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Officials celebrate restoration of southeast Michigan river systems

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Gathered on a steep, grassy embankment on the grounds of the Henry Ford, water-quality advocates celebrated Friday the grand opening of the Rouge River Oxbow.

It was among dozens of accomplishments recognized in efforts to restore southeast Michigan’s river systems over the past few years.

Several agencies involved in water quality gathered for the Alliance of Rouge Communities summit to speak on their ongoing efforts to improve bodies of water throughout Michigan. Among them were and the Friends of the Rouge, the Wayne County Department of Public Services and the River Raisin Watershed Council.

“This is a coming together around the vision of protecting our water and frankly our land because it’s all connected,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing during the Great Lakes Restoration Celebration at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

“When we talk about the Great Lakes, I’m always reminding people it’s the river and creeks into the Great Lakes. It’s the whole system and it’s the runoff into the water. It’s our land. It’s our whole ecosystem that we’re talking about.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, right, speaks from the podium as Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, center, and Wayne County Commissioner Sam Baydoun, left, listen in front of the Rouge River.

According to the Alliance of Rouge Communities, six areas in southeastern Michigan — the Rouge River, the Detroit River, Clinton River, St. Clair River, the River Raisin and the Saginaw River — have been designated areas of concern because of their history of contamination, prompting the restoration efforts. 

Stabenow has been a proponent of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative responsible for funding hundreds of water quality projects throughout the state. In Michigan, the initiative has funded 880 projects with $762 million to address a variety of issues including water runoff, invasive species and algal blooms. Stabenow is seeking additional funding for the initiative.

“I want to reinforce the fact that of course we’re not done,” she said. “We have many more areas of concern including the Rouge River.”

VIPs walk across the Eagle Lane bridge over a side channel of the Rouge River en route to the fish-release event.

One effort highlighted Friday was work to restore the health of the Rouge River Oxbow.

Stabenow, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and students from the Henry Ford Academy released a few buckets of bluegill fish into the water where it runs alongside the grounds of the Henry Ford property. They passed the buckets to one another until the last person at the water's edge gently lowered each into the water to release the fish.

It’s taken nearly two decades of restoration work to reconnect the oxbow to the Rouge River as part of a continued effort to bring back native species of animal and plant life along the entire Rouge River.

“To take care of our habitats, to take care of our watersheds, to take care of our Great Lakes is really critical,” Evans said. “It’s critical to our quality of life in our community. The better the watersheds are, the better the water quality is. All of those things make for a welcoming community that people want to live in.”

The oxbow restoration project began in 2000 and was led by Wayne County in partnership with the Henry Ford and Alliance of Rouge Communities. It was funded by $256,000 in grants from Great Lakes Restoration Initiative through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for design and $1.3 million from the Environmental Protection Agency for implementation.

Other projects recognized Friday were the Friends of the Detroit River, which received an Environmental Project of the Year Award from the American Public Works Association for its habitat restoration of two lower river islands, Stony and Celeron Islands completed in December.

"Most people think of public works as roads and streets and sewers, which are very important to our livelihood, but at the same time, what we do we think is equally important," said John O'Meara, principal engineer for the Alliance of Rouge Communities.

Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc. senior scientist Marty Boote releases bluegill.

Also recognized for the project was Trenton-based contractor E.C. Korneffel Co. and Gainsville, Florida-based Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc.

The $15 million project was funded by grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and GLRI and involved creating 7,900 linear feet of rock shoals to support vegetation and aquatic habitat. The project also provides homes for fish, snakes, turtles and amphibians and benefits those using the area for recreation, such as hunters and anglers.

The Alliance of Rouge Communities received $1.1 million in 2018 for its Johnson Creek Fish Hatchery Park Habitat Restoration program that involves restoring the only remaining cold-water fishery in the Rouge River. The Alliance of Rouge Communities also received $575,000 from 2011 to 2019 to plant more than 3,800 trees in 21 communities to restore the tree canopy in the Rouge River.

The Wayne County Department of Public Services will receive $7.9 million through the end of 2020 to reconnect for fish passage about 50 river miles and 108 miles of tributary stream for the first time in 100 years.

Teresa Seidel, director of the Water Resources Division for the Michigan Department of Environmental, Great Lakes and Energy, noted the importance of partnerships among agencies. She said about 60 percent of the division’s budget funds grants and loans to organizations.

“The work we do in water quality is so much bigger than our individual selves,” Seidel said.

“There’s no way we can do any of this on our own. So the importance of having these partnerships, whether it’s in a wastewater treatment plant, a nonprofit, another government agency... We are the Great Lakes State, and we want to maintain being the Great Lakes State.”


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN