Ever wonder what happens to your water after it goes down the drain or runs off into the sewers? If you answered, “It makes its way to the river,” you’d be correct. But do you know which river or watershed your area drains into? I bet you do, but it’s something most of us don’t think about very often and we should because everything we do – from fertilizing to laundry to washing your car – has an impact on our watershed. I live in the Rouge River watershed and through our work to support the 30th anniversary of Friends of the Rouge and its annual Rouge Rescue event, I recently got an education about the Rouge, its history, its challenges and Friends of the Rouge’s vision for its future.
History of the Rouge River
First, the Rouge River is Michigan’s most urbanized watershed – and it’s bigger than you might think. It drains 466 square miles of land in three counties – Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw – and contains more than 400 lakes, impoundments and ponds and 570 miles of river, streams and creeks.
According to Friends of the Rouge, the Rouge River once was the most polluted river in the country. It was so poorly treated and neglected that it even caught fire twice. But Friends of the Rouge has been working hard for 30 years to improve its health, and in my opinion, they’ve done a great job.
Each spring Friends of the Rouge partners with volunteers from across the Rouge watershed to improve the Rouge River. Here Cyndi Ross, river restoration program manager for Friends of the Rouge, explains how Friends of the Rouge manages wood for the health of the stream.
Opportunities on the river
I’ll admit, my perception of the Rouge was a very dirty, polluted river that shouldn’t be recreated in, but after seeing it first hand, I was wrong. As an outdoorsman and river fisherman, I’ve seen a lot of rivers; when I visited the Rouge River in Southfield, it looked as healthy as the Clinton River or any other river in southeast Michigan. It even holds sensitive fish species like brown trout, which is amazing to me considering that a fish survey in 1991 didn’t find any fish at all.
As it turns out, there are a lot of recreational opportunities along the Rouge, and Friends of the Rouge is working toward more public access to the river. Fishing opportunities can be found in many Rouge lakes and parks along the Johnson Creek, Main Rouge, Upper Rouge, Middle Rouge, Lower Rouge and many other tributaries. (A fishing guide, species list and fish consumption guidelines can be downloaded at www.therouge.org.)
In addition, Friends of the Rouge is working on a Rouge River Water Trail that will eventually include 25 miles of river from Canton to the Detroit River. There are also plans to create a park along the Rouge that would serve as a stopping point along the Iron Belle Trail and be the home of a future kayak launch.
There are currently four areas that can be paddled: Newburgh Lake – Westland, Commerce Court to Goudy Park-Wayne, Ford Field – Dearborn, Melvindale to River Rouge. We had a chance to paddle the lower stretches where we saw some great wildlife including ducks, geese, blue heron, nesting gulls, turtles and fishing jumping.
We also saw some of the river’s challenges, including a combined sewer overflow location at the Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant, which is one of the watershed’s largest challenges. The plant can treat more than 1.3 trillion gallons of sewage per day, but heavy rain events force untreated water into the river, which can include anything from raw sewage to excess lawn fertilizer that ran off into the drains which can make its way downstream and contribute to algae blooms in Lake Erie.
Problems aside, the paddling tour was a fantastic experience. We learned a lot about Rouge River past including a paddle into the original Rouge River channel, one of the only downstream areas of the Rouge remaining after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers redirected the river and developed a concrete encased river bottom in the lower Rouge, and had a chance to marvel at the former Boblo Boat, the SS Ste Claire, which now resides in the Rouge River awaiting restoration, before finishing our tour at Belanger Park along the Detroit River.