoreline of rocks, native plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees. 
A 10-foot wide walking trail runs the length. An old rail ferry dock has been converted to a viewing platform. A variety of pieces of public art line the trail, and rows of large stones and boulders offshore form reefs that protect the shoreline from the wave action of passing freighters while creating shallow water habitat for young fish and provide an aesthetic element as well.

"I grew up in the area, and no one went down where that RiverWalk is now. It was a heavy industrial area," says local resident and PAC member Patricia Troy. "It's gorgeous now."

This series about restoration in Michigan's Areas of Concern is made possible through support from the Michigan Office of Great Lakes through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
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