Preserving Urban Rivers in Detroit and Across the Great Lakes


This is a guest blog from American Rivers’ intern, Johannes Dreisbach.


Detroit River | Mike Russell

In the early 1900s, Detroit became one of the largest cities in the United States, and the Detroit River played a major role.  The river is 28 miles long and serves as the international border between Canada and the United States, connecting Lake St. Clair and the Upper Great Lakes to Lake Erie, and is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Heavy traffic and the urbanization on its shores led the Detroit River to become very polluted. 

In recent years, though, local environmental groups have been working to reverse this trend, coordinating plans to clean up the river, and similar initiatives are being undertaken by American Rivers in locations across the Great Lakes region.  These efforts are helping to reduce urban pollution and preserve these incredibly important natural resources for future generations.

The Detroit River helped Detroit, the nation’s auto manufacturing hub, grow to become the country’s fifth largest city in 1950, but this enormous urban center led to problems with pollution, and the river suffered.  According to the EPA, the river has faced 11 beneficial use impairments, including beach closings, restrictions on water consumption, and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.

These impairments are caused by bacteria, PCBs, PAHs, metals, and oils and greases entering the watershed, coming from municipal and industrial discharge and urban runoff, among other means.  The contaminated river was undrinkable and virtually uninhabitable for many types of wildlife, but cleanup efforts that are now in place have made the Detroit River suitable for human and animal use once again.

PBS examines the issues of an aging waste water system in Detroit in the video below:

On September 11, 1997, the Detroit River was named as one of 14 American Heritage Rivers by President Bill Clinton.  These rivers were selected because local communities had specific plans in place to restore the environment, revitalize the economy, renew the culture, and preserve the history of their rivers, and since being designated, things have been looking up for the Detroit River. 

Urban runoff has been a big problem in Detroit, as 7.8 billion to 18.2 billion gallons of rainwater run off the land instead of being absorbed by it each year, but local efforts to make the city green, such as green roof construction and promoting urban farming, are helping to eliminate this and reduce the number of pollutants entering the water supply.

Additionally, a number of animals have returned to the Detroit River over the last few years, including sturgeon, whitefish, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, walleyes, and most recently beavers, which had not been seen in the river for 75 to 100 years.  The fact that the river is providing adequate habitat for all of these species is clearly a sign of progress, and suggests the Detroit River is returning to health.

American Rivers is working to preserve urban rivers all across the country, and is pursuing green infrastructure projects in cities around the Great Lakes region.  In Milwaukee, we have been engaged in programs to help construct green roofs and bioswales that will decrease the amount of stormwater runoff entering the city’s aging sewer system.  This will help extend the life of Milwaukee’s water system and keep pollutants from entering Lake Michigan. 

In Ohio, Lucas County and the City of Toledo, which rests on the Maumee River and Lake Erie, are planning new sustainability initiatives, and they have asked American Rivers to help in their development.  These new green programs will tackle a number of issues, helping to manage stormwater, promote local food production, green streets, and conserve energy, all of which will help to better the local environment.

With the efforts of American Rivers and local environmental groups in cities around the region, urban runoff into the Great Lakes and the rivers and streams that connect them will continue to be reduced.  These are incredibly important freshwater resources, and it is great to see their health on the rise.