The vital watersheds of Oakland County

January 1, 2017

Oakland County is a rich ecological wonderland, with its inland lakes, streams and rivers, state parks, natural woodlands, quarries, and the cornucopia of wildlife. In a vibrant business and industrial region, efforts have been made to protect the habitat around us, beginning with the watersheds, where management has led to better control over pollution.

As an article on the topic in this issue explains, 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. Oakland County is unusual in that we are the beneficiaries, and caretakers of, five watersheds, 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.

The local communities served by Downtown newsmagazine are covered by both the Clinton River Watershed and the Rouge River Watershed. 

Horrific pollution in the mid-20th century, to the point where rivers actually lit on fire, resulted in public outcry over water pollution. That public outrage lead to the enactment of early 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. From a watershed management approach, watershed groups worked 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. Today, there are watershed management groups for each watershed that help to head up mitigation and monitoring efforts.

Living in the central and northern areas of Oakland County that we all do comes at a cost – it's the responsibility to care for the environment we live and work in, notably the watersheds, such as the Rouge River Watershed which winds from Rochester Hills down into Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, Birmingham, West Bloomfield, Southfield, Farmington Hills and all the way to Detroit and then to River Rouge, where it dumps into the Detroit River at Zug Island. That's a long trajectory, and one which it is vital to preserve as a pristine as possible body of water. 

The water levels of the Rouge River 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, the river is particularly susceptible to runoff carrying fertilizers, oil, pet waste and other pollutants. Those are problems we all contribute to – and must be much more proactive in protecting. The Oakland County Water Commissioner's office, Friends of the Rouge River – which works to promote restoration and stewardship of the river's ecosystem through education, citizen involvement and other collaborative efforts – along with volunteer groups through schools, community service organizations, and neighborhood groups all help participate in annual cleanups, but more is necessary. The improvement and preservation of the Rouge River Watershed, like the other watersheds in Oakland County, are an ongoing concern.

Regulations, along with consumer and environmental awareness, have helped improve our watersheds, including the Clinton River Watershed and the Rouge River Watershed, both of which are now able to support fish and wildlife, as well a variety of recreational opportunities. Municipalities now must have stormwater permits, to regulate point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the U.S. This matters because stormwater picks up all sorts of pollutants, from fertilizers to pesticides, oils, driveway sealants, and bacteria from animal waste, and flows into stormwater drains and into the waterways, along with other river watersheds, without treatment.

Our drinking water and local aquifers are precious. Once soiled and toxic, it is a much tougher task to restore the watersheds to their original more pristine conditions. It's up to each one of us to preserve our watersheds, not only our communities, but for other communities who share this common resource.

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