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Great Lakes Article:

Communities push for clean Rouge River
Goal is to eliminate pollutants from waterway

Craig Garrett
The Detroit News


   CANTON TOWNSHIP -- The dozens of communities in the Rouge River drainage district are preparing for another phase in the effort to restore the river's water quality.
   Beginning next spring, the communities in the 476 square miles touched by the Rouge River and its tributaries will restrict the amount of harsh detergents, animal droppings, fertilizers, construction debris and other items that enter the Rouge. Some will mandate the restrictions by ordinance while others will suggest them to residents.
   Water pollution is largely traced to the surface materials that are swept into rivers and streams in heavy storms.
   Communities in the Rouge drainage area, too, will step up street-cleaning and work to clear storm drains of leaves and other debris that had in past year been dragged into the storm drains.
   The cleanup effort next spring also would limit the volume and velocity of storm water entering the Rouge. Rain barrels and other devices to slow the rainwater are being used to limit pollution and halt erosion. Dearborn had given out several hundred free rain barrels in the last two years, anticipating a March 2003 deadline to give storm water plans to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Implementing tougher rules should follow in short order, officials said.
   Telling those living in the Rouge basin to restrain from using lawn fertilizers heavy in phosphorous and refraining from pouring used motor oil in storm sewer drains likely will be tough measures to implement, officials concede. Residents for a century had viewed the Rouge as no more than a sewer.
   "It'll be like the bottle recycling laws. It was kind of a pain, but you see a lot fewer bottles on the roadside and people don't seem to mind doing it," said Tom Casari, Canton Township's engineer.
   School children also are being enlisted in the project. About 5,000 high school students from districts in the Rouge River area participated in water-testing efforts Wednesday.
   The effort next year to rid the Rouge of pollutants pushes communities to set restrictions on fertilizers and detergents that enter the river from storm sewer drains. However, those restrictions will be largely voluntary until federal pollution discharge standards are established in short order, officials said.
   Restoring the Rouge River is a demonstration project being watched by federal environmental authorities, who will clone the project in other states with heavily polluted rivers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pumped into the Rouge water quality project since 1989.
   Bringing the Rouge River back to life had been no easy task. Although once pristine and a source of pleasure and food for many early settlers and American Indians, the river suffered through decades of disaster.
   The problem was that the 126-mile-long Rouge ran through hundreds of densely populated cities and townships as the region flourished through an age of heavy industry. Hundreds of small and mid-sized companies located along the Rouge to use its water as a cooling and power source. Henry Ford located many of his smaller manufacturing plants along the Rouge, creating a rural legend in the process.
   The Rouge was also a river used to flush human waste downstream. Residents with underground septic tanks regularly flushed overfilled tanks into the river. The problem remains in many communities with septic systems, and officials plan to test many of the septic tanks in the coming months to ensure that don't leak, an official said.
   The fallout from using the Rouge as a sewer was relentless flushing of human waste, industrial sludge, toxic pollutants and fertilizers into the streams and the trunk river, which feeds into the Detroit River near the border of Dearborn and Detroit. Literally, the Rouge was declared nearly dead, with little or no wildlife and fishing all but a historical footnote.
   Combating the ruined image of a region and the near-death of the Rouge, local communities and environmentalists started focusing on restoration. Federal environmental agencies had to force the issue by suing the sources of pollution, the communities themselves.
   The early focus of the Rouge project in the 1990s was limiting the amount of human waste from entering the waterway.
   On the backs of often reluctant taxpayers, new sewer lines and the underground basin system was built. One environmental official estimates that new sanitary sewers keep away 80 percent of the untreated human waste than had entered the Rouge in heavy rain storms in past years. An equally expensive second phase to rid the Rouge of so-called sanitary overflow drains will be implemented in the coming years. Dearborn alone is expected to build a huge underground tunnel to store untreated waste. The price tag has been placed at $200 million to $300 million.
   Ann Arbor environmental consultant Don Tilton worked with several of the sub-watershed groups formed around the Rouge River in the 1990s. The groups were geographical neighbors located along the Rouge, who could combine cash and resources to meet the March 2003 federal deadline to clean up the storm water entering the Rouge.
   Tilton said the sub-watershed groups will likely be in compliance, with communities such as Bloomfield Hills drafting ordinances limiting the amount of phosphorous allowed in lawn fertilizers. Others, like Canton Township, plan to retrofit storm water basins to trap more pollutants draining into the Rouge.
   The communities involved "are doing just great," Tilton said.
   Jim Graham, executive director of the Friends of the Rouge group, said water regulations looming two and three years down the road will prompt only "small changes in people's lifestyles. It shouldn't take too much convincing."

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