Clinton River near Sterling Heights gets upgrades

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

For years Joerg Hensel has loved kayaking on the Clinton River. But conditions on the stretch near Sterling Heights often pushed him and other enthusiasts to steer clear of the waters there.

“They would intentionally get out of the river just before because the Dodge Park area always had a horrible reputation of logjams and being very dangerous,” said Hensel, who grew up in the city and volunteers with the Clinton River Watershed Council.

“I have decent experience in kayaking and I wouldn’t go down there,” he said.

But that could be changing as two Macomb County communities work to upgrade the river and its surroundings to ease navigation for those who paddle the waves each year and offer more recreational opportunities.

In 2015, Sterling Heights and Utica announced the cities had received a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the Clinton River Restoration Project. The effort aims to improve about nine miles of the waterway, including creating new habitat diversity among wildlife, city officials said.

About five miles have undergone tree removal, bank stabilization and installation of natural features. The final stretch is slated to be completed later this year, Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool said.

The work aligns with the city’s 2030 Visioning initiative, which was adopted in 2014 and guides plans for the community of about 133,000 residents.

Some of the enhancements along the Clinton — several launches and landings for canoeing and kayaking are slated to be installed — are connected to the city’s Recreating Recreation initiative, a $45 million plan to expand or develop leisure activities in the community.

That group of projects is funded by a property tax increase voters approved in November.

Enhancing the surroundings can be a boon for Sterling Heights and have an economic impact as more people visit, Vanderpool said.

“Cities have to find a way to create focal points for residents and even visitors. What better way to do that than take advantage of an awesome river that cuts right through your city?” he said.

Among the work on the river: adding rock and log vanes to control the direction of water flow, and eliminating log jams, which, if extensive, can lead to streambank erosion, city and environmental officials said.

“It takes millions of dollars to address those problems,” Vanderpool said. “It’s not only ecologically necessary to do this for the river — it’s the right thing to do. This grant helps re-establish natural fish wildlife and natural habitation.”

The waterway and its tributaries are surrounded by an urban landscape, which can impact it, said Matt Einheuser, watershed ecologist at the Clinton River Watershed Council, a nonprofit that is helping evaluate the project.

During downpours, rain hitting parking lots and other impervious surfaces can run off into a storm drain and reach the river in intense flows that have the potential to cause bank erosion, introduce more sediment and alter habitats, he said.

“Being able to protect and restore areas where these impacts are apparent is extremely important to the ecosystem with the Clinton River and its tributaries being home to many aquatic species and fish, including a steelhead run in the spring, Brown Trout in some areas, walleye, bass, occasional sturgeon, among others,” Einheuser said.

Since last year, crews have been working to stabilize the river by returning natural material to banks as well as adding cobble for different fish species to lay eggs and spawn, said James Burton, vice president at Hubbell, Roth & Clark Inc., the municipal engineering consultant on the project.

Visitors who paddle out or bring fishing lures to the stretch of river should spot a difference, he added.

“The biggest thing will be the (disappearance of) massive log jams. Anglers will notice a lot of the access has been improved. The river is a bit more open from the shoreline perspective. The fishing is going to be tremendously better moving forward,” Burton said.

The city celebrated the progress earlier this month with Canoe the Clinton, which allowed participants to paddle a “family-friendly” 2.5-mile stretch of the river from Edison Court to Rotary Park.

“We took just over 100 people and everybody was just phenomenally impressed with the restoration, how clear the water is, the wildlife they saw,” said Jerry Reis, owner of Clinton River Canoe & Kayak Rentals, which long has been involved in tending the waterway.

There are also plans to coordinate a themed kayak/canoe event this fall, Vanderpool said.

Meanwhile, Sterling Heights has worked with “WaterTowns,” an initiative led by the Clinton River Watershed Council and Lawrence Technological University that uses vegetation, soil and natural processes to manage storm water and create healthier urban environments.

The restoration efforts have lured kayakers and canoers back — and more could follow, Hensel said.

“It extends the range and reaches to a population that can be exposed,” he said. “If they see more people on the river, they’ll be more confident they’ll enjoy it.”