Rouge River recovery? 5 tough questions with Aimee LaLonde-Norman

Nothing says "toxic" like a river catching on fire. Back in 1969, that's what happened to the Rouge River, a body of water that touches much of Metro Detroit. After that, people got serious about cleaning up the Rouge, but what about now? 

Twenty-eight years after their inception, the Friends of the Rouge continue their work, having engaged 54,000 volunteers in their Rouge Rescue event alone. Though areas are much better, the Rouge is still listed as an AOC, or Area of Concern within the Great Lakes. And Friends of the Rouge recently lost a funding source that had provided $3.1 million to the organization over 20 years when an EPA program ended. 

How much impact has the organization had, or can they have in the future with such a funding loss? And is the river just as clean as it's going to get at this point? We spoke with Friends of the Rouge River Executive Director Aimee LaLonde-Norman to find out. 

How would you rate the health of the Rouge River today? 

That really varies by location within the river. The different branches of the river are impacted by different conditions. In general the river is pretty flashy — the water levels change pretty quickly after it rains. That can impact the corridor along the river, and the habitat for species that are in the water and help maintain the balance of the ecosystem. In general, the Rouge continues to show improvement in terms of health. We're one of the most urbanized rivers and watersheds in the state of Michigan, so we face our unique challenges.

In terms of specific locations, our different programs monitor different things. There are areas where we find a lot of fish and insects [that indicate good river health]: the Johnson Creek area, Plymouth Twp. Northville Twp., Northville, Novi, up that way. And there are unique places all along the Rouge where people are fishing, even in some of the more industrialized areas, people fish and find amazing things. 

With the terrible state the river was in decades ago, will it ever be possible to get it into a truly healthy state? 

In terms of truly restored, back to before people were walking around it, maybe not to that state, because we'll always have some impact from people. But we can work together — we've been around for 28 years, and over that time, in partnership with so many organizations, we have made improvements. It's just a matter of educating and becoming aware of that river in our backyards, and how it impacts so many aspects of our lives, even beyond the watershed.

As we all work together we'll see dramatic improvement, and we are already encouraging recreation — with the knowledge that there are still areas of the water you don't want to necessarily swim in — but you can still safety enjoy swimming and kayaking along the river. 

I think what we do and how we do it will evolve as our definition of what is needed for stewardship of the river changes. Right now, we I think we will always continue to monitor the health of the river through things like our aquatic insects survey and fish and toad surveys, because that gives us a solid, measurable indication of what we are seeing in the river.  I think that we'll always be talking to homeowners and communities about things they can do, best practices when they live along the river. Overall, our mission is restoration and stewardship, for as long as it takes. 

Compared to large cleanup efforts that were made in the early 1990s, how big of an effort is being made now to clean up the river? What organizations are now involved? 

It's something that has evolved. We garner volunteers from all corners of the watershed, and typically our volunteer number reach 5,000 people a year. In many ways [support] has maintained, but our focus has shifted. When we started 28 years ago, we were doing a lot of cleanup, a lot of trash removal and debris removal. Whereas now there is new information and people are very aware of what they're tossing on the ground or what's going down the storm drain. So we're not necessary moving the volume of trash that we were before, but it's really evolved to that stewardships piece. 

There is always a ton of work, it's just different.

With the focus your organization now has on awareness and education, just how much impact does one person have when they take the time to volunteer for cleanup and stewardship events? Is it not as important as it used to be?

The volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization. With only five staff members we rely on volunteers every single day. An individual's impact on the work that is done throughout the Rouge, whether that is planting native plants in their garden, as well as help filter rainwater — it's significant. To place a value on it…it's just huge. All of it has played a role in getting us to a better place than we were at in 1986. Not only do they impact that particular site on the river, right then, but they also model the way for future generations and other members of the community.

You recently lost an important EPA grant. How has that impacted your operations, and how do you move forward? 

It was a great program and project. It was the Rogue River National Wet Weather demonstration project. We received funding from it that was just over $3.1 million over almost 20 years, so it was significant, a tremendous source of annual funding. I knew coming on board [almost a year ago] that we were facing that funding loss. What we have done is we have continued to monitor our budget and be very tight with our expenses, as well as looked at ways we can increase other funding sources, whether that's other grants, partnering with different communities and municipalities on different grants, as well as our individual memberships program, and our stewardship and donation programs. And, of course, taking advantage of opportunities like the Rise Detroit Charity Challenge. When things like that come up, we absolutely get involved. 

Moving forward we just look to the future and building on the foundations that we have set and determine how we continue our mission and be very thoughtful about how we do it. 
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