By Eric Freedman
Move over, Milwaukee. Butt out, Buffalo.
You’re not the “freshwater capital of the world,” despite efforts to spruce up your waterfronts.
That title belongs to Southeast Michigan, or at least it should belong.
That’s the message of “The Heart of the Lakes” (Greenstone Books, $19.95), a new book positioning Southeast Michigan, with its historic water connections and resurgent Detroit waterfront, as the premier freshwater destination.
The “freshwater capital of the world” would stretch between Monroe and Port Huron along a 100-mile water route that links lakes Huron, St. Clair and Erie.
“It’s self-evident, and I can’t believe it’s not already a rallying cry for the community leaders of Southeast Michigan,” said author Dave Dempsey, the senior adviser at FLOW (For Love of Water), a Traverse City, Michigan-based environmental group.
Dempsey interweaves Native American, Colonial, early American and recent history in communities from the headwaters to Downriver. Shipbuilding, commercial fishing, farming and manufacturing are all parts of that history.
Some of the stories are well known. They include how Henry Ford built the massive Rouge plant as a manufacturing marvel—and mega-polluter. Among the others are how rumrunners smuggled booze from Canada across the Detroit River during Prohibition and how Detroit and Windsor were the last stops on the Underground Railroad.
Other stories are widely forgotten, including battles in the War of 1812 and the 1971 explosion that killed 22 workers in a water supply tunnel they were excavating under Lake Huron near Port Huron.
Throughout the book runs the history of deliberate and accidental environmental degradation of Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit, Rouge and St. Clair rivers and their tributaries, parts of which were turned into open sewers.
Despite decades of effort, the cleanups will take a lot longer than predicted when some of the efforts began, Dempsey said.
“We didn’t understand the immensity and complexity of the historic contamination problem in the 1980s,” he said.
The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan invited Dempsey to write the book as a “launchpad to make Southeast Michigan the freshwater capital of the world,” he said.
Tom Woiwode, the director of the foundation’s GreenWays Initiative, said the goal is to take advantage of the unique position of Detroit and Southeast Michigan.
“The book talks a lot about the fact we have this incredible opportunity to connect these corridors along the watercourses,” he said.
In 2001, the foundation launched its GreenWays initiative to improve nonmotorized transportation in the region.
A lot of those investments focused on improvements from the “land side of things,” such as greenways and public areas that provided access to the water, Woiwode said.
“As we have been doing this, we have also been working with people on blue economy issues and on ensuring there is the right to public access to water and clean water,” he said.
There are significant challenges, however, including physical barriers that block public access. “We need to figure out how to address or circumvent these barriers,” Woiwode said.
A second challenge, he said, is the lack of a “universal understanding of all of us of the importance we as a region play.”
“So many projects are discrete in their geographic investment,” so discussions about individual projects in the foundation’s seven-county area “tend to take place locally.”
There’s a need to tie those local discussions to a broader strategy, he said.
Dempsey, a former environmental adviser to Gov. James Blanchard, sees reasons for optimism, such as the creation of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, expensive restoration and cleanup efforts, park projects and work by grassroots community groups and local governments.
As Dempsey wrote, “A trip down the river tells a story profoundly different from the tale of dystopian decay that the world associated with Detroit and the region. Signs of hope are multiplying.
“Recreationalists ply the river as oceangoing vessels pass. Businesses in search of plentiful clean water—and associated quality of life for their employees—are locating here. Investment has returned to the shoreline,” he wrote.