Reclaiming the Rouge River in Dearborn

When searching for the perfect home, one of the big things that attracted 30-year-old Marie McCormick to the city of Dearborn was its notable green space, including the Rouge River, a waterway she says she grew up visiting and now advocates full-time for as Friends of the Rouge’s executive director.


“Part of the reason I decided to buy a house in Dearborn was because of the Rouge River and the proximity to green space,” says McCormick, who has been leading the organization for one year. “When I’m looking for a place I want to raise my family, I see a lot of value in having green spaces and a lot of other urban communities lack that or don’t build that connection to it. I think Dearborn is building that connection to its green space. A lot of new initiatives are turning the city back to the river.”


McCormick is just one of the countless residents who spend their time along the Rouge River, biking, walking, paddling, fishing, canoeing or kayaking.


The river and the green space around it is a gem in the community, bringing residents together to not only enjoy it in its current state, but protect and maintain it.

These days, locals will find lush spaces, waterfalls, wildlife and community members basking in the outdoors. But, that wasn’t always the case for the waterway.


The river’s dark side


The Rouge River played an important role in history, but wasn’t always valued by the community. It wasn’t until things got out of control that people began trying to clean up a space they had let stagnate, according to McCormick.


“Henry Ford built his automotive industry in the city of Dearborn and the Rouge River was the vehicle for that automotive explosion,” she says. “Here in Dearborn we are the home base for Ford, which is great now, but the Rouge River was at the butt end of it for a long time and suffered greatly because of the industrial machine that was built here.”


McCormick says combined sewer systems in an aging city led to overflows and pollution, with a river that became a dumping ground for raw sewage. Instead of pristine outdoor space to engage with, there were “barges of feces and used condoms” for the next several decades.


“There is a very dark side to the Rouge River,” McCormick says. “ It was so disgustingly polluted that no fish, no bug, could live in it.”


The Rouge River caught fire in 1969, adding to its dark past and when Fairlane Mall was built in the 1970s, the Rouge River was channelized, McCormick added, meaning more pavement was placed down while the natural vegetative buffer needed to keep a healthy habitat was destroyed.


It wasn’t until the 1980s, following the Environmental Protection Agency’s passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, that people began to take charge and do something about the pollution in the river.


McCormick says large scale funding didn’t begin for the Rouge River clean-up projects until 1985, when Friends of the Rouge River was founded.


“The Friends of the Rouge River have really been the champions of the restoration work that has been done,” she says. “We are the public voice and the strong volunteer arm that has championed a lot of projects. We have one of the biggest river clean-ups in the country and we’ve been doing it for more than 30 years.”


In 1985, the Rouge River was designated one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern, because the EPA says “…significant impairment of beneficial uses has occurred as a result of human activities at the local level.” This also led to the formation of the Rouge River Advisory Council in 1992 and in 1993 the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project was created “to administer several hundred million dollars to demonstrate stormwater remediation in an urban watershed.”

The Rouge River in Dearborn today


The Rouge River Watershed, which is land drained by the Rouge River, drains 467 square miles, with four major branches: Main, Upper, Middle and Lower, McCormick explains. The river runs 126 miles with numerous tributaries, more than 400 lakes and ponds, 300 parks with 20,000 acres of parkland, 33 golf courses, and 27 nature preserves. Within the watershed, there are over 1.35 million people in 48 different cities from three counties. Half of the land is urbanized, while only a quarter remains undeveloped.


“The more undeveloped the land is, that leads to higher water and environmental quality,” McCormick says. “Because there is so little remaining, there are a lot of impacts to water quality and a lot has to be done to make sure water remains at a high enough quality to protect the habitat and protect against flooding.”


Some of the most continuous slices of green space are in Dearborn, including Hines Drive and its trail that connects to the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus and Ford Field, where outdoor adventurers will find a makeshift launch pad for kayaks and canoes, she says.


The section of the Rouge River that runs through the city cuts through the middle, she explained. The Middle and Upper branches intersect just east of Evergreen and Ford roads and the Upper and Lower rivers intersect near Michigan Avenue and Evergreen Road.

Both areas are surrounded by vegetation, which is beneficial to the natural environment. Further down, however, the scene changes.


“When you cross south of Michigan Avenue, it becomes super urban and the river is channelized into a concrete basin, all the way down to the Detroit River,” McCormick says. “The problem is that it’s so urbanized, how do you slowly convert that back into some kind of vegetative buffer zone. It takes people caring about it.”


With six full-time staff members, two interns and a handful of part-time employees, the Friends of the Rouge, based on the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s campus, leads an estimated 5,000 volunteers taking part in river-friendly activities each year -- some of the many people who actively care for the river, McCormick says.


Since 1986, Friends of the Rouge has hosted the Rouge Rescue annual river cleanup event each spring, removing large amounts of trash from the river and preserving it for generations to come. It’s become one of the organization's staple events.


“We care a lot of about the Rouge River and a lot of citizens care about it and I know the city does, too,” McCormick says. “I think that partnerships will continue to grow for the Rouge.”


A place to learn


The Rouge River and its surrounding green spaces are used as an educational asset in the community, with student groups coming in from all around metro Detroit and Dearborn, including the Henry Ford Academy, Henry Ford College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn.


According to David Susko, director of the Environmental Interpretive Center on the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s campus, there are approximately 300-acres of natural area around the 470-square mile Rouge Watershed and it acts as an interactive classroom.


“The (environmental study area) is bordered on its western side by the Rouge River,” he explains. “The ESA serves as an outdoor classroom for about 20 undergraduate and graduate courses at UM-Dearborn, including field biology, ecology, ornithology, plant biology, etc., where students can study the hydrology, soil ecology, and wildlife of the area, particularly in the floodplain populated by a climax beech-maple forest adjacent to the river.”


The largest and oldest water festival in southeastern Michigan is celebrated on the Rouge River, Susko says, teaching the region about the importance of the watershed and conservation. The event last year drew more than 1,200 people.


“Since its inception in 1998, it is estimated that the Water Festival has introduced more than 35,000 students to the importance of clean water in our everyday lives,” he says.


Dr. Orin Gelderloos has been teaching and the University of Michigan-Dearborn since 1969. Taking a walk along the river, he can point out the most interesting layers of wildlife, from trees to birds.


Gelderloos takes several dozens of students from his biological sciences and environmental studies classes to the river each semester, leading them in water quality analyses, to study flow rates and record water levels in soil. His main lesson, however, is tying in the human element to the natural world.


“I think it’s very important for citizens to be connected to natural systems,” Gelderloos says. “It’s who we are, we are natural creatures. We depend on and we have to live within these natural systems.”


Gelderloos says he challenges students to observe the space and engage with it, think about the diversity of life there and ask questions.


“It’s an exciting place to do research,” he adds. “We don’t have to go out to a place like Colorado to study these things. We have them right here in our backyard.”


He believes the future of the river depends on getting people to see how crucial it is and not repeating the same mistakes that were made in the past, leading to a devastated river.


“So many people believe we can live outside of nature. We can pollute the river and then fix it, but it’s not that way,” Gelderloos says. “We aren’t going to make it if we keep consuming and dumping the way we are. We’ve been working on the Rouge River consciously now for close to 50 years and we have to keep it going.”


Investing in the Rouge River


Dave Norwood, Dearborn’s sustainability coordinator believes bringing people into the city via the waterway is a way to capture more growth in the downtown areas and add vitality to the city.


Norwood is a Dearborn resident, board member of Friends of the Rouge and graduated from UM-Dearborn, where he spent a semester studying the river up close.


“I’m a Dr. Gelderloos disciple,” Norwood says. “He changed my view of the world by taking his class. He got us to think about the river being connected to everything. What happens in the river is a direct result of what we do on land.”


Norwood helps coordinate grants like the money that will help create two new kayak and canoe launches in the city: at Dearborn Hills Golf Course and Ford Field. He says city leadership envisions more activities along the river, possibly horseback riding and paddling during prime time events like Taste of Dearborn. He hopes drawing people in for recreational purposes will also drive traffic and business into Dearborn’s downtown corridors along Michigan Avenue.


“The Rouge River historically has been a place people recreated in and spent time in,” he says. “We also see it as an economic driver for the city.”


The city is also working on securing grant funding that will help residents offset costs of creating rain garden infrastructures to promote beautiful properties while keeping that water from flowing back into the river, he explained.


“We’re unique that we even have this river going through the city,” Norwood added. “For years we’ve turned our back to the river because we thought of it as just part of our sewer system, but now we are embracing it.”


The city has also focused on the Rouge River by helping to open up the waterway’s log jams to better paddle the river and spending more than $320 million dealing with combined sewer overflow issues to improve water quality.


“Moving water is something that we all need to cherish because it sustains us,” Norwood says. “We can recreate in it, it entertains us, it even refreshes us and provides us economic development … if we treat it right.”


Restoring the oxbow

One of the projects in Dearborn to reclaim the Rouge River has been restoring the river’s oxbow, or U-shaped bend, which can be found next to The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village.


When the river was channelized in the 1960s to quickly move water downstream and ultimately into the Detroit river, the natural habitat was paved over.


A unique partnership formed several years ago called the Rouge River Gateway helped to secure a grant that allowed for the meander to be restored to its natural flow and reintroduce wildlife.


The partnership led to the creation of a master plan and the first project to launch was fixing the oxbow up.


“This was a wide open reimagining of how the Rouge River could be reclaimed for educational and cultural value,” says George Moroz, of The Henry Ford. “It was important that something came out of this plan, not just developing it. The oxbow restoration is and continues to be just that.”


In three phases the oxbow was re-dug and it is in the process of being reconnected to the main river channel, along with stream bank stabilization efforts and bringing back native species of animals and plant life.


“From the time the channel was put in the meander on our site just got filled up, there wasn’t any water, only land,” Moroz says. “All different kinds of wildlife returned to the area. We’ve not given up on this, we continue to work on our part of the project and we are making real headway.”


Moroz says amphibians, coyotes, red fox, even bald eagles have been spotted on the land since the project started some 15 years ago.


The second and final oxbow cut will be made to open the meander up to the main river on both the upstream and downstream side in the fall, he added. Soon after the oxbow will open to the public and educational activities are already being planned for the island, in addition to the interpretive trail that now runs along the water. Eventually, they would like to explore the option of having museum guests come in via the waterway -- something unique for any cultural institution in Michigan.


“We want our visitors to be able to have that traditional experience of Greenfield Village, but go farther back into our 40 (acres) and have an experience connected to nature and the environment.”


The future of the Rouge


When it comes to the future of the Rouge River, McCormick says the most important thing is to get people educated about the river, engaged with it and even doing their part to keep it clean.


“The future of the Rouge River looks hopeful so long as the community and business interest continues to expand,” McCormick says. “For many decades, the Rouge took a hard hit. It has made a tremendous comeback, but the to-do list remains long.”


Pollution is still an issue advocates of the area are trying to clean up, including runoff from pet waste, yard chemicals and other pollutants. Installing rain gardens are a good way build community, save water and beautify a property. It also keeps contaminated runoff water out of the river.


“To do this kind of work, you must always keep a sense of hope beside you,” McCormick says. “Becoming a mother emphasized my ever-present passion to make a cleaner, healthier environment to pass on to my children. My roots start at the Rougeand I intend to continue planting the seeds of a hopeful future for my children to enjoyand pass along to their children.”

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Read more articles by Jessica Strachan.

Jessica Strachan is an award-winning journalist and Metromode's project editor for On The Ground Dearborn. Follow her on Twitter @JStrachanNews.