Reviving the Rouge

Unlike the wind, which is fleeting, a river is a steady chronicle of a community’s values and its conduct. Nowhere in Michigan is the story of painful lessons and a promising future more plain than on the Rouge River in metropolitan Detroit.

In 1919, at a broad bend downstream, Henry Ford completed the immense River Rouge industrial complex, the first factory in the world to mass-produce finished products such as the Model T out of raw materials and put tens of thousands of workers on assembly lines. Ford’s River Rouge complex was an industrial showcase and, with its steamship berths and wastewater discharge pipes, a testament to the 20th century’s view of a river’s usefulness.

More than 80 years later, the River Rouge complex and all the other once hulking factories along the river are gaunt and diminished skeletons. Corroded smokestacks and rusted girders haunt the banks of the river’s lower reaches. The water is turgid and brown, swollen with the refuse of industry and abused by five generations who steadily built communities upriver, convinced the Rouge could absorb and carry away everything that washed off the urbanizing land.

The Rouge’s darkest days came in the 1980s, when tests showed it was still one of the dirtiest rivers in the country despite progress in the 1970s reducing toxic outflows from factories and sewage plants. The new contamination comes from the 438 square miles of land that drains into the river — its “watershed” — and 1.5 million people who live and work there.

Surges of new suburban storm water, which runs off parking lots and driveways throughout the watershed, wash oil and chemicals into the Rouge’s many tributaries and into the metropolitan area’s vast network of storm water pipes, which also carry the area’s sewage. The high volume and incredible force of the storm water tears up the tributaries and overwhelms storm water pipes and basins, which then spill the sewage.

Rethinking economics

This picture of a river in ruin and a city suffering the contamination costs is alarming, but it is also fading quickly as a grand, regional effort to restore an urban watershed begins to show impressive results. The 21st-century business and government leaders involved envision a new life for the city that they will build using and restoring Michigan’s economic ace in the hole: Water, lots of water for people to enjoy.

To seize this opportunity, they are now reckoning with the reality that rivers begin their lives far away in upstream marshes and creeks. They know that attracting new business and residential investment to metropolitan Detroit depends on upstream and downstream communities working together to clean up and protect the water. They’ve also learned that the most economical way to do that is to invest in nature’s strengths.

New era

Perhaps the best testament to the dawning of a new vision for making Detroit a world-class city was an event last May in which William Clay Ford Jr., chairman of the Ford Motor Company, joined an impressive gathering of southeast Michigan business and civic leaders assembled in a leafy glen upstream from his great-grandfather’s industrial complex.

Among those present were Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, and U.S. District Court Judge John Feikens, who for 24 years has used his gavel to call attention to the Rouge’s health and, in recent years, to force 48 local governments to do something about it.

What attracted these men and women of wealth and power was the opening of a new environmental education center on the river at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus. The $3.6 million center is one of more than 100 cleanup, restoration and preservation projects across the three counties that the Rouge drains.

The education center and other projects — ranging from enormous and costly combined sewage and storm water control basins to lower-cost pollution prevention projects, such as stream bank restoration efforts and local ordinances to safeguard wetlands — reflect a new appreciation for Michigan’s natural assets.

“This is a huge undertaking,” Mr. Ford said, at the center’s dedication, of the effort to restore the Rouge River watershed. “But we’re doing it, and it’s going to work. We are going to see the day when we can take boat rides up and down the river again, where it’s safe for swimming, and fish are going to come upriver to spawn. The progress we’ve made in the last five years is fantastic. But we’re only at the 20-yard line. We have a long way to go.”

Lesson worth learning

Communities across Michigan and the nation have plenty to learn from the story of the Rouge River.

On one level, the pollution in the Rouge, and the decades and billions of dollars yet to spend before it’s clean enough for swimming and fishing, is a study in the ruinous economic and social costs of failing to understand the consequences of unbridled growth. Hundreds of elected officials and business leaders — and thousands of southeast Michigan residents — are now paying the price of poor planning, sprawling patterns of development, and weak leadership at every level of government.

It’s also a warning that communities in the relatively undeveloped watersheds of north and west Michigan should do everything in their power to heed. They will end up with the same levels of pollution, as well as the costly social and economic consequences, unless they apply the growth management tools and intergovernmental, watershed-based cooperation that have proven to work in the Rouge cleanup.

On another level, the Rouge cleanup is about even more than that. The remarkable cooperation among governments, and between governments and business, is a national model of how a city and a region can move beyond the resource exploitation of the past and move on with the understanding that protecting and restoring natural assets is essential to prosperity.

The Rouge cleanup proves:

· It costs much more in the end to pave over wetlands, farmlands and forests than to keep them working naturally to clean water and air and protect land and wildlife.

· Broad problems, like water pollution and traffic congestion, require regional solutions. These solutions depend on communities talking to each other, reaching consensus and taking action.

· Strong, persistent, and credible leadership is essential for uniting independent thinkers behind a common goal. The indispensable leader on the Rouge was a federal district judge with the law on his side.

A judge’s guidance

The Federal District Court Building on West Fort Street in downtown Detroit is an odd place to find a plumber. Jurors, yes. Lawyers frantic with clients and cases, yes. But a judge with an expert’s understanding of how to transport water and keep it clean? Well, yes to that too. He is 83-year-old U.S. District Court Judge John Feikens.

From his formidable chambers and stately courtroom on the eighth floor, Judge Feikens has spent 31 years deciding grim federal cases of white-collar crimes, raucous civil disagreements, and complex bankruptcies and fraud. But the litigation that has defined his distinguished career, and for which southeast Michigan will long revere him, is case number 77-71100.

The Environmental Protection Agency filed the lawsuit initially in 1977 to stop pollution at the Detroit Water and Sewerage plant, the largest in the world. In overseeing that case, Judge Feikens has used his broad authority to respond to persistent pollution and expand the case’s boundaries, goals and importance well beyond what even he could have imagined.

Through formal orders and regular on-the-record hearings in his courtroom, Judge Feikens did what nobody else in Michigan — not governors, congressmen, state legislators, or state environmental directors — was willing to do. He brought leaders from three counties and 48 southeast Michigan communities together to cooperate on a plan to restore the entire 126-mile-long Rouge River.

Under Judge Feikens’ stern and steady guidance the lawsuit has produced a governing blueprint — applicable in any other watershed in Michigan or the nation — for how to manage costly and complex environmental restoration projects across a watershed and, more importantly, how to prevent them in the first place.

Successful start

His singular achievement is not a legal precedent but a political one. Rather than allow local governments to keep flushing their waste downstream, he made them face the pollution costs together, with terrific results. From Bloomfield Hills to Dearborn and from Plymouth to Garden City, the results clearly show the benefits.

Phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizers, sewage and chemicals is declining. Oxygen levels, even in the most industrialized reaches near the river’s mouth, are now high enough to support a small sport fishery. Wayne County is now sponsoring a triathalon to begin with a swim in Newburgh Lake, along the river’s middle branch in western Wayne County. Whether fecal contamination will prevent swimming for the Aug. 19 race remains to be seen. But that the water is sometimes safe for swimming and that officials could consider such an event are signs of progress.

In early May, encouraged by a warm afternoon, Alvin Poole, a retired machinist, talked about the improving conditions while walking along the shore of Newburgh Lake. The water was surprisingly clear and the lake’s distant shore was fresh and green with spring. At least 50 other people joined Mr. Poole, among them young lovers, families having picnics and people casting fishing lines. It was a scene of such civic beauty and peace that Mr. Poole marveled. After all, he remarked, for much of his adult life in the Detroit region, Newburgh Lake and the Rouge River were essentially a vast urban sewage pipe.

“It looked like a slop ditch,” said Mr. Poole, a retired auto parts plant worker, sweeping his arm toward the mile-long lake. “Now it’s altogether different. It doesn’t smell. It is a beautiful place to come to. It’s sure a big improvement from what it used to be. It’s so much better that people talk about it here all the time.”

Such changes in the Rouge watershed are so remarkable that interest is now building for the idea of replicating the successes elsewhere. Earlier this year, Judge Feikens met with many of the area’s influential civic leaders, among them Bill Ford Jr., to form a consortium that will bring to other major rivers in the Detroit region the same engineering and political tools that have helped the Rouge.

Last February, when the consortium’s participants first met, Judge Feikens told the gathering that there really is no choice if Michigan’s largest metropolitan area is to stand with New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Portland as a premier place to live and work.

“This is an evolutionary concept,” said Judge Feikens. “People are becoming more aware that you can’t have any quality of life if you don’t have clean water. You cannot have any world-class industries in southeast Michigan, like the Ford Motor Company, unless the area itself has a very definite concept of quality of life and a very definite idea of what’s necessary to have quality of life.”

Source of the problem

The lawsuit in Judge Feikens’ court — and the fresh thinking it has spurred — is a microcosm of state and national experience with “nonpoint” pollution, the kind of water contamination that comes not from one source, such as a factory, but from across the land, where soil, wastes, debris, oils and chemicals wash into rivers and lakes.

Judge Feikens said the incredible scope of metropolitan Detroit’s nonpoint problem became clear to him in 1983 after the Detroit sewage plant had already spent six years and more than $500 million, most of it federal money, to fix its pollution problems.

“As the Detroit treatment plant, which is point-source pollution, began to get corrected through the use of a great deal of federal money, monitoring studies also pointed up the fact that we still had a good deal of pollution,” said Judge Feikens in an interview. “Nonpoint source pollution was still out there and had to be corrected.”

The International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada agency that oversees the Great Lakes, identified the Rouge in the mid-1980s as one of the dirtiest rivers in the upper Midwest. The commission suspected the major problem was sewage overflows into the river from combined sewage and storm water drains inundated with new water from suburban surfaces. Scientists say waves of rain runoff are pushing sewage and other pollution into waterways because development has actually altered the nature of the region’s river systems.

No swimming

In Detroit, for example, gauges that the U.S. Geological Survey and other federal agencies maintain show more water is flowing into the upstream reaches of the region’s major rivers — the Huron, Rouge and Clinton — than they have ever measured. Scientists with the Geological Survey say that is happening because people, workplaces, schools, post offices, and stores are no longer close together but spread far apart across the land.

This sprawling pattern of development — in full swing since the end of World War II — produces acres and acres of concrete and blacktop that replace absorbent wetlands and forests along the Rouge’s tributaries. Rather than slowly soak into the ground, rain now rushes off asphalt at high rates of speed into storm drains and sewage lines and straight into tributaries and the Rouge itself. The vastly increased surge overwhelms municipal storm drains and sewage treatment systems that were never designed to handle all the liquid and solids that now flow into them.

Every time it rains, millions of gallons of polluted storm water and sewage flow into the Rouge and nearly every one of the state’s other rivers, because cities and villages across the state have developed in the same way. Even after a light rain, local and state health authorities regularly find too much fecal bacteria in water to allow swimming. Although the data is incomplete, the findings have led some water quality authorities to reach the inescapable conclusion that there is virtually no place in Michigan where it is safe to swim after it rains.

A 2000 report by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality supported that conclusion. The DEQ found that sewage plants overflowed in more than 200 communities over the last five years. Traverse City’s sewage treatment plant, for instance, spilled over last year, and again in June after heavy rains, resulting in swimming advisories for Grand Traverse Bay. Beaches along Lake St. Clair north of Detroit were closed 77 days last summer because of high fecal bacteria counts.

New upstream approach

Fixing the problem is not a matter of simply building bigger storm water pipes or more treatment plants, though engineers say that will help Detroit in the short term. Judge Feikens recognized that the solution to the pollution was to restore rain-absorbing capacity to land across the region and to save the valuable wetlands and stream banks still remaining.

Evidence in the 1977 federal case yielded expert testimony over the years about the theory of preventing nonpoint pollution not only through treatment plants but primarily with “watershed management” — developing land with respect for the fact that all water ends up in a downstream river. Cleaning up the Rouge, therefore, depends on cleaning up its watershed, where four main branches originate and flow into the Rouge. These four branches have tributaries across Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

In practice, state and national experience with watershed management is thin. In most places watershed management translates into politically safe monitoring programs to track water quality and popular civic events like annual stream bank stabilization and debris cleanup days. These projects are important for clearing debris from streams, repairing eroded banks, and giving thousands of people a way to feel directly connected to a river. But they do not approach the tough engineering and intergovernmental work required to significantly clean water or prevent pollution.

In a few rare cases, such as the 25-year Chesapeake Bay cleanup on the East Coast, states and local governments made major investments to upgrade treatment plants, enact new laws to protect natural areas, and undertake broad public education programs. Brochures informed people that doing such things as throwing used motor oil down the sewers would eventually end up killing fish.

Watershed pioneer

Judge Feikens is one of those rare leaders who early on embraced the concept of watershed management. Born and raised in Clifton, N.J., Feikens studied at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, received his law degree from the University of Michigan, raised five children, and gained statewide attention in the 1950s during a high-profile career as one of Detroit’s rising attorneys.

Government and politics, however, proved to be passions as strong as the law for the young Mr. Feikens. A moderate Republican, he climbed the ranks of the state party and managed Dwight Eisenhower’s Michigan campaign for the presidency. His work as a party activist eventually earned Mr. Feikens a permanent seat in 1970 on the federal bench — a seat that Judge Feikens and his colleagues note would likely not be available to a Republican of his moderate convictions under President Bush’s conservative requirements for judicial nominees.

A strong, broad-chested, stocky man with clear blue eyes and a shock of white hair, Judge Feikens looks every bit the senior judicial statesman. Around the Detroit federal courthouse, he’s known as a man who shields an innate certainty of purpose, even toughness, behind an appealing good sense. Indeed, in talking with Judge Feikens, visitors come away impressed by his whole air of confiding and simple dignity.

In dealing with the Rouge River, Judge Feikens’ masterstroke came in the early 1990s when he made all 48 communities in the watershed parties to the original 1977 lawsuit. In this way, the communities were responsible for obeying the law, sharing the costs of basins and other engineering repairs, and developing legal solutions, such as new ordinances, to protect wetlands and natural areas.

The 48 communities, daunted by the specter of trying to reach consensus with so many participants, soon came up with a means to simplify the project’s management. They divided themselves into seven subwatershed groups that meet monthly to brief each other and talk about new programs.

Judge Feikens also holds regular meetings in his courtroom to keep local officials on the same page and to convince them of his resolve to bring the Rouge into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, the 1972 law that aims to make all of America’s waters “fishable and swimmable.” Behind the scenes he quietly lobbied prominent elected officials and business leaders to support the watershed management approach. And when Wayne County officials applied for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to support the project, he kept in touch with U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) and other members of Michigan’s congressional delegation to ensure that the money would be available.

“He’s the giant on whose shoulders we all stand,” said Kelly Cave, who manages the Rouge River project for the Wayne County Department of Environment.

Out of Mr. Feikens’ work and that of dozens of local leaders came a national watershed demonstration project that is setting new trends and reshaping how the nation will manage river restorations. The Rouge River cleanup is the most significant and innovative watershed restoration project in the nation, says Paul Sturm, a water quality specialist at the Center for Watershed Protection in Washington, D.C. “There is nothing like it in the United States in terms of the cost, the scale of what’s happening, and how many communities are involved.”

Detroit leads the way

Almost every major facet of the Rouge cleanup is unique, including the project’s design. The big idea is to restore the watershed’s ability to absorb water both through engineering — such as building enormous concrete basins to store storm water — and by restoring and protecting what’s left of the region’s water-absorbing wild places.

The second big idea is to prevent pollution in the first place by limiting how much waste ends up washing into the water. In the Rouge that means restoring eroded stream banks, enacting ordinances to limit the use of lawn fertilizer, or setting out new township rules to protect wetlands and vegetation along streambanks.

Since 1994 the 48 communities in the Rouge watershed have invested more than $500 million of federal, state and local funds in new sewage pipes, nine immense concrete basins to slow the tide of raw wastes flowing into the river, monitoring, research, erosion control, and public education. That’s more money than any other urban watershed restoration project in the country has spent.

It takes a region

Township and county officials involved in the project are cautious, however, in describing the program’s early achievements. They note that for every Newburgh Lake — which involved $12.6 million worth of dredging, digging out contaminated sediments, and controlling runoff — there are still dozens of sewage pipes and combined sewage and storm water basins that overflow every time it rains, pouring tens of millions of gallons of the region’s accumulated wastes into the river.

And as they look out at the development that continues to spread, community leaders in the Rouge watershed realize it will take even broader cooperation to improve the region’s water quality future. For example, Dearborn Heights has had no success convincing the upstream communities of Romulus and Wayne to slow the tide of floodwater in Ecorse Creek with limits on pavement and protections for wetlands.

Last September sewage flooded the basements of 500 homes along the creek in Dearborn Heights, which is part of two watersheds. Ecorse Creek is not in the Rouge River watershed and thus not subject to Judge Feikens’ authority. Ruth Canfield, the mayor of Dearborn Heights, said without the authority of a federal judge, there is nothing she has been able to do to convince her upstream neighbors to help. “Every time it rains, I get down on my knees and pray the creek doesn’t flood,” she said.

But the success of the Rouge River project is gaining notice across the state and nation as nonpoint water quality problems escalate and voters demand cost-effective solutions and livable cities. Steven K. Hamp, president of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which is helping restore the lower reaches of the river, says that the Rouge restoration is helping the Detroit metropolitan region market a new and more hopeful story about its future.

“I love the idea of Detroit creating a positive example of change that we can go out and show the rest of the world,” said Mr. Hamp. “And that’s what we’re doing right now with this project.”

James Murray, Wayne County’s environmental director, asserts that the project’s achievements have already answered one question: whether southeast Michigan communities of the 21st century will treat the river with more respect.

“The Rouge is the connective tissue not only for the 1.5 million people who live in the basin but the tissue that connects one generation to the next,” said Mr. Murray, who helped design the watershed cleanup. “What is the story we are going to tell in the 21st century? We must learn how to sustain what nature offers. We must find ways to get out of the river what we need without sacrificing the needs of future generations. The Rouge River project is starting to tell that story.”

Disposing of civilization’s wastes has been a problem ever since the first nomadic tribes decided to store their spears and settle in villages. The basic approach has hardly changed. We’ve moved from simply throwing it into a pit, to draining it to a ditch, to running the ditch into the nearest body of water. The 20th-century innovation was to kill bacteria and remove debris by treating wastes before draining them to the river.

The question for the 21st century is: What’s next? A study by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments found that the cost of just modernizing sewage treatment plants and pipes in the seven-county Detroit region alone could be as high as $52 billion over the next 25 years. Water bills, which average around $45 to $50 a month in the Detroit region, are rising twice as fast as inflation and could double within 15 years. Last year, Detroit and its suburban customers agreed to finance a $1 billion pollution control program that includes a 7 1/2 mile-long tunnel stretching beneath the city.

And even if Rouge watershed communities manage to complete the sewer modernization, engineers concede that alone won’t solve the problem. That’s because the old way of doing business — developing at a breakneck pace, draining land, laying sewers, building and enlarging water treatment plants — has led to new patterns of pollution that require different approaches, not only to cleaning up the contamination but also to preventing it in the first place.

It requires a different approach and, as Judge Feikens has shown, a master plumber prepared to think hard about the problem and then get his hands dirty.

Michigan Land Use Institute

This article is excerpted from the spring 2001 issue of the Great Lakes Bulletin, a publication of the Michigan Land Use Institute (

The Michigan Land Use Institute is a 2,400-member, nonprofit organization that works to expose the costs of sprawling development and to promote alternatives to growth as usual. The Institute’s statewide Transportation and Land Use Coalition of 30 organizations is focused on increasing public support for broader transportation choices and alternatives to wasteful and damaging highway spending.

Keith Schneider helped found the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995 and is now its program director. A former national correspondent for the New York Times, he lives near Thompsonville in Benzie County.

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