Book details how a watershed community rescued one of the nation’s most polluted rivers

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By Anastasia Pirrami

The Rouge River of the Detroit metropolitan area flows through what was once one of the most polluted watersheds in America.

It was so polluted with oil and other petroleum products that in 1969 it caught fire. A river cleanup would not begin for another 16 years.

Rouge River Revived cover. Courtesy photo.

John Hartig was a student at Allen Park High School when the river caught fire, an event he said is “seared into my consciousness.”

“1970 was the first Earth Day rally at our football field,” said Hartig, co-editor of Rouge River Revived, How the People Are Bringing Their River Back to Life (University of Michigan Press). “There were a thousand kids. We had a parade with people with gas masks on, and we buried a paper mache Earth into the ground, symbolizing the death of the earth.”

Since then and up to the mid-1980s, the Rouge has made an admirable recovery, although restoration continues.

Hartig and co-editor James Graham have assembled an inspiring story that tells of the river’s recovery from decades of pollutants and the communities that made the revival a reality. Contributors to the book include activists, journalists, engineers, professors, scientists, leaders of non-profit organizations and of university programs. All dedicated years to the restoration of the Rouge.

Hartig and Graham are well qualified to help them tell the tale.

Hartig is a visiting scholar of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor and a Great Lakes adviser for the International Association for Great Lakes Research. Graham is a retired award-winning journalist for The Detroit News and former executive director of Friends of the Rouge.

Both are from southeast Michigan and recall that for decades the Rouge was horrendously polluted by industrial waste and raw sewage.

It was at its worst in the mid-1980s when two tipping points occurred:

  • In 1983 and 1984, a potent odor in Melvindale and Dearborn signaled that the river was going anaerobic, meaning it lacked oxygen and that hydrogen sulfide had formed, releasing a rotten egg smell.
  • In 1985, a 23-year-old man fell into the Rouge, swallowed water, and died of an infection from a rare parasite called leptospirosis, or rat fever.

The incidents shifted momentum toward cleanup.

What made the effort unique is a bottom-up cooperative approach towards rivers and lakes from surrounding communities and organizations, rather than waiting for a top-down command approach from government agencies, Hartig said.

At the river’s worst, 168 combined sewer overflow points allowed raw sewage to overflow into the river during rainstorms. The Rouge community’s activism eventually received aid from county, state and federal governments.

Hartig and Graham agree that the volunteer involvement in the cleanup of the Rouge River from groups like Friends of the Rouge and the Alliance of the Rouge Communities is relevant and replicable. The Rouge River Watershed was the first watershed in the United States to have all communities with a voluntary federal stormwater permit.

John Hartig. Courtesy photo.

Friends of the Rouge began with the idea of just bringing people to the river. Its biggest project  –  still an annual event – is the Rouge Rescue annual cleanup. At times thousands of people visited as many as twenty different sites to help with the cleanup, Graham said.

Nearby communities organized those sites. School groups got involved.

Rouge Rescue volunteers controlled invasive plants and expanded to stabilization projects by planting native vegetation along stream banks. That reduced erosion and filtered sediment and other pollutants from rainwater runoff.

Friends of the Rouge continues to expand and improve restoration through cleanups and managing stormwater runoff through natural and engineered rain gardens, bioswales and buffer zones.

The book dispels the notion that the pollutants were entirely caused by the Ford Motor Co. Other contributors were combined storm and sanitary sewers that caused sewage to overflow into the river.

James Graham. Courtesy photo.

William Clay Ford Jr., the executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. who wrote the book’s forward,  has a green attitude towards the company’s Rouge factory complex.

“More notably, Ford Jr. has become a leader in changing the aspect and the attitude of the industry toward the environment,” Graham said.

Ford’s Rouge factory now has one of the largest green-roofs in the world, the book explains. It reduces stormwater runoff by holding one inch of rainfall. It cools the building, saving energy and money. The rooftop plants emit oxygen and  absorb carbon dioxide, reducing greenhouse gasses. Vines on the side of the plant act as insulation.

It’s been 37 years since 1985 when nobody thought the Rouge River could be where it is now, Hartig said. Once one of the most degraded urban streams in the country, it has become a model for river restoration.

The most powerful result of the book was learning of the people involved in rescuing the rivers, then and now, Graham said.

“People who knew the day-to-day process of rescuing the river, reviving the river… how people are bringing their river back to life, and that, to me, was the most challenging and satisfying aspect of this whole project,” Graham said.

The Rouge River is still being cleaned of industrial and other pollutants. Communities continue to lead efforts to create a healthy watershed.

Meanwhile, climate change is the new challenge, increasing the intensity and frequency of storms, Hartig said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority has constructed massive underground storage tanks and screening and treatment facilities. But they are very expensive to build and maintain and their limited capacity is exceeded during heavy rainfall and snowmelt, according to the book.

The book predicts that the facilities will become woefully inadequate with the increased rain that comes with climate change.

“Progress is important, but we need to maintain a sense of reality and the knowledge that there’s so much more to do,” Graham said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be done.”

Hartig compares the cleanup to a relay race. One generation must be ready to pass the baton on to the next, to educate and inspire, and to be better caretakers, he said.

“If the Rouge is healthier, it’s healthier for you and me,” he said. “So, it’s a fundamental shift in how we think and how we might make the world a little better.”

At the lower Rouge, there is now canoeing and kayaking, the Ford Street Bridge Park and the Greenway Trails for people to enjoy.

“We all have to do our part,” Graham said. “Think about how much the world would be better if we could do that on a global scale.“

One thought on “Book details how a watershed community rescued one of the nation’s most polluted rivers

  1. Hey!
    Just clarifying, Leptospirosis is not a parasite but a bacterial infection transmitted through infected urine (usually mammels) and thrives in wet, grassy areas. There is a vaccination for pets and it has been diagnosed in the Canton area within the last 4 years at least.

    Just thought I’d share!

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