On Detroit River, humans lead nature's rebirth

James David Dickson
The Detroit News


The Detroit River has lost much of its coastal wetlands since over the last 200 years, but nature is finding its way back to the Detroit River.

Through the creation of shipping channels, by way of the invasive species dragged into the river by commerce, and as the result of chemical and hazardous waste dumping in the river for more than a century, wildlife that come to call the river's habitat home, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, lake sturgeon, beavers and whitefish, were largely chased away from it. 

Conservationists and others are working to restore the health of the river and other bodies of water with projects that aim to restore the habitats that species such as lake sturgeon and bald eagle call home. Other species, such as the peregrine falcon, had to be brought back to Southeast Michigan by human hands. 

The latest example of habitat restoration on the river is taking place on Belle Isle at Lake Okonoka. 

Steve Dushane, Deputy Refuge Manager, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge/US Fish and Wildlife Service, talks about Humbug Marsh during a tour of its green trail.


In a project that started in mid-October and will run through spring, the man-made lake is being drained and will be dredged before it is connected to the Detroit River and with it the entire Great Lakes system.

The goal is to restore life to a lake "choked out" by low oxygen levels and the invasive plant, Eurasian watermilfoil. Projects also are working to give spawning fish a habitat that will act as a nursery that allow spawning fish to develop a bit before moving on to the river. Fishers will also benefit, Lovall said.  

Lovall is a project manager with Friends of the Detroit River, the nonprofit group overseeing Lake Okonoka's transformation. That work will cost just north of $5 million and is funded largely by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Lovall and other experts point to the creation of the Livingstone Channel in the 1870s, the opening of shipping paths made by blasting out the honeycombed limestone that once lined the bottom of the river, as a turning point in the river's habitat. 

The carving of the channels and the increased commerce they allowed -- not to mention the invasive species that tend to be dragged along by ships -- left fish that once called the water home with little habitat. Parts of the river were even drained to remove its limestone floor.

A 2011 report from the U.S. Geological Service on the history of the Livingstone Channel found that "from 1874 to 1968, major construction projects created 60 miles of shipping channels" in the river. But in addition to bringing increased commerce, the shipping channels "greatly altered channel morphology and flow dynamics of the river, disrupting ecological function and fishery productivity of the river and influencing Great Lakes water levels."

Since 2004, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has helped fund about a dozen fish reefs in the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, said Mary Bohling, extension educator at the Michigan Sea Grant, a cooperative program at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University that works to promote a better understanding of the state's water resources.

A view of the Detroit River from Humbug Marsh.


Pre-reefs, the lake sturgeon populations at selected sites on the two rivers were considered absent. Almost a decade and a half later, lake sturgeon are spawning at all the reef sites. The sturgeon are considered important, experts say, because they're an indicator species, whose sensitivity to the environment and recent return indicate restoration efforts have been successful. And the sturgeon aren't the only success stories. Whitefish have returned in recent years after a 75-year absence, experts say.

The reefs, laid down in 1-foot-by-3-foot sheets of limestone on the river floor, were built to attract lake sturgeon, but have been used by at least 30 other species of fish as well.

Today, said Jim Boase, a wildlife expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "we have a larger population of lake sturgeon in the St. Clair River and the Detroit River than all of Lake Michigan."

At the Detroit River's low point in the 1970s, there were only about 1,500 to 2,000 lake sturgeon, compared to 5,000 that call the river home today. But despite the growth in recent years, the sturgeon population in the Great Lakes system is only 1 percent of what it was at its peak, Boase said. In 1880, for instance, some four million pounds of sturgeon were fished just from Lake Huron and Lake Erie. By 1928, that fell to less than 2,000 pounds for all five Great Lakes combined.

In July, after more than a decade of fish spawning at the manmade reefs in the St. Clair River, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that "loss of fish and wildlife habitat" was no longer a problem in it. 

Officials hope the same can someday be said about the Detroit River. The work on Lake Okonoka is a step in that direction.

Troubled past

Water quality problems have plagued the Detroit River for more than a century.

In 1914, a report by the International Joint Commission cited sewage from vessels and riverfront communities as "avoidable causes of pollution." The extent of that pollution? "Entire river."

Water quality was so low and required so much chlorine to clean that it gave a foul taste to the water. A section of Lake Erie, which is fed by the Detroit River, was considered not only unsafe to drink from, but to travel on, and described as "unquestionably dangerous to crews and passengers of vessels." 

The river's woes got worse. A 1950 report from the joint commission cited contamination levels three times higher than were found in 1913. 

While industrial waste was "of little or no concern" in 1913, by the late 1940s it was a "major problem," the report said. Not that everybody treated it that way. In the 1920s, a Detroit health director said that using the tainted river was fine so long as people didn't actually drink the water. 

In 1944, the city of Detroit banned swimming on its entire riverfront. People swam there anyway.

In 1948, to get Michigan lawmakers' attention, an activist dumped ducks killed by pollution in the Detroit River in front of the Capitol building in Lansing. In 1969, at the foot of the Detroit River on the east side of Detroit, blood from a slaughterhouse was visible in the water. It wasn't until the Clean Water Act in the 1970s that the weight of the federal government went into fixing the river's problems. These days, a combination of local, state and federal government, private industry, universities and public interest groups such as the Friends of the Detroit River are working the waterway back to health.

These days, 3 million people visit Detroit's Riverwalk annually. Swimming is allowed off Belle Isle's beach. And in 2013, the beneficial use impairment in the Detroit River Area of Concern, that its fish were taintedwas finally lifted. That's in contrast to a century ago, when even drinking water sourced from the river was tainted.

Challenges still remain. Experts site sediment pollution, invasive species and combined sewer overflow into the Detroit River as problems hindering nature's return. But man is arguably more committed to nature's return than ever before. 

At a recent presentation to stakeholders in the river, Bohling said she had to use two pages worth of slides to include all the organizations that are party to its restoration, including Michigan Department of Natural Resources to DTE Energy to the University of Michigan Water Center and dozens of others. That level of collaboration is necessary given the enormity of the work left.

"The Detroit River didn't get polluted overnight," Lovall said. "To clean it up is a much tougher job than to mess it up."