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Building a comeback for the Detroit River

Oct 20, 2015

There are 12 toxic hot spots in Michigan called Areas of Concern.

These are places in the Great Lakes basin where pollution and development have damaged the ecosystems.

The Detroit River is on this list. Before the Clean Water Act, industries on the river treated it as a dumping ground – think waste in the billions of gallons.

Rose Ellison is with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office.

“In years gone by, billions and billions [of gallons] of untreated industrial and municipal waste went into the Detroit River,” she says.

Over the years, a lot of people have been working to clean up the river.

“It’s in really good shape, but there are pockets,” Ellison says. “No place is perfect, and it’s an industrial river, so there are pockets that still need attention.”

There are still a number of fish consumption advisories for the Detroit River.
Credit MDNR

She says the contaminated sediments at the bottom of the river are one of the major things they still have to tackle.  

At the same time, people are working to improve habitat for the creatures that live here.

A big pot of federal money has given this cleanup a kick in the pants. It’s called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

A two million dollar chunk of that money is going to a special construction project in the river near Ecorse.

You have to get on a boat to see it.

The boat takes us upstream of Grassy Island. Here, two barges are parked side by side and a crane operator is using a GPS-guided system to carefully drop buckets of broken limestone into the water.

They’re building a reef.

Jennifer Read is with the University of Michigan Water Center.

“On the bottom of the river we’re going to have a four acre reef,” she says. “It’s actually lots of space there for fish to lay eggs and for the eggs to be incubated and hatch out and protect the fry.”

The crane operator uses GPS to precisely drop shovelfuls of limestone to create the four acre reef near Grassy Island in the Detroit River.
Credit Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio

She says they’re making a better home for native fish. Especially the lake sturgeon. It’s listed as a threatened species in Michigan.

“Kids love them,” she says. “They’ve been around since the dinosaurs unchanged, and I think that’s what makes them really exciting. They’re big fish — they can be up to 6 feet. They’re huge.”

She says the reef’s also meant to help out whitefish and walleye.

And that makes Terry Pickard pretty happy. He’s with the Downriver Walleye Federation.

“I get to see where this reef really is, so if I come in the springtime I know where it’s at,” he says, laughing. “All the other guys have to find it now!”

He says he gets out here as soon as he can, every year.

“Since the early '90s, I started fishing out here,” Pickard says. “Jigging in the springtime, we’ll be out here fishing when the ice flows are coming through, and you’re dodging icebergs. You know, it feels like a mini Titanic out here. It’s cold, you have ice on the eyes of your fishing rod, on your line, and you’re like, ‘Why am I out here?’ and then you get a walleye on — and it’s like, ‘This is why I’m here.’”

He says he’d like to see more of these projects go in around the Great Lakes.

And in fact, there are already three reefs in the St. Clair River, and two reefs in the Detroit River, with another two planned for the future.  

The people who are doing this work say it looks simple, dropping some rocks in the river. But it’s a massive effort — 15 years in the making — with federal and state agencies and universities involved.

Jim Boase is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Boase is a biologist, but he says he feels more like a salesperson telling people why they should care about cleaning up the Detroit River.

“I get this question from the public a lot: the ‘So what? Why are you doing this?’” he says.

He says he has two main points to his sales pitch for the river.

Here's a map of the six reefs to date. Two more are planned for the Detroit River in the future.
Credit Michigan Sea Grant

“Some of the best fishing in the world is right here,” Boase says. “There’s also the migratory fly-way for ducks for people that hunt.”

And he says when you create these opportunities it can have a ripple effect on the economy.

“Folks that come here to fish, they stop at the bar possibly to celebrate the great things that they’re catching out here in the waterways,” Boase says. “So the guy that owns the restaurant along Jefferson Avenue, it’s important to him, I betcha.”

The reef projects are part of a bigger effort to improve fish and wildlife habitat. So that one day, the Detroit River can get off the toxic hot spot list.

You can learn more on the Michigan Sea Grant's Restoring Fish Habitat website.