Sustainable Use


Works Cited





    The Detroit River is twenty-seven miles long and connects Lake St. Clair with Lake Erie. Situated halfway down the Detroit River is the city of Detroit. Three hundred years ago this area was thickly forested, inhabited by over 15,000 Native Americans. At this time France wanted to expand its control over lands in the New World and sent explorers to discover a natural waterway that connected the St. Lawrence River to the Mississippi River. One of these explorers, a man named Antoine de le Mothe Cadillac established the settlement of Detroit in the summer of 1701. Detroitís location not only established a center of trade commerce for France, but permitted the country to enforce its monopoly in the Great Lakes region. Here the waterway narrows drastically, allowing France to monitor and control all water traffic. Yet despite Detroitís potential for great urban growth, it was not until nearly 100 years later that development truly began on the riverfront.

      By 1860 a seemingly endless variety of industries speckled the Detroit landscape, including copper smelters, lumber mills, and machinery production. (Hartig 2003: 35-38). It was also in this year that the first reports of water pollution observed in the Detroit River appeared. Major problems including lack of sanitation, public water supply contamination, and waterborne diseases plagued the citizens of Detroit whose daily lives depended on the waters of the Detroit River (Kerr 2003: 60).  As infrastructure issues were solved with the implementation of sewer systems and water treatment plants, general apathy for industrial pollution still remained. It was not until after World War II that industrial degradation of the Detroit River drew attention from local citizens, environmental groups and state organizations.







      The first scientific studies of the waters in the Detroit Area occurred in the late 1910ís. At the time annual epidemics of typhoid fever along with other gastroenteric diseases led both citizens and scientists to question local water quality because throughout the regionís history, it was common practice to dump all waste into the nearest waterway without treatment (Taft 1). Everyone previously believed that water was such a limitless commodity that there was no way that human action could negatively affect its quality, let alone their quality of life. The Rouge River was especially treated as a waste transportation system and was assumed to have few other public values (MDNR 5).

    Water pollution in the Detroit area comes largely from two categories, sewage and industrial waste. Sewage itself has three main non-point sources (18-23 Taft). The first, waterfront homes, generally have either no sewage system or else inadequate septic tanks. Similarly, personal watercrafts discharge the equivalent of sewage from 3,200 persons daily. Third, sewage overflows due to insufficient municipal infrastructure also contribute to water quality degradation. The second cause part of the water pollution problem, industrial waste, directly relates to Michiganís flourishing economy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of Michiganís industries were and are still engaged in the manufacture of automobiles or in their necessary materials and parts. Though the consequences of unmitigated waste dumping to local waterways had been recognized decades earlier, even in 1962 countless industries were still discharging directly into nearby waters. Nineteen companies, ranging from rubber processing to paper factories, were sending their waste straight to the waters of the Detroit River (23-27 Taft). Upstream at least an additional eleven companies, ranging from diesel engine manufacture to cement and asphault plants, were dumping their wastes directing into the Rouge River (23-27 Taft). Some of these companies sent their waste away entirely untreated while others often implemented either unsafe or useless treatment procedures like waste lagoons in which oil was burned off or pH recorders that simply monitored discharge but did nothing to actually treat it (23-27 Taft). Additionally, these figures do not include the innumerable other polluting industries that instead utilized municipal waste systems, which often were also inadequate. As the largest industry in the region, notably situated on the banks of the Rouge River special attention must be paid to the Ford Automotive Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Heavy metals are frequently used in the automotive industry and such carcinogenic compounds have been regularly documented as present in Fordís discharged waste (Murray 1997). As we have previously outlined, the Ford Plant is not alone in its unnecessarily excessive contributions to pollution in the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. Various industries in Detroit, along with both commercial and residential sewage discharges, have together made the entire Detroit region suffer from heavy metal contamination and other unhealthy levels of both natural and artificial wastes that exceed EPA criteria limits.

    Water pollution is so concentrated in the Detroit Area due to its location on a four-county wide river basin. This means that, any waste a person creates living within the portion of southeast Michigan shown here, is absorbed into the Rouge River watershed, which drains into the Rouge River, which eventually feeds the Detroit River (1 Hamann). This is why in order to understand the pollution of the Detroit River, special attention must be focused on the water quality of the Rouge River. The overall quality of the Rougeís waters is due to the highly variable flows that exist because of human actions such as "dredging, channelization, municipal and industrial discharges, flood plain filling, combined sanitary sewer and storm water discharges, urban and suburban non-point run-off, agriculture and deforestation" (1, 5 MDNR). A 1987 study of the Rouge River found that the poor water quality was negatively affecting local fauna. Four percent of 3178 fish examined as various experimental data collection sites throughout the river basin had growth and fin abnormalities. These characteristics at individual stations ranged from zero to 100% (MDNR 2). This same report suggested that the following actions could be taken to reverse water quality degradation (MDNR 2). By utilizing natural features of the local ecosystems, such as rocks, stones and logs, stream channels could be stabilized such that riffles and deeper pools were created and maintained. Also, by planting new stream bed vegetation river banks could be stabilized by providing shade, food resources and reducing water temperatures. Last, but most definitely not least, current storm water discharge must be treated and future discharge systems must be banned unless acceptable control technologies are implemented. Collectively, the pollution of the Detroit River and Rouge River exposes recreational users to detrimental health hazards, excessively strains water treatment facilities and injure or even kills local organisms (75 Taft). The time has come for serious action to be taken in order to address current and future waste issues and to resolve pollution damage done in the past.




    A major benchmark in the recognition of the Detroit River and Rouge River Basin as dangerously polluted came in 1970 when a ban was placed on commercial fishing in Lake Erie when mercury concentrations were uncovered to be hazardously high in populations of walleye and white bass (Hamdy 1985). This along with other discoveries prompted countless scientific studies on the Detroit Riverís waters and surrounding ecosystem. One of these investigations during the early 1970ís found levels of dissolved oxygen, a resource vital to water life, to drop steadily from the head to the mouth of the Detroit River, implying that pollutions originated somewhere along its relatively short length (ECTC 1974). The source was eventually targeted as levels of various heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium, copper and lead, were observed to significantly increase at and after the mouth of the Rouge River (ECTC 1974).

    It was at this time that it was recognized that although the Detroit River was itself incredibly polluted, additional harm was being caused by one of its main water feed, the Rouge River. Governments at all levels moved quickly to draft clean-up plans and implement environmental policy. In the spring of 1981, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments published a management strategy for the waters of the Rouge River Basin. This document provided comprehensive identification of priority water quality problems and areas and thorough strategies for dealing with both point and non-point pollution sources. Encouraged by this regional government action the Michigan Department of Natural Resources published in 1989 a Remedial Action Plan for the Rouge River. This plan outlined the necessary clean-up activities to return the Rouge River to a healthy state. This document included, in detail, a three-part agenda for resolving the severe degradation of the Rouge River waters (viii). First, the area would complete three main sewer improvement projects in order to eliminate sewer overflows on a regional basis. Second, regular surveys would be utilized to track the extent of the pollution problem. Finally, the Remedial Action Plan details sources of finance, namely through federal grants, state assistance, and long-term loans available to meet the estimated 900 million dollar budget required to satisfy the goals of the plan. In 1990, this environmental policy was successfully adopted by the state of Michigan. Most recently, in 1998 the Detroit River became one of fourteen American Heritage Rivers out of 126 nominations, an initiative that "integrates the economic, environmental, and historic preservation programs and services of federal agencies to benefit communities engaged in efforts to protect and enhance their rivers. Further, it encourages investment in river communities, promoting partnerships and leveraging of state, nonprofit, and business resources" (Hartig 202). Though the plans and strategies produced largely in the decade after the detrimental effects of water pollution were truly recognized in the 1970ís were integral to past rehabilitation, but it is policies that incorporate sustainable practices like the American Heritage River Initiative that will be invaluable to future management of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers.



Sustainable Use of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers:

   The key to environmentally friendly human utilization of the Detroit Rivers is rooted in the concept of sustainable use, to reduce our consumption without compromising our comfort (Roseland 61).  This includes conservation practices, treatment of degraded waters and also low-pollution methods of water disposal.  We believe that simple education of people that live near the Detroit and Rouge Rivers will great assist in these goals.  The public must know what the problem is before they can work together to create a solution.  By first identifying sources of pollution, such as specific industries or companies, inadequate sewer systems infrastructure, or collective non-point disposal practices and run-off. 

    Though tackling the immense issue of water pollution, public support may easily be gathered by showing citizens how easily they can participate in sustainable use of the Detroit River.  If you are a citizen living anywhere within Southeast Michigan, here a few simple things you can do to protect your local rivers!

     1)  Fertilize Your Lawn...With Your Lawn!

              - Recycling class clippings by leaving them on your recently-mowed lawn not only adds valuable nutrients to the soil just like commercial fertilizers do. This sustainable practice not only reduces the amount of chemicals added to the ground and potential the local waterways, but can reduce dependence on store-bought chemicals by atleast forty percent (Hamann 6).

    2)  Clean Up After Your Pet(s)!

               - Wash your pet inside so that the waste water enters a sewage or septic system instead of entering the storm water run-off system where it can easily enter the environment.  This keeps the soaps and other products within municipal infrastructure where it can be treated. 

               - Don't leave your pet's waste out in the yard.  Not only is it unsightly, but its a tremendous source of bacteria and raw sewage.  Dispose of it in the trash or even flush it down a toilet (Hamann 19).

    3)  Use Non-Toxic Cleaning Alternatives!

                - Environmentally-friendly commonly found in a household, such as vinegar, baking soda and mineral or lemon oil can be combined in various ways to substitute for an endless variety of chemical-rich products.




    The Detroit River has experienced nearly 150 years of detrimental pollution levels and the effects on the regional environment are easily visible.  Fortunately human error was recognized beginning as early as 1900.  Unfortunately real progress in environmental observation did not commence until around 1970.  From this point forward action was quick as various levels of government rushed to halt many sources of pollution and to resolve its effects.  By 1990 many plans had been drafted and some implemented to work on rehabilitating the Detroit River.  Action continues to this day as focus shifts away from conventional beliefs and towards the techniques and ideas of sustainable use.  As we have outlined above, the treatment of the Rouge River as a virtual branch of the Detroit River must occur.  The Rouge River Basin is densely populated and experiences high levels of unsustainable human use and the effects flow down into the Detroit River.  Progress in remediating the pollution problems of the Detroit River have been promising, but both public and governmental awareness must continue long into the future if the Detroit River is to return to its full potential.






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Bryan, Ford R. Rouge: Pictured in Its Prime. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003.

Environmental Control Technology Corporation. Water Pollution Investigation: Detroit and St. Clair Rivers. Washington D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1974.

Fallon, Mary Ellen and Frank J. Horvath.  "Preliminary Assessment of Contaminants in Soft Sediments of the Detroit River".  Journal of Great Lakes Research.  11 (1985): 372-80.

Hamann, Amy. Rouge River Repair Kit: A Citizenís Guide to Restore and Protect the Rouge River. Detroit: Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, 1998.

Hamdy, Yousry and Lorraine Post. "Distribution of Mercy, Trace Organics and Other Heavy Metals in Detroit River Sediments." Journal of Great Lakes Research. 11 (1985): 353-64.

Hartig, John G.  The Greater American Heritage River Initiative and the Future.  Honoring Our Detroit River: Caring for Our Home.  Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Institute of Science, 2003.

Hartig, John G. Waterborne Disease Epidemics During the 1800ís and Early 1900ís. Honoring Our Detroit River: Caring For Our Home. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Institute of Science, 2003.

Kerr, John K., W. Steven Olinek and John H. Hartig. The Detroit River as an Artery of Trade and Commerce. Honoring Our Detroit River: Caring for Our Home. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Institute of Science, 2003.

Lake Huron-Lake Superior-Lake Erie-Advisory Board on Control of Pollution of Boundary Waters.  Summary Report on Pollution of St. Mary's River, Detroit River, to the International Joint Commission.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press,1968.

McNulty, Michael B., Sean Bartolucci, Scott Belasco, and Keny Murray.  "Relationship Between Groundwater and Surface Water Quality in an Urban Watershed".  Michigan Academician.  32.2 (2000): 118.

Murray, Kent S., Joseph Heiden, Amy Farkas, Michele Mayfield, Michael Brennan, and Michael Czach. "Heavy Metal Contamination of Bed Sediments in the Rouge River, Southeastern Michigan." Michigan Academician. 29.4 (1997): 537-55.

Oliver, B. G. and R. A. Bourbonniere.  "Chlorinated Contaminants in Superficial Sediments of Lakes Huron, St. Clair, and Erie: Implications Regarding Sources Along the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers.  Journal of Great Lakes Research.  11 (1985): 368- 71.

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Rogers, James B. and Kevin M. Tourneur. River Basin Management Strategy Framework for the Rouge River Basin. Detroit: Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, 1981.

Roseland, Mark. Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2005.

Rouge River Quality 1973-1986. Lansing, Michigan: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 1987.

Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. Remedial Action Plan for the Rouge River Basin. Detroit: Department of Natural Resources, 1990.