Measuring the Rouge

On an overcast morning last month, as I followed Mapquest to a bridge on Military Street spanning the Lower Rouge River in Dearborn, I did a very un-Mapquest thing — hopped my car over a curb, stowing it on a sidewalk.

Then I popped the trunk, pulled on hip waders and tromped across the bridge. There I found the guy who e-mailed me that helpful parking tip. He wore an orange T-shirt and cap. He had on waders too, and was hauling deep-cycle storage batteries out of a big metal box supported by two 4-inch-by-4-inch posts.

A few steps away, a steep embankment dropped down to the Rouge. Robert Howell, a 30-year-old hydrological technician with the U.S. Geological Survey, was removing water quality monitoring equipment from a USGS stream-flow gauging station. I thought I was going to observe him mothballing the gear for the winter. I would be shocked minutes later to learn he was dismantling the water-quality measuring instruments, perhaps forever.

The equipment being removed gauged water temperature and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the river. Both are used to determine how healthy the Rouge is for its aquatic life. Later I would learn that testing for E. coli — the result of fecal waste that can cause serious illness for humans — had been discontinued three years earlier.

As for heavy metals and toxic chemicals, I could find no government source that's doing regular testing for those pollutants.

Despite the dearth of objective criteria, officials responsible for overseeing cleanup of the Rouge are assuring the public that conditions have improved dramatically. But experts I've talked with say that chemical pollutants and fecal contamination still make the river unsafe for swimming, and eating its fish can often be risky. Moreover, testing crucial to gauging the river's health and evaluating the effectiveness of massive expenditures of tax dollars has been substandtially curtaled or, in some cases, completely eliminated.

But, based on the data that is available, despite spending $1.6 billion since the late 1980s to clean the Rouge, that statement simply isn't true.

Long and dirty

At 127 miles, the Rouge is the longest river in southeastern Michigan. It drains 466 square miles of terrain in three counties and 48 municipalities. With its headwaters in feeder creeks stretching through farmland in Washtenaw County, the Rouge flows through suburbs with homes and stores in exclusive bedroom ZIP codes like Rochester Hills, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, and through less-pricey burbs with homes, businesses and factories around Canton, Northville and Plymouth, Southfield, Dearborn Heights, Allen Park and others. The river stretches through miles of Detroit, winding through two big city parks.

In many of those places, the river is hidden away behind trees. Charles Beckham, one-time Detroit recreation director, explained in 2005 why both Eliza Howell and River Rouge parks are designed to keep park-goers away from the river: Because when it rains, the river can be a storm sewer, and you don't want park-goers near it.

Where it can be seen, the Rouge often looks like a rustic stream you might encounter in northern Michigan. Except for one thing: In the watershed for Detroit and its suburbs live 1.5 million people, most of whom flush toilets. It has been the Rouge River's downfall that, to keep from flooding streets and basements with sewage, the river must take some of the waste. And take it the Rouge does, even today, despite hard work by many people in government, engineering, architecture and environmental consulting firms.

As of this summer, government expenditures on cleaning the Rouge totaled $1.6 billion since the late '80s. Federal funding came through a congressionally approved program known as the Rouge River Wet Weather Demonstration Project.

To stem the tide of sewage flowing into the Rouge during wet weather, huge retention basins have been built in both Oakland and Wayne counties. The idea is to hold back sewage-laced rainwater during storms, pump chlorine into it and release it, partly treated, when the rain lets up. Governments in both counties have also improved sanitary sewer lines, separating storm from sanitary sewer pipes in the suburbs. Illicit sewer connections have also been targeted, as have myriad private septic systems, some of which contribute waste to the Rouge.

Kelly Cave of Wayne County's Department of Environment says the effort has been a big success. The amount of dissolved oxygen in the Rouge, once too low to support aquatic life most of the time, was meeting state standards 95 percent of the time by 2005, according to Cave.

But Kent Murray, a geology professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, questions the good tidings on dissolved oxygen (DO). Murray contends that dissolved oxygen data obtained by the USGS don't support the dramatic improvement Wayne County claims.

In an e-mail, Murray wrote: "When we did water quality testing back in the mid-1990s, we found DO levels approaching 10 mg/L [milligrams per liter] in the winter and about 5 in the summer. Below 4, the stream is considered dead, and we had frequent readings in the 4-5 range."

Readings of 8 and above are considered healthy, Murray said.

"Today, more than 10 years later and after spending hundreds of millions of dollars," wrote Murray, "you will still see winter values around 10 and summer values between 5 and 6. Perhaps some improvement, but not to the degree that you would expect after listening to Kelly Cave."

James Ridgway disagrees with Murray's criticism. Ridgway is executive director of the Alliance of Rouge Communities, or ARC, a consortium of several dozen local governments that had been underwriting the USGS cost of the data collection. Ridgway is also a vice president at Environmental Consulting Technologies, Inc., a for-profit corporation that provides staff, organizes public meetings and oversees testing programs for ARC.

"The dissolved oxygen regularly went to zero in the Rouge 10 years ago," Ridgway wrote in an e-mail. "That doesn't happen any more. There were no fish (and a bunch of bad bacteria) because the DO was zero."

Added Ridgway, "Kent views the problems of the Rouge as a toxic-type problem. It is, however, most feel, that first you have to control the 'standard' pollutants. As an example — if you're in a room and there is a toxic release that MAY kill you in the next 20 to 30 years, you should be concerned. If you are in that same room and the oxygen goes to zero and you suffocate in 10 minutes, you have a very real problem."

Who's right?

What I've learned is that, because people are using different methods and are relying on different sources of data, when it comes to finding out exactly what's going on in terms of dissolved oxygen, there is no clear answer at this point.

And now, with testing being discontinued, confusion is only going to increase.

Also being called into question is Ridgway's claim that the river is "fishable and swimmable most of the time."

Regarding the issue of fishing, the Michigan Department of Community Health's 2008 "Michigan Family Fish Consumption Guide" contains detailed warnings about eating fish caught in the Rouge. Healthy adult men can eat some kinds of fish on a limited basis, but in other cases, no one — especially women and children — should eat certain kinds of fish from the river at all.

According to Cave, the situation is also good regarding pollution caused by human waste — which is a primary factor in the E. coli that makes water dangerous to swim in. She says the outfall of raw sewage-laced rainwater has been reduced by 67 percent since 1992, from 6 billion gallons to 2 billion in 2005. But that is not the whole story.

Detroit Riverkeeper Bob Burns alerted me to some alarming data at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality: If you count the output from retention basins, in the first 10 months of 2008, nearly 15 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage were dumped into the Rouge.

When you read "partially treated," it's important to know that the release into the Rouge included not only sewage but also chlorine, a chemical used to kill bacteria in several retention basins meant to hold back rainwater and sewage during storms.

The word "sewage" itself is vague. Picture more than human feces and urine together with toilet paper, sanitary napkins, condoms and whatever else people flush down their toilets. Picture solvents, oil, gasoline, and myriad chemicals and metals used by industry up and down the watershed, as well as street runoff with gasoline, oil and who knows what other toxic stuff, and sent partially treated or treated not at all into Detroit sewer mains.

At least today, factories are required to treat waste. Before 1972, when the federal Clean Water Act became law, plants flushed their waste directly into the sewers or into streams. Even now, besides city sewer waste, there are discharges from leaky septic systems, homeowners overfertilizing lawns and illegal dumping into sewers.

Last fall, three men were sentenced in federal court to prison for illegally dumping 19 million gallons of partially treated industrial materials into the Detroit sewage system, which overflowed and forced the bad stuff into the Rouge.

A sewer runs to it

I've been fascinated by rivers ever since I was a kid. My grandmother had a small farm in western Michigan, and her land fronted on the Flat River. I learned to swim, fish and canoe in the Flat. One day in the 1960s, I saw something I'll never forget: Right in town, a pipe stuck out of the riverbank. There was a gurgle, and it disgorged yellow water and toilet paper. Incredible! The river that was more or less my summer home was, it turned out, polluted with human waste.

The first time I saw an open sewer was in Lome, Togo, on the western bulge of Africa, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s. What a crude thing, I thought. Really primitive. Then I came to metro Detroit and, in 1985, went riding with Wayne County sheriff's deputies on horseback through Hines Park along the Middle Rouge. I saw the equivalent of that tiny galvanized pipe I'd seen spewing pee into the Flat. Except what I saw on the Rouge were not little pipes. They were huge concrete maws with steel grates, and they were called CSOs for Combined Sewer Overflows. Detroit's wastewater treatment plant, now the biggest single-unit plant in the United States, was opened in 1940 and received sewage from Detroit and many communities beyond. But the sewage transport system couldn't accommodate both sewage and rainwater, so it was designed to overflow into the Rouge and Detroit rivers during so-called "rain events."

The Rouge River, in other words, was meant to be — and still is, despite vast technical improvements — a spare pipe for overburdened sewers. During heavy storms, sewage that normally gets treated is mixed with storm water and discharged into the river.

The only difference between the Rouge and that stinking sluice I saw in West Africa is size — the Rouge in Detroit below Eight Mile Road actually receives raw sewage, though the river dilutes it. To that extent, it is better than that open sewer I saw alongside a city sidewalk in Togo.

Now, if it seems like I am obsessed about this issue of pollution in the Rouge, it's because I am. Four years ago, as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, I came literally face to face with the CSOs as I planned a journalism project that called for me and a photographer to paddle a canoe as far up the Main Branch of the Rouge as we could over five days. Our motivation was twofold: By taking readers where they could not go, we would show how badly this river has been abused, and we would let people know that there is natural beauty together with lots of unexpected wildlife in this stream that runs through the heart of metro Detroit.

Part of my planning for the canoe trip focused on trying to find out how healthy from a human standpoint the river is. I phoned public health and environmental officials and posed this question: "What would happen to us if we fell in?"

I received differing answers.

Raj Sinha of the Wayne County Health Department warned me that swimming was not safe because the river receives sewage. He mentioned diseases like cholera and typhoid having been connected to contact with sewage.

Phil Argiroff, an MDEQ engineer, conceded that immersion below Eight Mile Road would not be good due to CSO pollution, but assured me that north of Eight Mile, in Oakland County, a dip would be OK. Effectively, he marked as unsafe the first roughly 25 miles of the Main Branch and most of its navigable water.

But I was to find that even north of Eight Mile, E. coli samples in 2004 and 2005 — the last years sampling was done — often were too high for swimming or even canoeing.

We came close to dunking more than once, but we never did fall into the Rouge. But I got a practical answer to my question — by the end of five days canoeing up the Rouge, I was taking antibiotics to quell inflammations on my arms and legs that were diagnosed by a physician as cellulitis — bacterial skin infections induced, most likely, by splashing in polluted water.

Is the situation involving E. coli on the main branch of the Rouge any better today? No one can say, because testing ended in 2005.

Gaps in the data

Some three years after that trip, on Nov. 3 of this year, I watched Robert Howell working with equipment at monitoring sites that were measuring more than water velocity and volume, the usual USGS targets. They were also recording levels of underwater dissolved oxygen and water temperature.

I'd recently heard Cave talking about improvements in dissolved oxygen that, she implied, were the result of the $1.6 billion spent on the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project she managed. Now I was seeing firsthand, I believed, how her data were collected.

I was fascinated to see how the instrument that measures water quality is submerged in the river by way of a long length of black PVC pipe that also runs partway under the riverbank before emerging above ground where technicians can service it. On a typical maintenance day, which takes place every few weeks, the techs pull monitoring heads and clean them before submerging them once again in the river.

Howell, a fisheries biology graduate of Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, was explaining his techniques as he scrambled up and down the soaking, clay-sided bank, steadying himself with a rope looped around one of the gauging station legs. At one point, he began stewing about whether to thread a line through that PVC pipe, just in case someone might want to reinstall the instruments that measure dissolved oxygen and temperature in the Rouge.

Reinstall them? I thought. "Wait a minute," I said. "Are you saying USGS is shutting down water quality monitoring at this site?"

"From all four Rouge sites," he said. "Unless somebody else wants to pay for it, it's finished." He mentioned two entities involved in the decision — ECT and ARC. I was stunned first because USGS has only been collecting water quality data since 1999. Before that, zilch. Eight years of data. Now, zilch again. After Nov. 3, 2008, you can say what you want about Rouge River water quality — as far as dissolved oxygen, nobody in the future can prove or disprove your claims.

Dissolved oxygen is what fish and other aquatic animals breathe. When it falls to low levels, underwater life can't survive. Like fish, organic pollutants like human and animal waste use up oxygen. Also, the warmer the water, the lower the oxygen. That's why the USGS was measuring temperature as well as DO levels.

Secondly, I was shocked to learn that ARC and ECT had pulled the plug. Ridgway was on the ground floor of the Rouge demonstration plan. He helped design it. ECT has been a contractor on the project for years.

Aren't measurements needed to gauge the success of the project?

I called and e-mailed Ridgway, asking what happened. His answer was blunt: "It's all about money. The EPA used to monitor and the MDEQ used to monitor and the budgets have been cut and they've stopped. I'm working with folks on the Obama transition team, and I'm arguing that EPA has to remember that collecting data is important. We've been robbing little pots of money to do monitoring in southeastern Michigan, which is not being done any place else, not being done at all, and we're running out of places to rob."

Lack of money, Ridgway said, "is complicating matters. How do we know if our water is getting clean? Nobody is measuring anything."

However, on Oct. 24, a couple weeks before I met Howell, I heard Ridgway declare success at a public meeting on the status of the Rouge at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He said, "If somebody would have told me 20 years ago that the Rouge River would be fishable and swimmable most of the time, I would not have believed it, and yet we have done it."

Ridgway now says his message was somewhat different. On Monday, after this week's Metro Times was sent to the printer, I received an e-mail from him stating that "30 years ago I would have never believe that the Rouge would ever be fishable and swimmable. I now believe it's possible. It is clearly fishable. It is swimmable at many locations all of the time and most locations most of the time. More work is needed, but I expect a fishable and swimmable Rouge in my lifetime."

Forgive me for being a bit suspicious that the same man who declared it safe to bathe and fish in the Rouge is involved with cutting the USGS water quality testing. A few days earlier, I had learned from MDEQ's Christine Alexander that MDEQ stopped testing throughout the Rouge for E. coli in 2005. Yet we're told it's OK for swimming "most of the time."

Even in 2004 and 2005, test results were anything but good, both in the Main Branch and Middle Rouge. A study by the engineering firm Camp, Dresser & McKee found that the Rouge River in 2004 was safe for swimming, also known as "full body contact," 2 percent to 5 percent of the time.

Ridgway told me the Rouge E. coli monitoring once was done with federal funding, but that money is drying up. With the limited funding that remains, the focus is being concentrated on finding illegal sewer hook-ups. Ridgway noted that in Oakland and Wayne counties there are teams of environmental technicians who sample river water to find evidence that people either intentionally or accidentally have hooked sewage drains to streams.

"The idea is to make the money available to get some positive change and then to monitor again in a while," Ridgway said.

The history of data pertaining to pollution of the Rouge River already was very short. The federal Clean Water Act went into effect in 1972, but Kurt Heise, director of the Wayne County Department of Environment, told me the county has no pollution data for the 1970s or earlier. I found that data for the 1980s also is spotty.

There are other sources, for sure, but they are not necessarily easy to find or reliable. For instance, though I couldn't find public records of bacteria in the river for the 1970s, I found references in journalist Bob Pisor's magazine account of his aborted attempt at canoeing the Rouge in 1979. Pisor noted reports of dangerously high levels of fecal matter in his story, "My Search for the Source of the Rouge," in the October 1979 issue of Monthly Detroit. Not official, but better than nothing.

On our canoe trip, we paddled past combined sewer overflows draped with papier-mâché blends of toilet paper and sanitary napkins and suspended from a low tree branch hung a bulbous, buff-colored water balloon — a condom.

Death by "rat fever"

Why do we put up with pollution? There have been spurts of outrage. In 1985, the Michigan Water Resources Commission (now defunct) declared that by 2005, the Rouge River would be safe for swimming and fishing. Also in 1985, a 31-year-old Novi man fell into the Rouge, swallowed a few mouthfuls of water and died two weeks later of leptospirosis, or "rat fever."

Jim Murray, then chairman of the Water Resources Commission and the man who pushed hard for the 2005 deadline, declared in the Detroit Free Press that the death actually shone a light on the state of pollution in the Rouge River. According to Murray: "I think one of the reasons the pollution has been tolerated as long as it has is that we've not been able to pin more things like this on it directly."

How could we spend so much money and not make the Rouge safe? Lack of accountability partly explains it, I think.

Bill Craig, co-chair of the Rouge River Remedial Action Plan (RAP) Council, once told me he considers the Demonstration Project Michigan's piece of "pork." He recounted how he'd challenged so-called stakeholders, including some from ECT, to explain how much of a federal grant would go to consultants and what proportion of the money would be spent on real infrastructure. He told me his remark was met with resentment.

I asked Cave of Wayne County the same question, but aimed at finding the proportion of consulting and engineering fees vs. actual hardware for the entire federal project. Her response was that I'd have to ask each local government to find out how they spent their share of the money.

It also helps to understand how government officials and their contractors think. In 2005, the Rouge RAP Council, whose members are county and state environmental and public health officials, academics, contractors involved in the cleanup project and private people like Bill Craig of Livonia with an interest in helping the river, issued a "Rouge River Report Card" to update a similar report the RAP Council had published in 1999.

The 2005 document is a blend of science, wishful thinking and politics. It contains 18 "indicators" that — according to the RAP Council — "are judged to determine trends since 1999." Of the 18 indicators, a dozen are based on what one might roughly call scientific evidence, while six are measures of political or institutional success. I say "roughly," because the published document mixes statements like "habitat loss and fragmentation continues to increase" under its "Wildlife" indicator yet gives equal standing to prescriptive statements like "wildlife monitoring efforts need to expand."

Of the 12 more or less scientific indicators, only four received up arrows for positive progress. There were three sideways arrows indicating neither positive nor negative progress. Five indicators received down arrows. In other words, this group found that progress in cleaning the Rouge has either gone backward or is standing still for a majority of the "scientific" indexes.

The half dozen institutional arrows, like "Public Understanding and Community Stewardship, " "School-based Environmental Education," "Recreational Use and Aesthetics," "Restoration Projects," "Local Government Leadership" and "Business and Institutional Stewardship" all received up arrows both in 1999 and 2005.

The project was overseen by Friends of the Rouge, a nonprofit (supported by corporations, individuals and Wayne County) that has done impressive work since it was founded in 1986, raising public awareness of the Rouge through school programs, its annual cleanup and public outreach. Its board of directors in 2005 included two ECT staffers and representatives from other project contractors, such as architecture firm Hamilton Anderson as well as plants operating on the Rouge, such as Ford Motor Co.

Thus, scientists, contractors, government and environmental officials and business people, including those with discharge permits involved in the evaluation, were the same ones getting the attaboys.

The six nonscientific "indicators" tell us nothing about the river's quality. What about the scientific indicators? With my Rouge-induced infections, I have a special interest in Indicator No. 4, "Public Health — Bacteria."

In 1999, the RAP Council found that "bacteria levels throughout the Rouge River watershed are too high for safe human contact." They gave the Rouge a sideways arrow, signifying no progress. In 2005, the RAP Council gave the river an up arrow. Here's how things had changed in six years: "Although bacteria levels throughout the Rouge River watershed are too high for safe human contact, significant progress has been made."

I'd like to suggest a better expression for that subordinate clause, "significant progress has been made": "Take antibiotics."

Other than a bit of linguistic gymnastics, the RAP Council had no change to report. Yet they voted for an up arrow. Why would you change the sideways "breaking even" arrow to an up arrow when it's still not safe to fall in? Here's why, according to working notes that were part of the record on which the RAP Council voted in 2005: "You can't have done all the things that have been done and not have some achievement."

Well, there has been dramatic achievement. No question things were worse before the Rouge project. I'm reading from Bob Pisor's 1979 Monthly Detroit magazine article:

"The Rouge, first of all, and I apologize that there is no more delicate or honest way to state the fact clearly, is filled with shit. Aquatic biologists dipped a scoop into the Rouge at the Fenkell bridge several years ago and came up with a six-tablespoon sample that contained 224,000 fecal coliform, microscopic bits of bacterial badness that grow only in the intestines of human beings and other warm-blooded animals. A more recent survey, taken during a storm, found an average of 360,000 fecal coliform and several individual samples that approached ten million!"

Certainly, things are better now. But when raw sewage hits the river, readings go up. Bob Burns is the Detroit Riverkeeper, employed by Friends of the Detroit River to monitor water quality on the Detroit River and on its most important tributary, the Rouge. He drives up the Lower Rouge in a Riverkeeper boat watching for signs of pollution.

"I've spent a lot of time on the Rouge, and I've never seen a day in the Lower Rouge when I would even remotely consider swimming in it," Burns said. "It's bad. We've had E. coli counts out of the Rouge of as much as 120,000," meaning 120,000 colonies of fecal bacteria, far exceeding the maximum tolerance for human contact. The fact that high E. coli readings still occur where test samples are taken is a concern not mentioned in the Report Card.

According to RAP Council co-chair Craig, politics invaded the Council's decision to change a downward-pointing arrow for Indicator No. 10, "Fish," to a sideways arrow with a question mark. In fall 2005, I watched the members vote for the negative arrow. When I later learned of the change to a neutral position, I was surprised. Jeff Braunscheidel, the MDNR fisheries biologist who, with colleague Jennifer Beam, co-authored an authoritative 1998 report, "Rouge River Assessment," on fish in the Rouge, told me that there is no real sport fishery to talk about in the Rouge. Except in two places where they've been stocked, Newburgh Lake and Johnson Creek, game fish are rarely available and in many places edible to a limited degree or not at all. The Rouge, Braunscheidel told me, is "the dirtiest river in Michigan."

Still, under its "Fish" heading, the RAP Council stated, "For such an urbanized river, more fish inhabit the Rouge River than people realize."

Not exactly a quantitative statement.

Why, I asked Bill Craig, did the RAP Council change its collective mind and assign that sideways, ambiguous question mark arrow to the fish category?

"I lost to the power bases," Craig replied.

Mismeasure of the lakes

Turns out there's a term for trying to measure environmental improvements with red herring statements about programs or institutions. It's called counting "outputs," and the technique was roundly criticized by the federal Government Accountability Office in a 2003 report that blistered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and subordinate state and local environmental agencies for failing miserably to improve Great Lakes water quality.

Jim Murray, the former Washtenaw County drain commissioner, former Michigan Water Resources Commission chairman and director of the Wayne County Department of Environment under the late Chief Executive Ed McNamara, alerted me to the GAO report. I asked Murray if the report applied to the Rouge program. He assured me it did.

Published on July 16, 2003, it's called "Great Lakes — A Coordinated Strategic Plan and Monitoring System Are Needed to Achieve Restoration Goals."

The GAO studied 33 federal Great Lakes environmental programs, 17 of them also paid for partly by states. They involved $3.7 billion in Great Lakes projects funded from 1992-2001.

"Without an overarching plan for these strategies, it is difficult to determine overall progress. With available information, it is not possible to comprehensively assess restoration progress in the Great Lakes. Current indicators rely on limited quantitative data and subjective judgments to determine whether conditions are improving, such as whether fish are safe to eat."

"Several recently released reports, including ours, have questioned whether the current environmental activities in the Great Lakes being funded by numerous organizations and various programs have resulted in significant restoration progress in the basin. There is no overarching plan for coordinating these disparate strategies and program activities into a coherent approach for attaining overall basin restoration goals. We found that extensive strategizing, planning and coordinating have not resulted in significant restoration. Thus, the ecosystem remains compromised and contaminated sediments in the lakes produce health problems."

Here's where the GAO report applies directly to the Rouge Report Card. The key phrase is the GAO's term "output data."

Instead of citing scientifically verifiable data, like E. Coli samplings, dissolved oxygen levels or water temperatures and level fluctuations, the GAO said environmental officials were rating their success based on numbers of projects completed or projects being planned.

Consider the RAP Council's Report Card Indicator No. 5, "Public health — Toxic Chemicals and Fish Consumption Advisories," which gets an up arrow. We learn that one thing has been accomplished: "Hazardous waste collection efforts are increasing." And two things ought to be done: "Need to increase stakeholder awareness and participation in reducing pollutants" and "Remaining pollution 'hot spots' have yet to be eliminated."

Nothing quantitative, yet an up arrow.

It seems to fall under what GAO noted: "Program officials frequently cite output data as measures of success rather than actual program accomplishments in improving environmental conditions in the basin. As a rule, program output data describe activities, such as projects funded and are of limited value in determining environmental progress."

Remember the Report Card's justification for awarding an up arrow to "Public Health — Bacteria"?

You can't have done all the things that have been done and not have some achievement.

The real measures of water quality come from monitoring, which has been eliminated or dramatically reduced. Pleading that "you can't have done all the things that have been done and not have some achievement" doesn't say anything about the quality of life in the river.

Worse than human waste

From the USGS gauging station in Dearborn, I followed Howell to another station, a shed beside the Hines Drive bridge over the Middle Rouge in Dearborn Heights. From there, we drove to River Rouge Park in Detroit to another USGS station beside a golf cart bridge. We wound up the day at a plastic shed behind an Arby's restaurant on Telegraph Road north of I-96 in Detroit.

As we were working our way upstream, I wondered about measurements on the heavy industry area of the Rouge downstream from Michigan Avenue. Well, turns out there's a USGS station at Rotunda, but it hasn't been used in a couple years. But even Rotunda is too far upstream to monitor discharges from industry farther downstream.

Say you've got a river that's, oh, 127 miles long with four major branches that start in farmland, wind through heavily populated cities, converging to flow past one of the biggest auto factories in the world, two steel mills, open piles of salt, gypsum and cement and the biggest single-unit wastewater treatment plant in the country. All the water comes down those four branches, running past all that industry, passing a trio of iron blast furnaces on Zug Island where it dumps into a big stream called the Detroit River. Say further that you are assigned to measure water quality, but you are allowed only one monitoring station. Where would you place it?

Seems like you'd want it at the mouth, right? But there are no USGS monitoring stations downstream from Rotunda. None in the Turning Basin at the Ford Motor Co. Rouge plant and Severstal steel mill or downstream from the Morton Salt or U.S. Gypsum operations, or at U.S. Steel on Zug Island.

A good place for monitoring would be at the O'Brien Drain, which dumped 289 million gallons of raw sewage into the Rouge between January and October of this year.

I mentioned the official emphasis on E. coli and dissolved oxygen, both very important measurements that ought to be sustained. But we've been lulled away from looking at what probably is a much more serious problem — toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the Rouge.

It's easy to understand how it has happened, when organizations like the RAP Council declare toxics to be insignificant. The Report Card in 1999 and again in 2005 awarded up arrows for toxics and declared, "Toxic chemicals, although present throughout much of the river, do not pose a public health threat."

End of discussion?

Not quite.

Human waste is bad, but it's not the worst thing in the Rouge, Detroit Riverkeeper Burns said. "The biggest concern I have is all the toxic chemicals and heavy metals and bio-accumulates getting into the system. The thing people don't understand is that not only do you have the CSO discharges with large amounts of sewage, but you have all the pre-treated industrial wastes coming out of the 125,000 commercial entities connected to the system as well as 350 major industrial users like U.S. Steel, Marathon Oil, Ford and Severstal. Some have discharges going directly into the river; many, such as Marathon, only discharge into the sanitary sewer system.

"In a perfect world when the system is working perfectly on a good day it can take care of some of the stuff, but when you add the rain events, you get a lot of stuff bypassing the system and going directly into the Rouge River," Burns said.

MDEQ is looking now at what Burns called "five or six major contamination hot spots from in front of the Turning Basin to Zug Island." They're finding toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), lead and mercury, Burns said.

Mention of PCB brings to mind Newburgh Lake on the Middle Rouge. The collection of E. coli data throughout the Rouge in the mid-2000s was paid for by the federal government and managed by MDEQ, Ridgway told me. "It was completed, and the communities have been required to do more to eliminate E. coli based on the results," Ridgway said.

ARC has conducted E. coli testing in the Main Branch of the Rouge as recently as last summer. "The ARC monitoring moves around the watershed," Ridgway said. "Thus we can focus our activities in a way that helps us find sources. We can't afford to do the whole watershed every year and thus make it around the watershed about once every five years."

There were some poor results from E. coli (sewage) testing at Newburgh Lake during the summer of 2008. Bacteria levels exceeded swimming standards five times, two samples of which would have banned partial body contact activities like canoeing and fishing. Upstream in Phoenix Lake on June 25, the count of E. coli bacteria of 5,582 colonies exceeded state full body contact standards by a factor of more than 18. Of 12 water samples taken from Phoenix Lake over the summer, seven contained too many colonies of bacteria for swimming. In nearby Wilcox Lake on the Middle Rouge, half of the dozen samples contained too much bacteria for safe swimming.

There are no recent data for the Main Branch where we canoed in 2005, but, that year, near 7 Mile Road in Detroit, many, many E. coli readings were too high for swimming. Some of the samples had thousands of colonies of bacteria — one reading was 18,000, when the maximum even for partial body contact (boating) is 1,000. More than 20,000 bacteria colonies were found in a sample taken near Rotunda, in Dearborn, where, in 2005, again, many readings were too high for swimming. In Oakland County, numerous samples taken from Riverside Park in Beverly Hills were too high for swimming.

On the Middle Branch, Newburgh Lake has special interest to Wayne County environmentalists, because they were hoping a $12.5 million cleanup of PCB-laden river bottom directed by Ridgway and ECT would make it possible to allow swimming and a canoe livery. Many high E. coli counts in Newburgh and nearby Phoenix and Wilcox ponds require a ban on swimming and canoeing.

There's another danger lurking in Newburgh Lake — trichloroethylene, a solvent found at an unremediated Livonia factory site. TCE is traveling with groundwater into Newburgh Lake, I learned from Kent Murray, the professor and groundwater hydrology scientist at UM-Dearborn.

The Rouge, Murray told me, is "the dirtiest river in the country." I've read some of his academic papers. One, published in Michigan Academician in 1997, is titled "Heavy Metal Contamination of Bed Sediments in the Rouge River, Southeastern Michigan." The abstract states:

"Eighty years of industrial development in southeast Michigan has contaminated the bed sediment of the Rouge River with heavy metals and other contaminants. ... Although a progressive increase in the concentration of (copper, chromium, lead and mercury) was observed in the downstream reaches of the watershed, which is associated with increasing urbanization and industrialization, the entire watershed suffers from heavy metal contamination which exceeds EPA criteria limits for the protection of surface water quality."

Murray told me he's done research that indicates degradation of aquatic life upstream as well as downstream from combined sewer outlets. That data was paid for by Wayne County through a federally funded Rouge project, but never appeared on the Wayne County website, he said.

Murray's research also shows significant fecal contamination originates upstream as well as downstream from CSOs. Some of the contamination may come from farming in Washtenaw County. Some may come from wild animals — ducks, geese, muskrats or rats. Remember the guy who died in 1985 of rat fever after swallowing mouthfuls of Rouge water?

Murray told me he thinks the expenditure of hundreds of millions on sewer improvements solves somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of the overall Rouge River contamination problem.

Murray's work has received little attention from the mainstream press, he said. I heard about him from friends — Ed Sperkowski of Friends of the Detroit River and John W. Smith, a retired U-M-Dearborn political science prof who's also researching water quality in the Rouge. Both say they're concerned that the Rouge is slipping backward and that officials are not willing to admit it.

I asked Ridgway about his claim that the Rouge is "swimmable." I told him about the infections I got after too much contact with the Rouge River on our canoe trip in 2005, and I mentioned the high E. coli readings in many parts of the Rouge, including in Oakland County where an MDEQ engineer assured me there'd be no great exposure to pollution. How could anyone claim the Rouge is "swimmable most of the time"?

Confronted with a question about the present, Ridgway steered the conversation toward the future.

The city of Detroit, Ridgway told me, is planning to build a billion-dollar tunnel that will conduct almost all sewage to the city's wastewater treatment plant without dumping overflows into the Rouge. That will solve the pollution problem, he said.

When will that happen? I asked.

"I don't know off the top of my head," Ridgway replied. "I know the design is in process of being designed. It's a big project and it takes a long time."

Back in 2005, before our canoe trip, I was told by an MDEQ engineer, Phil Argiroff, that the Detroit tunnel might be in service between 2010 and 2020.

So when Ridgway told people at a public meeting at UM-Dearborn on Oct. 24 that the Rouge is "swimmable most of the time," I'm guessing he meant "most of the time — sometime after 2020."

I can't help recalling that GAO report's criticism of officials using "outputs" rather than real quantifiable data as a basis for conclusions. The tunnel is an output. It is not even a real thing yet, certainly nothing like countable data. It's not a criterion at all, only a promise of something better in the future.

According to Kent Murray, "The entire watershed suffers from heavy metal contamination which exceeds EPA criteria limits for the protection of surface water quality." Yet the Rouge RAP Council gave toxics an up — positive progress arrow — in the 2005 Rouge Report Card.

On Nov. 3, when Robert Howell had packed all the government measurement gear into the blue USGS van, I realized I'd unwittingly stumbled onto a historical divide, a temporal partition between a time when gathering water quality information in a scientific way was deemed important and a new epoch when measurement is on the wane, replaced instead by bold but overly optimistic proclamations that all is well with the Rouge.

Joel Thurtell writes the blog Up the Rouge! Paddling Detroit’s Hidden River, by Thurtell and photographer Patricia Beck, will be published by Wayne State University Press in April. Send comments to
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