Massive Investment Brings Rouge River back from Brink of Death

Project Summary: Cleaning up toxic pollutants and reducing storm water run-off in the Rouge River—at one of America’s most polluted rivers in the 1960s—have resulted in dramatic improvements in water quality, reduction of sewage overflows by 50 percent and rebound of fish and wildlife populations in a river once too polluted to support a recreational fishery.

Project name: Rouge River Area of Concern restoration.

Location: Dearborn, River Rouge and other suburban Detroit communities that line the river.

Description: Over the past two decades, local, state and federal agencies have invested $1.6 billion on several projects aimed at cleaning up the Rouge River. The projects were designed to reduce storm water runoff, sanitary sewer overflows and industrial discharges that polluted the river. Some projects restored fish and wildlife habitat by removing small dams, stabilizing erosion-prone stream banks and creating new fish spawning sites.

Approximate cost of project:  $1.6 billion.

Resource challenge addressed:

Municipal sewer overflows, storm water runoff and industrial waste discharges fouled the Rouge River with chemical and biological pollutants that made the water unsafe for human use. The contaminants poisoned fish and wildlife and left the lower river largely devoid of life in the 1960s. The river was so polluted that it caught fire that decade. The paving of a six-mile stretch of the river’s mid-section, to control flooding, destroyed fish and wildlife habitat. Industrial development at the mouth of the river altered the natural shoreline and poisoned large areas of the river bottom with toxic chemicals.

Key partners (public and private):

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Wayne County Water Resources Office, Friends of the Rouge, Alliance of Rouge Communities and several cities along the river.

Types of jobs created:

Biologists, chemists, construction workers, truck drivers, dredge operators, ecologists, hydrologists and civil engineers.

Results and accomplishments:

The Rouge River became a national model for managing storm water runoff on a watershed basis. A multitude of cleanup projects have decreased sewage overflows by more than 50 percent, reduced bacterial pollution and increased oxygen concentrations in the river. Fish and wildlife populations are on the rebound. Despite considerable progress, much work remains to make the entire Rouge River fishable, swimmable and drinkable.

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Originally published on: October 10, 2011