U.S. Water News Online
DEARBORN, Mich. -- In the shadow of the powerhouse that
Henry Ford built alongside the Rouge River to light his estate, a
pair of blue herons linger near the water's edge before taking
For Jim Murray, who has spent decades working to rally government,
businesses and volunteers to rejuvenate what once was one of the
nation's dirtiest rivers, the birds represent only one example of how
far the cleanup has come.
The herons feast on fish that had long disappeared from polluted
stretches of the waterway, which meanders through heavily developed
residential and industrial areas before emptying into the Detroit
"As we're solving the water quality in the river, the debate now
is how do we use it," said Murray, 60, who grew up in Norwayne, now
part of Westland, and played in the Rouge as a child despite warnings
to stay away. "We used it so long as a sewer."
For decades, the Rouge -- the river beside which Ford built a
massive industrial complex that transformed raw iron ore into Model A
cars -- was little more than a dumping ground.
But now, the river's health has improved since public outrage and
the federal Clean Water Act helped focus local leaders, community
volunteers and big-ticket government spending on the cleanup.
Heavy rains still cause sewers in some areas to overflow into the
river, and urban sprawl continues to threaten the river. But with
industrial pollution under better control and efforts to stem the
flow of sewage and stormwater into the river, the idea that the Rouge
is a place to fish, canoe or stroll along is taking root.
"Now, we are changing the culture of the whole region," said Kurt
Heise, director of the Wayne County Department of Environment. "We
are telling people it's OK to return to the Rouge River."
The Environmental Protection Agency has described some of the
collaborative work to restore the Rouge as a "blueprint for success"
in improving water quality. And observers from New York, Cleveland
and Atlanta -- and even as far as South Korea and China -- have
traveled to the Detroit area to learn from the Rouge project.
"They are a national leader," said Quintin White, with the EPA's
office in Chicago.
Next month, thousands of volunteers will fan out along the
126-mile river system for Rouge Rescue -- an annual springtime
cleanup. What started 20 years ago as a day to pull trash and debris
from the river has evolved to include projects aimed at making the
river healthier for people and livable for wildlife.
Rouge Rescue, organizers say, helps bring area residents to a
river that for generations was shunned as unsafe. And it illustrates
how volunteer energy coupled with nearly $1 billion in government
spending on major projects, including sewer and stormwater
management, can complement each other.
"It's been a community-wide effort," said Murray, the first
president and current board member of Friends of the Rouge, which
coordinates Rouge Rescue. "It's one they know is long-term. I think
people take pride in it. You have to have hope."
A canoe livery along the Rouge opened five years ago and is doing
a booming business. And the state has said it's safe to eat some fish
caught in Newburgh Lake, which originally was constructed as a
millpond on the Rouge and nearly was destroyed by pollutants before a
Elsewhere along the river, which flows in Wayne, Oakland and
Washtenaw counties, the improvements are more subtle.
The lush Inkster Valley Golf Course, which opened in 1998 on 400
acres along the Rouge, challenges golfers with an abundance of water
hazards. But the wetlands that make up about a quarter of the site
also serve an environmental purpose, helping filter water before it
runs into the river.
The Rouge's water comes from about 450 square miles of land that
is home to more than 1.5 million people and under the control of 48
units of government. Cooperation didn't come easy and credit for
building momentum -- and keeping funding -- for what in the 1980s
seemed like an insurmountable pollution problem is spread wide.
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat with 50 years in Congress whose
district is crisscrossed by the Rouge, is among those who have worked
to ensure federal funding for Rouge products. And U.S. District Court
Judge John Feikens, who presided for 28 years over a lawsuit on Rouge
pollution, is seen as a catalyst for the regional approach.
"The abundance of water that we have here will keep this region
alive, industrially and as a high-quality place to live," said
Feikens, who last year dismissed the case because the government was
satisfied with progress made in curtailing the amount of untreated
sewage spilling into the waterway.
And industry -- long blamed for the river's decline -- has stepped
up efforts to improve the Rouge.
A prominent example is Ford Motor Co.
It spent $2 billion to refurbish its Rouge complex, which now
includes a truck plant with a 10.4-acre living roof of plants and
other vegetation to soak up stormwater. Along some of the roads
outside Ford's Rouge facility -- just down the river from Henry
Ford's estate -- vegetation has replaced what once was concrete to
But major challenges remain. Continued residential development in
the northern and western Detroit suburbs sends more water from lawns,
parking lots and roads -- contaminated with fertilizer, oil and other
pollutants -- into the river. And E. coli bacteria keeps most
"It's going to be a long, extensive undertaking. But I think it
underscores the need to act as good stewards today," said Michigan
Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Robert McCann. "It's
much easier to protect it than restore it."
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