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Residents living near the Rouge River once shut their windows in summer months to avoid the stewing stench, and warned youths not to splash in the ripples for fear of contamination.

But decades of cleanups, mandated federal monitoring as well as other efforts over the years have left parts of the waterway with four branches spanning an estimated 125 miles clear enough for water sports, some advocates say.

“Today, we’re actually paddling and enjoying the river as a natural resource in our community,” said Cyndi Ross, a restoration program manager with the Friends of the Rouge.

Since its launch in 1986, the nonprofit has lured scores of volunteers from across the region each year for the Rouge Rescue, a cleanup now aimed at clearing river debris, removing invasive plants and stabilizing stream banks to boost its health.

Many nature-loving supporters are expected to join in again Saturday at sites the waterway touches — continuing work by the Friends of the Rouge as well as others to wash away its former reputation as an open sewer.

On Saturday, Bob Long was among 40 volunteers who attended the clean-up, planting, pulling invasive species and beautifying the grounds.

“My team and I are pulling buckthorn, which grows faster than you can cut it,” said Long, from Farmington Hills. “We all use the park. It only makes sense to contribute to its maintenance and it’s a labor of love.”

Such efforts “have made a very significant and lasting impact,” said Ashlie Smith, nature center supervisor/naturalist for Farmington Hills, which long has participated in the Rouge Rescue. “Each year, literally tons of invasive plant material and trash are removed. … Taking out log jams and trash improve fish and macroinvertebrate habitat, lessen the impacts of flooding and improve the overall quality of the river for wildlife and recreation.”

Improving the river, which mostly flows through urban locales, has been a key goal for environmentalists since at least the 1970s.

Barry Brickner, former mayor of Farmington Hills, has been volunteering at the annual event since 1995. He said the city is proud to have acquired the land because “if we hadn’t, this would just be a subdivision.”

“When we first started out here, there were lots of things to be cleaned in the river... dead skunks, shopping carts, tires, log jams... we got to the point where we cleaned it out too well and the water began overflowing and eroding the sides,” said Brickner, 66. “It’s good because then we began focusing on the park.”

The watershed drains 467 square miles, includes nearly 50 communities such as Dearborn and Canton Township and boasts more than 1.3 million residents, according to Friends of the Rouge. It features “the oldest and most heavily populated and industrialized area in southeast Michigan,” the United States Environmental Protection Agency reports. Parts of the river’s lower end has been maintained as a shipping channel and more than half of surrounding land is used for residential, commercial or industrial purposes, according to the agency.

Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada first signed more than 45 years ago, the river was designated an “area of concern … due to severe, persistent environmental problems,” according to the Rouge River Advisory Council. The pact requires a remedial action plan to restore such bodies of water; one was adopted for the Rouge in 1989 and must be updated periodically.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality leads the Rouge plan. The Alliance of Rouge Communities, which includes municipal governments, counties and schools, works to meet water quality permit requirements in the watershed and restore the river’s beneficial uses.

As noted in a 2012 study, combined with help from the Friends of the Rouge and other groups, both the alliance and a federally funded project that led to combined sewer overflow controls removing thousands of gallons of raw sewage “realized tremendous improvements.” Those included significantly better water quality and placing all major pollution sources under National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits.

Friends of the Rouge has noted dissolved oxygen levels improving so much that fish and macroinvertebrates are returning to stretches previously devoid of life. Meanwhile, according to a report summarizing measures between the 1990s and 2014, efforts included adding thousands of native plants and removing 46,800 cubic yards of trash, 64 vehicles, 21 boats, 1,738 tires, 509 shopping carts as well as 241 appliances or furniture.

“I’ve seen a measurable difference in the quality of the river, the stuff that comes out of it each year and the interest in residents in reconnecting instead of trying to avoid it,” said Paul Draus, a University of Michigan-Dearborn professor who has joined river cleanups in the last decade.

That meant a sea change for recreation. Kayaking has emerged on the lower branch, and fishers have been spotted near Northville Township and elsewhere.

“The Rouge has come a long way,” said Sandy Wallace, a retired teacher from Livonia who frequently volunteers on restoration efforts. “It’s quite beautiful.”

This year, Friends of the Rouge announced a $76,660 grant from the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation to support the second phase in a 25-mile water trail.

“For the past twelve years, the Friends of the Rouge have been bringing the public back to the Rouge River for recreational enjoyment,” Marie McCormick, Friends of the Rouge’s executive director, said in a statement. “We started offering organized trips on the Rouge River in 2003 and currently offer two annual public canoe/kayak trips and one motor powered cruise up the lower Rouge – called the Rouge Cruise.”

Despite progress such as 2016 report finding eight new native fish species and two new non-native ones, issues remain.

Among them: water levels change drastically and quickly after rainfall due to hard clay soils and paved surfaces, Ross said. Runoff from the latter can carry fertilizers, oil, pet waste and other pollutants.

“We still have to deal with the flow problem to really restore the Rouge,” Ross said.

A Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project analysis released in 2014 found the water was “in far better condition” than 20 years earlier but recommended ongoing monitoring to ensure it met goals in a watershed management plan.

Friends of the Rouge is set to continue monitoring the river to collect data on wildlife, Ross said. Group officials also are continuing ongoing education programs while supporting efforts such as rain gardens and green stormwater infrastructure.

“It’ll be exciting to see the positive change,” Ross said. “Our hope is to have a swimmable river.”

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