By Molly Wright
In October 1969, the Rouge River in Detroit caught fire — but conservation efforts took longer to ignite.
Urban-industrial rivers like the Rouge, whose banks have served industry since the 1880s, have been historically regarded as necessary sacrifices to make industrial and economic progress.
“Flames from the blaze, fed by oil-soaked debris on the north bank of the river and oil, which had spilled from a Shell Oil Co. storage depot on the south bank, rose over 50 feet high, according to a Detroit fireman,” the Detroit Free Press wrote the day after the fire. The article appeared in the back of the paper, sharing space with the classified ads.
The lack of prominent press coverage may seem surprising now, but fires caused by industrial pollution were not an uncommon occurrence. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, which caught fire in 1969, had caught fire 11 times previously, starting in 1868.
“There were no controls over what was being dumped into the river. It was a free for all. But that’s literally what it was,” said Friends of the Rouge executive director Marie McCormick.
“The river was seen as a place where you put things you don’t want anymore. Out of sight, out of mind. Right? So that was problematic over time,” she said.
Founded in 1986, Friends of the Rouge is dedicated to improving the Rouge watershed through hands-on restoration, stewardship and education.
The Rouge is still designated as an Area of Concern (AOC) under the 1987 U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement despite conservation and cleanup efforts from multiple federal, statewide and grassroots organizations and agencies.
“There has been a lot of work done, but there’s still a lot of heavy lifting that will need to take place to get the Rouge delisted, and as healthy as any other Michigan watershed,” said Jennifer Tewkesbury, the AOC coordinator for the Rouge River.
As coordinator, Tewkesbury has spent the last 10 years acting as a liaison between local stakeholders and federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to complete restoration projects in the 438-square-mile watershed – ultimately working to remove beneficial use impairments.
According to the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission, “An impairment of beneficial uses means a change in the chemical, physical or biological integrity of the Great Lakes system sufficient to cause significant environmental degradation.”
McCormick said, “There’s been over a billion, probably a billion and a half dollars, invested in the Rouge to clean it up. The irony, of course, with the AOC program is that they’re not trying to get you to an A standard river. They’re getting you to a C-minus, barely passing.”
“And then you’re delisted,” she said, referring to the process for removing a former toxic hotspot from the list of AOCs. “It’s not about making it perfect, just making it good enough.”
“So yeah, that’s a little discouraging. But you know, that is the nature of an urban river in the modern world today,” McCormick said.
Tewsbury said the AOC program has been active for the last 30 years, but it was not until the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative began in 2011 that large-scale restoration was possible.
“Although a lot has been accomplished in habitat restoration, we still face some larger challenges with contaminated sediments throughout the lower four miles of the river, mainly in the industrialized areas,” said Tewkesbury.
The EPA and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy are implementing a sediment remediation project in the next 3-5 years to help remove six impairments and lead to the eventual delisting of the Rouge.
The Army Corps of Engineers is also rebuilding natural habitat along the concrete channel of the Rouge to enable better movement of fish, provide resting and spawning areas, and provide better flood control.
“One of the most significant and impactful projects is the Henry Ford Estate fish passage project. The project will reconnect 50 river miles and over 108 tributary miles to the Great Lakes for the first time in over 100 years via a naturalized bypass channel,” said Tewkesbury.
Many of the Rouge restoration projects are designed to restore natural features that were there before industrial intervention.
McCormick said, “It’s an interesting irony about American culture, how we intend to be really, really reactive rather than proactive and thinking about environmental challenges like this and not looking to nature.”
“We weren’t looking to nature, as the engineer, the best engineer that we know. But we were, in fact, thinking that we were somehow able to engineer our way out of all of these challenges,” she said.
As wildlife has returned to the river, restoration projects have begun to take a different shape, with organizations like Friends of the Rouge River focusing on projects that promote community engagement and connection to the river rather than construction projects.
“If people don’t have access to something, then you don’t have a relationship with something, if you don’t have a relationship with something, you can’t care about something,” said McCormick.
“And so if people aren’t seeing themselves in the work because they don’t care about it, then you’re missing an entire huge population that could be champions for the environment. It’s a huge missed opportunity. So, removing barriers and creating entry points for access is critical in the environmental movement.”
One of the larger projects the group is working on is Rain Gardens to the Rescue which provides rain gardens and other forms of green infrastructure that help with stormwater runoff.
McCormick said, “We’re trying to focus specifically in areas that have low tree canopy cover. Those are, not ironically but coincidentally, tied oftentimes to communities of color and communities that have been historically overburdened. We definitely have an emphasis on working in those communities, but we’re not excluding any communities.”
The projects are done through a process called “sweat equity” where Detroit residents obtain the gardens at no cost after participating in a five-week training program about their ecological benefits, as well as how to replicate them in other places.
“Our goal is to restore these often-undervalued assets back to the people and back to communities’ recreation and enjoyment. There’s a lot of research that shows people are healthier when there is meaningful access to outdoor recreation and nature in their community,” said McCormick.
“It’s sort of like a domino effect, You create those little gateway points of interest that tug on the heartstrings of people in different ways,” she said.
“Maybe it’s fish, maybe it’s bugs, maybe it’s frogs, maybe it’s plants and pretty flowers and gardens. Maybe it’s paddling the river, maybe it’s fishing with your daughter. Those are the heartstrings that you’re tugging on to get people to care,” she said.