John Hartig was a senior high school student in 1969 when he and his classmates in Allen Park watched a plume of smoke rise from the Rouge River.
"You thought the Ford Rouge plant was burning," he said, recalling events of that October 9th day. "When we got home, everyone found out the Rouge River caught on fire."
As it turned out, the fire was started when someone dropped an acetylene torch into the water, igniting a thick layer of oil and wood debris floating on the surface. Fueled by decades of pollution, flames rose 50 feet into the air as dozens of firefighters worked for hours to put out the blaze, even employing the help of a Detroit fireboat.
In 2016, the idea that a major river could be so polluted that it could constitute a fire hazard may seem unfathomable, but 47 years ago, such incidents had become almost commonplace. Just four months before the Rouge River fire, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire for the 10th time in its history when a passing train sparked oil and debris on the river's surface. In 1968, a welding torch dropped in the Buffalo River ignited that river on a cold January day. In Illinois, the Chicago River had been a source of fuel for oil fires since the late 19th Century.
The lack of any meaningful environmental laws allowed rivers like the Rouge, Clinton and others in the Great Lakes region to become a dumping ground for industrial facilities and municipal wastewater plants. By 1985, the contamination in the Rouge led to the death of Novi man Kenneth Hagstrom, who contracted leptospirosis, or "rat fever," after falling into the river near Beech Daly Road in Redford, and swallowing the water.
Hartig, who has worked to address water quality issues for more than three decades as an environmental scientist, chronicled the long history of river pollution in his 2010 book, "Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire."
"You have to remember how much oil was on the water," said Hartig, who said about 5.9 million gallons of oil and other petroleum products were dumped into the Rouge and Detroit rivers each year in 1946 through 1948, alone.
Beneath the black oily surface, the Rouge River's water had been tainted from municipal sewage and industrial waste, depleting from it any trace of oxygen needed to support life. The water itself, Hartig said, had been stained orange by a mix of chemicals used in the steelmaking process known as "pickle liquor."
"You would see the river and it would be all oil," Hartig said. "Pickle liquor has an orange color, and you wouldn't know it was there until a boat went by and left an orange wake. It was just black and orange on the river."
Eventually, public outcry over water pollution led to the enactment of some of the first environmental protection laws, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972, The Endangered Species Act of 1973, and formation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada. As new regulations helped to eliminate specific sources of pollution, watershed management groups began working with local communities to take a broader approach to controlling pollution throughout each river's area.
A watershed is any geographic area where water drains into a river, lake or stream that leads to a larger body of water. Drainage areas include streams, drains and any other means in which rainwater or other specific sources lead to a river. Unlike jurisdictional boundaries, watersheds are determined by the flow of water based on natural topographical features.
There are five watersheds in Oakland County, each named for the river from which it drains. Those watersheds include the Clinton River Watershed, the Flint River Watershed, Huron River Watershed, the Rouge River Watershed, and the Shiawassee River Watershed. Today, there are watershed management groups for each watershed that help to head up mitigation and monitoring efforts.
Key to addressing the issues in the Rouge River was using a watershed management approach, meaning that oil, sewage and stormwater runoff going into the river upstream has as much impact as that being dumped in near its mouth. The concept, in its initial stages, was a tough sell to upstream communities who didn't witness the extent of the pollution first hand.
"When the Rouge burned, it was at the mouth, and they thought that's where the pollution was coming from," Hartig said.
From a watershed management approach, watershed groups work to educate residents to recognize that whatever they put in their local waterbodies eventually flows downstream and may end up in drinking water aquifers, waterbodies, and ultimately, impacts the entire watershed.
"It's really amazing what has happened. They tackled it head on," Hartig said of watershed groups such as the Alliance of Rouge Communities, Friends of the Rouge, the Clinton River Watershed Council and others such groups. "There are many success stories out there. If you can take a burning river and go to today where industries are making a front door to the river, and people are canoeing, kayaking – it's an amazing story of how far it's come.
"It was literally an open sewer. It had oil and grease and all these industrial pollutants. It was really a river that only supported industry and commerce."
In Oakland County, the Clinton River Watershed acts as the drainage basin for much of the eastern portion of the county, while the Rouge River Watershed spans the majority of south and southeastern Oakland County. The Huron River Watershed drains much of of the central and southwest portion of the county; the Flint River Watershed covers a good portion of northern Oakland County; and the Shiawassee River Watershed encompasses a northwest portion of the county.
"If you throw a gallon of water on your drive, where does it go? It goes to a river, and that's the watershed where you live," said Jim Ridgeway, executive director of Alliance of the Rouge Communities (ARC) and vice president of Environmental Consulting and Technology (ETC) Inc.
Watershed management groups serve to coordinate a variety of restoration and monitoring efforts in each of the watersheds. Those efforts may range from addressing federal stormwater treatment requirements to picking up trash and monitoring water quality. The groups have also been key to forming watershed management plans, which act as a roadmap for maintaining or improving the water quality. Work by such groups include a wide variety of activity and projects, that may include assisting or coordinating efforts to attain federal stormwater permits, monitoring oxygen in local streams to assess water quality, education efforts, restoration of wetlands and stream banks and other projects.
As each river contains a number of different tributaries and drainage areas, each watershed also includes different subwatersheds, named for different branches of the river. For instance, while portions of Birmingham and Rochester are both in the Clinton River Watershed, Birmingham is located in the Red Run Subwatershed, while portions of Rochester and Rochester Hills are in the Stony Creek Subwatershed, yet both eventually lead to Lake St. Clair at the mouth of the river in Harrison Township. Additionally, some other areas of Rochester Hills and Birmingham drain into a main branch of the Rouge River, meaning those areas are part of the Rouge River Watershed.
Similar to local watershed management groups, each subwatershed may have a subwatershed advisory group, with individual subwatershed management plans formed, as well.
The Birmingham/Bloomfield and Rochester/Rochester Hills areas are located in either the Clinton River Watershed or the Rouge River Watershed. The two watersheds are the only two in Oakland County that have been designated as 'Areas of Concern' under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which is a contract between the United States and Canada to restore and protect the waters of the Great Lakes. The agreement provides the framework for addressing bi-national issues to improve water quality. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for coordinating activities for the United States under the agreement.
The Area of Concern designation means a watershed, or portions of it, are suffering from degraded environmental conditions stemming from historic or ongoing pollution. In total, there are 43 Areas Of Concern (AOC) in the Great Lakes watershed, with 14 in Michigan.
A watershed may be listed as an AOC if it has substantial restrictions or impairments limiting recreational and wildlife opportunities, or Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs). Those impairments may include beach closings, restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, undesirable algae growth, and other issues stemming from pollution.
Once a watershed has been deemed an Area of Concern, a remedial action plan must be developed and implemented that addresses each of the impairments. The plan then works as a model for restoring uses that have been impaired, and delisting the watershed as an area of concern. It is in this process that watershed groups have served a crucial role.
"They gave a voice to the river. They cared about it," Hartig said, who previously worked for 14 years on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement under the International Joint Commission. "In my opinion, these groups are essential in getting where we have to be."
Formed in 1972, the Clinton River Watershed Council coordinates efforts of local governments, businesses, community groups and individuals in the watershed to improve water quality and celebrate the river as a natural and recreational resource. The council was reorganized in 1994 as a 501(c)3 non-profit, which allows the council to accept funding and grants from private donors. Today, the council is funded by local and county government dues, business sponsorships, grants and individual contributions.
Clinton River Watershed Council Executive Director Anne Vaara joined the council in 2010, after spending nearly 20 years in the environmental science field.
"The work that we can do in the large area we cover – 760 square miles – I knew we could make a big impact," she said about joining the council. "Since 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has made a huge impact on the work that we and the work that our communities are able to do to restore the watershed, specifically fish and wildlife habitat. That funding made a big difference. About one-third of those funds are dedicated to addressing Areas of Concern. We are right in the middle of $20 million in projects in Oakland and Macomb counties. They are mostly in Macomb County, but some (are) in Oakland."
About 75 percent of Macomb County drains to the Clinton River, while roughly 40 percent is located in Oakland County. The watershed includes more than 1,000 miles of streams, as well as an 80–mile stretch along the main branch of the river. In total, the watershed encompasses 60 communities, with the headwaters of the river located in Springfield and Independence townships.
Subwatersheds of the Clinton River include the Stony Creek/Paint Creek Subwatershed, which includes northern portions of Rochester and Rochester Hills; the Red Run Subwatershed, which includes the eastern portion of Birmingham and a southern portion of Rochester Hills; the Clinton Main Subwatershed, which includes a western portion of Rochester and Rochester Hills, and small northwest portion of Bloomfield Township; as well as the Upper Clinton River Subwatershed in northern Oakland County; the Clinton River East Subwatershed in western Macomb County; the Lake St. Clair Direct Drainage Subwatershed in southeast Macomb and Wayne counties; the North Branch Subwatershed, which spans portions of Lapeer, Oakland, Macomb and St. Clair counties; and the Anchor Bay Subwatershed, in St. Clair County.
In 1987, the Clinton River was declared an Area of Concern due to restricted uses, or Beneficial Use Impairments, caused by unsafe E. coli levels, nutrients from fertilizer; dissolved solids such as salt, oil and grease; soil and sediment contamination caused by heavy metals; and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contained in coolants and other applications.
The Area of Concern was initially restricted to the Main Branch and the spillway downstream from the Red Run, but was later updated to include the entire watershed, as well as the shore area of Lake St. Clair.
Factors that resulted in the Clinton River being listed as an Area of Concern include eight Beneficial Use Impairments, as listed by the EPA. Those uses include restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption; undesirable algae; degradation of fish and wildlife populations; beach closings; degradation of aesthetics; loss of natural aquatic plants; restrictions on dredging activities; and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.
An Area of Concern may become delisted when Beneficial Use Impairments, or BUIs, have been addressed and uses have been restored. The delisting process, which typically spans several decades, starts with a scientific assessment by state and federal agencies to determine which beneficial uses are impaired and the type of management actions are needed to restore them. After management actions are implemented, a monitoring and verification plan may be implemented. The AOC status may be delisted when all beneficial use impairments have been removed.
"None have been removed to date," Vaara said. "We are not delisted at this time, but the work is being done and coordinated. The bulk of restoration work is to help restore fish and wildlife population, and then the other impairments being looked at and worked on with the EPA and the state of Michigan. They are working together, and we are hoping to be delisted by 2019."
Despite the designation as an area of concern, some branches of the Clinton River have very high water quality. For instance, Stony Creek is home to a coldwater fishery, which the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stocked with brown trout until 1991. Because many of the issues in the watershed are more apparent near the mouth of the river, upstream communities often get fingered as the source of problems, but Vaara said that shouldn't necessarily be the case.
"There are many moving parts dealing with water and water quality, and it's easy for people to point the finger upstream when that's not the case," Vaara said. "It could be weather or (water)flow driven. It could be the timing of the water sampling. Also, keep in mind that we put a lot of impact on our shoreline. Many used to be wetlands and we filled them in, but Mother Nature still wants them to be wetlands.
"We want to swim in areas that maybe should be wetlands. It's a very complicated issue, and very emotional. In an urbanized watershed, you can't point at one area or the other. About half the people in Harrison Township are still on septic systems, and that can be an issue. We have to be mindful of all the issues that could be at play and how to bring solutions to the table to enjoy water quality."
Like the Clinton River, groups working to restore the Rouge River Watershed have yet to completely remove all of the use impairments identified.
The Rouge River was declared an Area of Concern in 1985 due to nine official use impairments, including restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption; undesirable algae; degradation of fish and wildlife populations; beach closings; fish tumors and deformities; degradation of aesthetics; loss of aquatic plant life; restrictions on dredging activities; and loss of fish or wildlife habitat.
Main sources of pollution in the Rouge River Watershed come from municipal and industrial water discharges that flow directly into the river; sanitary and stormwater sewer overflows; and pollutants carried to the river by stormwater runoff. Contaminants include heavy metals, PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), oil and grease.
"We have a list of projects that are still required," Alliance of Rouge Communities Executive Director Jim Ridgeway said. "We are optimistic we will get a substantial chunk of federal money in the next year or two. The EPA has tried to set it aside so they can go into a watershed and address all of the issues, and have it all delisted."
As one of the longest rivers in the state, the Rouge River's four branches span about 125 miles through Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, with the lower four miles of the river maintained as a shipping channel from the turning basin to the river's mouth at the south end of Zug Island. The river also contains the most heavily populated and industrialized areas in the Great Lakes Basin.
Of the 467 square miles included in the Rouge River Watershed, more than half are used for residential, commercial or industrial uses, with increasing developmental pressures. The watershed includes four major branches, including the Main branch, which is divided into two subwatersheds; the Upper Rouge Subwatershed; two subwatersheds in the Middle branch; and two subwatersheds in the Lower branch of the river.
The Main 1-2 Subwatershed contains about 103 square miles in Oakland County, including much of Birmingham and Bloomfield Township, and all of Bloomfield Hills.
The Rouge River is considered to be extremely "flashy," meaning that water levels rise and fall quickly and drastically after it rains due to hard clay soils and the amount of paved surfaces in the watershed. Because of the large amount of paved surfaces in the watershed, the river is particularly susceptible to runoff carrying fertilizers, oil, pet waste and other pollutants.
While the Rouge hasn't yet been delisted as an Area of Concern, the river is now able to support fish and wildlife, as well a variety of recreational opportunities. Monitoring of dissolved oxygen in the water – which is needed to support any life in the river – has gone from having a complete absence in some locations to an amount capable of sustaining plants, fish and other organisms. Today, the river is home to various amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, plants and mammals.
"There are impairments that need to be corrected for the waterway to be considered safe," said Karen Hanna, executive director for Friends of the Rouge. "We do fish, kayak and canoe, but you can't swim in the water."
The Alliance of Rouge Communities and Friends of the Rouge are two separate non-profit organizations in the Rouge River Watershed that work to collaborate different efforts in the watershed.
Formed in 1986, Friends of the Rouge works to promote restoration and stewardship of the river's ecosystem through education, citizen involvement and other collaborative efforts. The Alliance of Rouge Communities (ARC) was created to coordinate restoration projects among all communities located in the watershed. Currently, the two groups are exploring the potential of merging into one group.
"For the past two decades, the ARC has substantially financed the Friends of the Rouge. Many of the programs were through federal grants that came through the ARC, or are membership dues," Ridgeway said. "The ARC and Friends were coming to communities and both asking for money. From a pragmatic view, it makes sense that the two of them work together."
While operations may be combined, the two groups conduct different activities, both intended to improve the quality of the watershed. Representing the interests of each of the member communities in the watershed, the Alliance contracts with Environmental Consulting & Technology (ETC), Inc., to conduct operations on its behalf. Friends of the Rouge, on the other hand, like the Clinton River Watershed Council, has a heavy focus on community and volunteer activities to conduct monitoring and further education.
"Municipalities are required to have stormwater permits," said Ridgeway, who is also vice president of ETC Inc. "One of the reasons ARC was put together was to help control combined sewer overflows. You could see stormwater regulations forming, and the smartest and cheapest way to handle them is to do it jointly. The ARC itself is a group of communities. They hired an executive director, and they hired a firm, of which I am an employee. And a group of us do it. There are engineers and wetland ecologists. As the ARC moves forward, they rely on ETC to comply with their permits."
In other watersheds, the role the ARC plays is often done by individual communities or the county's water resources commissioner.
"We do discharge elimination work," said Jim Wineka, with the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner's Office. "We find pollution and go upstream and find the sources and work with communities to eliminate them. We started with (watershed groups) back in 1999, and we do a lot of work with them."
Friends of the Rouge Executive Director Karen Hanna said that while ARC is heavily involved in the permitting process of stormwater management, Friends of the Rouge conducts more clean ups, monitoring, and work to attain grants for special projects, such as rain gardens.
Among work that Friends of the Rouge conducts on an annual basis includes the Rouge Rescue, which involves volunteers from the local communities to clean up neglected sites along the river; its River Restoration project, which includes educational efforts, workshops and training to encourage native plantings; and the Rouge Education Project, which is a school-based water quality monitoring program that involves students from local schools who conduct chemical and biological testing.
Both Friends of the Rouge and the Clinton River Watershed Council conduct multiple volunteer programs, including bug hunts, fish monitoring and frog and toad surveys.
"We have a frog and toad survey, but we have no funding for it," Hanna said. "We have volunteers that have been doing it for so long that they just continue to do it. We include that in our data reports."
Monitoring life in the river is done because it's an indicator of the water's quality and the health of the river. For example, watershed groups in both the Clinton and Rouge rivers conduct annual stonefly searches, as the bugs require a high quality of water to survive. The presence of such organisms, along with frogs and toads, indicate the river location sampled is in good health.
While there is still work needed in the two watersheds to attain delisting status of their areas of concern, Ridgeway said work that has been done has made substantial improvements.And while work continues to improve to address remaining sewer overflows, the vast majority of those that existed in the 1970s, as well as illegal discharges in to the rivers, have been curbed.
"Prior to 1972, there really were no standards, but the Clean Water Act of 1972 said all wastewater needed secondary treatment, at least," Ridgeway said, who first started working to improve quality in the Rouge River in 1975. "If you didn't do that, you would have these oxygen demands, (which) would consume the oxygen, kill the fish, and it would smell like a toilet that sat in the back of your cottage for a week.
"Everyone turned their backs on the river, and with good reason," Ridgeway said about the Rouge during the 1970s and '80s. "If you went along the Lower Rouge, what were wetlands was a variety of abandoned dumps where industry filled it with slag or whatever industrial waste they wanted to get rid of."