The Detroit River has made strides to combat pollution, but much work still needs to be done. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
From bald eagles to lake sturgeon, native wildlife is making a dramatic return in what might be considered the unlikeliest of places -- the waters and shores of the Detroit River.
Despite its spotty past and highly developed present, efforts to curb pollutants have produced a resurgence visible this spring in bird, fish and animal populations that had long been absent from this integral 32-mile waterway in southeastern Michigan.
After decades of struggling to overcome the Detroit River's polluted past, a variety of fish and bird species have re-established themselves in the watershed. The budding osprey population is joined by increasing numbers of walleye, lake sturgeon and lake whitefish as well as bird species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.
"This is clearly one of the most unique ecological recovery stories in North American history," said John Hartig, manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge on Grosse Ile. "If you look at how polluted we were ... holy cow, have we come a long way."
But Hartig and other conservation officials are quick to point out the Detroit River has a long way to go. The return of these species shows the effectiveness of environmental legislation passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those laws were designed to rein in the obvious sources of pollution, such as discharges from manufacturing operations and raw waste from nearby municipalities.
Those looking to preserve the Detroit River and other sensitive wildlife areas have new concerns that are harder to deal with -- sources of pollution that require new approaches and new solutions.
Waters' health increases
Karl Overman has been an avid birdwatcher in Metro Detroit since 1961, and he still gets the same thrill from it that he did as a kid.
"It's like a treasure hunt, a total treasure hunt," said the retired 62-year-old Farmington Hills resident. "Sure, there's an aspect too about how beautiful the birds are, but to me, it's all about what I can find."
These days, there's no longer a thrill for Overman when he comes across a bald eagle along the Detroit River -- a sight that was a rarity 10 years ago. They're too easy to find.
When the 20th century began, bald eagles could be found throughout Michigan. Pesticide use, particularly DDT and its derivatives, hurt the birds' ability to reproduce and its numbers dwindled. Michigan banned the use of DDT in 1969 and the rest of the nation followed three years later.
After a 25-year absence, there are at least seven active bald eagle nests in the area of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge near Grosse Ile.
"To me it's old hat since they're such a regular thing to see," Overman said. "But it is amazing how they've come back."
Over the last four decades, environmental laws have targeted and reduced all manner of pollutants that find their way into the river -- oil, phosphorous, chlorides, mercury, PCBs and municipal waste.
As a result, species that once couldn't make a go of it here are increasing in numbers. One of those is the lake sturgeon. Hook into one of those and you've basically got two options, according to Bob Devine, who operates Chartertalk Guide Service, a charter company in Windsor. And neither of them ends with you taking the fish home for dinner.
"You can reel it in and take a picture of yourself holding it," said Devine. "Or you can reel it in close and cut it loose. Either way, you're letting it go."
With strict exceptions, federal laws prohibit sport anglers from keeping sturgeon, but the mere fact there are any sturgeon to protect is another positive indicator of the river's health. For roughly three decades beginning in the 1970s, sturgeon did not spawn here -- a victim of pollution, overfishing and habitat loss. Now there are several spots where spawning is under way this spring.
Healthier waters mean healthier wildlife populations. Dan Chimelak, co-owner of Lakeside Fishing Shop in St. Clair Shores, said the health of the fish he pulls from the Detroit River is better than in the past.
"In the last two years along the river, I've been on boats and seen about 300 to 400 walleye caught," he said. "Only four or maybe five of those came out with warts on them, which tells you about how clean the water is."
Still a long way to go
Few people know the ebbs and flows of the Detroit River like Robert Burns, and few see the watershed's rebound in quite the same way. In his role as the Detroit Riverkeeper, who constantly monitors the water quality, he is excited about the return of the animal species that were once thought lost. Yet he worries the public will see that as evidence that the reclamation of the Detroit River is near completion.
"If you look at long-term trends with mercury levels, dioxin levels and PCB levels ... we've seen them drop dramatically from what they were in the 1970s," Burns said. "But we've hit kind of a threshold here."
The amount of contaminants in the sediment has stopped dropping, meaning the rebound has come to a standstill. Burns said more steps are necessary to keep the river's recovery moving forward and to address new problems that have emerged.
Contaminants that come from diffuse sources like runoff, drainage and seepage are a larger issue now.
Where it was easy 40 years ago to point to a manufacturing plant that was discharging waste into the river and identify it as a problem, these diffuse sources are more difficult to deal with.
They include combined sewer overflows, runoff from newly developed areas and agricultural practices that lead to increased amounts of phosphorous reaching the river and Lake Erie.
Phosphorous has become a particular concern in southeast Michigan thanks to runoff issues. In recent years, Lake Erie has been plagued by increasing amounts of the toxic algae Microcystis. And despite its southward flow, the Detroit River has seen an increase in the amount of the algae Cladophora, a foul-smelling growth that can litter the riverside.
"We still have a long way to go," Burns said.