Some Good Environmental News from Michigan

Mainstream media daily bombard us with tales of woe, corruption, scandal, crime, crises, conflict, and disaster. We need to hear some good news, and clearly the recovery of the Detroit River is some good news.

At an average rate of 175,000 cubic feet per second, the Detroit River surges through a strait less than a mile wide for 32 miles, passing five million people as it flows between Lake St. Claire and Lake Erie. As it enters Lake Erie, the river widens and the waters slip past two cigar-shaped islands. Along the Canadian shore lies 2.5 miles long Bois-Blanc Island, a former amusement park that today is a resort community. To the west in American waters is a 12 mile-long cigar-shaped island, Grosse Ile, the quiet home of more than 10,000 people.

A history of the Detroit River reveals how becoming “civilized” can influence water quality.

In 1701 the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit on the west bank of this strait. Within a couple decades, each winter the hay, straw, and manure from all the stables in Detroit were hauled out onto the frozen river and dumped on the ice. Spring thaws would then carry away downstream like one giant flush of the city’s toilet.

As Detroit grew from a trading post into a city, waste dumping increased. In 1823 Peter Berthelet was authorized to build a wharf from the shore out to deep water and install a pipe to supply water that would be free from contamination by the debris commonly dumped into the river.

By 1909 the pollution of the Detroit River had become so bad that an International Joint Commission of representatives from the United States and Canada was formed. Four years later the both countries admitted they were dumping untreated sewage into the river and they agreed to build sewage treatment plants. A 1929-30 follow-up study concluded the river was no longer polluted. My father, who lived nearly all his life on Grosse Ile, recalled how in the late 20’s he and his friends used to be able to see the bottom of the river when they dove off the bridge on the west side of the island.

As Henry Ford’s dream of creating the automobile manufacturing center of the world materialized, World War II drove Detroit into round the clock manufacturing of vehicles and the quality of water in the Detroit River again declined. A l946-48 International Joint Commission reported that the Detroit River was seriously polluted by some 1,739,120,040 gallons of municipal and industrial wastewaters that were flushed away on an average day! Oil slicks on the river were reported 1/3 of the time. Once abundant species, such as whitefish, blue pike, trout, and sturgeon, virtually disappeared from the Detroit River and Lake Erie, and those remaining often tasted oily. Major public-access sites displayed public health warning signs. You could still catch some fish from the bank, but not the same assortment of prime species as a few decades earlier, and they often tasted like oil.

A reminder of the bad old days for the Detroit River. James Swan photo.

Two decades later, in waste waters came an infusion of nitrates and phosphates from common household detergents stimulatong the growth of aquatic plants in the river and lake. These aquatic plants became so luxuriant that by mid-summer, boating was impossible in large areas. And as the plants died off in the fall, large amounts of vegetative material sank to the bottom, covering the bottom with a thick mat of rotting ooze. Starting in the late fifties, large areas of the river and lake became biological deserts for all but carp and goldfish.

In l964 an International Joint Commission report declared that the lower 26 miles of the Detroit River were “polluted bacteriologically, chemically, physically, and biologically so as to interfere with municipal water supplies, recreation, fish and wildlife propagation and navigation.” Wildlife biologist Dr. George Hunt estimated that as many as 10,000 ducks, geese, swans and gulls used to die nearly every winter from oil spills in the lower Detroit River.

Little wonder that in 1970 a cover story on Time magazine declared Lake Erie dead.

Earth Day 1970 finally drew focus on the serious pollution problems of that time, and an international movement began to clean up the Detroit River. So much progress has taken place in the Detroit River since then that in 2001 an International Wildlife Refuge was established in the lower Detroit River, with its initial offices on Grosse Ile.

Some examples of recovery accomplishments:

1) In the 1970s there was a nearly complete reproductive failure of bald eagles. In 2013, there were 18 active bald eagle nests in the vicinity of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

2) The falcon population in Michigan was decimated in the 1950s. Falcons were reintroduced in Detroit in 1987 and since the early 1990s falcon reproductive success has steadily increased. Falcons now nest under the Ambassador Bridge

3) In 2009, a pair of osprey built a nest in a cell phone tower adjacent to the Gibraltar Wetlands Unit of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge; the first time that osprey have successfully nested in Wayne County since the 1890’s.

4) Since the early 1960’s there’s been a 96% decline in nesting pairs of terns along the Detroit River. In 2012 two common terns fledged on restored Belle Isle habitat on Belle Isle; the first fledging since the 1960’s.

5) A hundred years ago, sturgeon were abundant in the Detroit River and Lake Erie. No sturgeon spawning was recorded in the Detroit River from 1970s to 1999. In 2001 sturgeon reproduction was documented on the U.S. side near Zug Island and in 2009 sturgeon reproduction was documented near Fighting Island on the Canadian side of the river

6) In 2006 whitefish spawning in the Detroit River was documented for the first time since 1916

7) The walleye population in Lake Erie was rated as in “crisis” in 1978. By 2012, fishery biologists estimated that 22.2 million walleye (age 2 and greater) were present in Lake Erie, resulting in a total harvest through sport and commercial fishing of 2.48 million walleyes. It’s estimated now that 10 million walleye ascend the Detroit River from Lake Erie each spring, The Detroit River and Lake Erie are now considered the “Walleye Capital of the World.”

8) Beaver were hunted to near extinction in lower Michigan during the “fur trade era.” During the 1940’s-1970’s, beaver couldn’t have survived in the Detroit River because oiled fur becomes matted and loses its ability to trap air to maintain body temperature. In 2008, two beaver built a lodge at DTE’s Conner Creek Power Plant. Beaver are now found in the headwaters of the Rouge River, and in 2013, beaver were seen at DTE’s Rouge Power Plant.

9) Steelhead and salmon are now found in the Detroit River and Lake Erie and some spawn in tributaries.

10) Wild celery (an important food for diving ducks) in the Detroit River declined 72% between 1950 and1985 because of oil and other pollution. It’s increased 200% since 1985.

11) The entire length of the Detroit River is now safe for water contact sports.

I’d add that when I was growing up on Grosse Ile, I saw one deer on the island before I left for college. There now is a deer season on the refuge.

The man to speak with about the current status and future of the Detroit River is Dr. John Hartig, Manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. http://www.fws.gov/midwest/detroitriver/

A life-long resident of Southeastern Michigan, John grew up in Allen Park in the 1960s, and would pedal his bike down Southfield Road to fish the Detroit River. When he’d come back home, Hartig recalls “The neighbors would say, ‘You’re not going to eat that fish are you?'”.

According to Dr. Hartig, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is the only international refuge in North America and one of only 14 priority urban refuges in the nation charged with bringing conservation to cities. It covers 48 miles of shoreline along the Detroit River and western Lake Erie – stretching from southwest Detroit to the Ohio-Michigan border and as far east as Point Pelee National Park in Ontario. The Refuge focuses on conserving and restoring habitats for 350 species of birds and 117 species of fish. USFWS currently owns or cooperatively manages 6,202 acres of unique lands and partners with Michigan Department of Natural Resource on conservation of 7,897 acres of state-owned land. A Canadian registry of lands includes 3,797 acres of Essex Region Conservation Authority lands and 981 acres of City of Windsor lands. In total, 18,877 acres of land in southeast Michigan and southwest Ontario are now being cooperatively managed for conservation and outdoor recreation for nearly seven million people living in a 45-minute drive.

The cornerstone of the Refuge is the 410-acre Humbug Marsh in Trenton – the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River.

As a result of considerable public outcry over potential development of Humbug Marsh, it was purchased by USFWS and preserved in perpetuity as the cornerstone of the Refuge. Humbug Marsh is considered an internationally important wetland because of its ecological importance in the Detroit River corridor and the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem. Oak trees around the marsh have been aged at over 300 years old and were alive when Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701, and there’s a local healthy deer herd in that area.

Refuge Gateway Center (top) under construction will help educate the next generation while the 740-foot dock for the Great Lakes school ship (below) will also help teach them about conservation- and fishing. Photo by Tandem with permission.

An automotive manufacturing facility in Trenton that produced brakes, paints, and solvents for 44 years was located adjacent to Humbug Marsh. It was cleaned up to industrial standards and sat vacant as an industrial brownfield for over 10 years. In 2002, Wayne County Parks purchased this brownfield in Trenton to become the future home of the Refuge Visitor Center and to improve outdoor recreational opportunities including shore fishing, hiking, wildlife observation, kayaking, and more. It’s taken 10 more years to cleanup this former industrial brownfield and meet public use standards.

Through this restoration project there’s been: a net gain of over 16 acres of wetlands in an area that has lost 97% of its coastal wetlands to development; restoration of 25 acres of upland buffer habitat; control of invasive plant species on over 50 acres of upland habitats, including control of invasive Phragmites along 2.5 miles of shoreline. It’s also resulted in merging the 44-acre Refuge Gateway with the 410-acre Humbug Marsh into one ecological unit. Citizen involvement has occurred throughout the project, including public meetings, design charrettes, planting trees and wetland plugs, building trails, birding tours, and nature hikes to achieve local ownership/stewardship. It’s the only project in the world to successfully clean up an industrial brownfield to serve as an ecological buffer for a “Wetland of International Importance.”

At the Refuge Gateway under construction are: a 12,000 square foot LEED-certified, Visitor Center (two classrooms, a multi-purpose room, and one-third of the building devoted to hands-on and minds-on activities for children); a 740-foot dock for the Great Lakes school ship that will use the adjacent waters as a living laboratory for children; a universally-accessible 200-foot fishing pier; a canoe and kayak launch; three wildlife observation decks; and an outdoor environmental education classroom. There are three miles of hiking trails that will be connected to over 100 miles of greenway trails. When the visitor center and amenities open in 2018, it will attract hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, changing the image of the river and the refuge from a polluted “rust-belt” dump to a conservation treasure.

The International Wildlife Refuge Alliance and the Friends Organization for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge are currently leading a two-month, on-line fundraising campaign to complete the school ship dock and fishing pier at the Refuge Gateway in Trenton. See link

Their goal is to raise $50,000 in two months to complete this project by August 31. If they do, they’ll receive $50,000 in match funding from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Donations are welcomed.

One good example of conservation success like the Detroit River recovery can start a national, and international movement that can change the world, maybe even force the media to tell us more good stories.

—James D. Swan, Ph.D.

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