push for clean Rouge River
is to eliminate pollutants from waterway
Craig Garrett The Detroit News 04/25/2002
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,
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
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
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
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