Feds providing a boost for river restoration in Michigan

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is accelerating efforts to restore ailing rivers in metropolitan Detroit, and the work is paying off, according to government officials and river advocates.

Signs of progress can be found across southeast Michigan: Fish and bald eagles occupy parts of the Rouge River, which once ranked among America’s most polluted waterways;  tons of toxic mud have been scooped out of the River Raisin; obsolete dams have been yanked from several streams; and iconic lake sturgeon are thriving in the Detroit River.

“You’re seeing what progress looks like, you’re seeing what the reinvention of Michigan looks like,” said Jon Allan, director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes. Allan made his comments at a recent seminar that celebrated river restoration initiatives in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Since Congress and President Obama approved the GLRI in 2010, the program has provided more than $40 million for 88 restoration projects in southeast Michigan, according to government data. The GLRI focuses on cleaning up toxic hotspots, restoring wetlands and wildlife habitat, reducing polluted runoff and combating invasive species.

Restoring the Rouge River has brought fish, birds and kayakers to the long-abused river.(Friends of the Rouge photo)

Restoring the Rouge River has attracted fish, birds and kayakers to the urban river. (Friends of the Rouge photo)

Several large-scale efforts to restore metro Detroit’s rivers were underway long before the GLRI pumped $1.3 billion into Great Lakes restoration during its first four years. Local officials said the federal program provided a significant boost for projects designed to transform long-abused rivers into community assets that drive economic growth.

Government agencies, for instance, have spent more than $1 billion over the past two decades to reduce polluted runoff and sewer overflows into the Rouge River and its tributaries. The Rouge has become a national model for river restoration, according to local officials.

Jim Ridgeway, executive director of the Alliance of Rouge Communities, said the Great Lakes region is a national leader in river restoration. “Lots of areas around the country talk about reducing combined sewer overflows and managing storm water runoff,” he said, “but none are doing as much as the Great Lakes region.”

Sturgeon are spawning again in the Detroit River, a sign that the river is healthier than in the past. (Michigan Sea Grant photo)

Sturgeon are spawning again in the Detroit River, a sign of improved river health. (Michigan Sea Grant photo)

The GLRI has provided more than $3 million since 2010 for restoration projects in the Rouge River watershed. That money has been used to tear out obsolete dams, remove debris, reduce polluted runoff and restore fish and wildlife habitat.

The Detroit River has received $15 million from the GLRI. Among other things, the money funded projects that improved fish and wildlife habitat on Belle Isle. Those projects have attracted more fish and birds to the island, as well as people who like to fish and watch birds, said Mary Bohling, who chairs the Detroit River Public Advisory Council.

“People are flocking to the area and they are able to have a better experience on Belle Isle,” Bohling said at the Oct. 18 seminar, which was hosted by the Alliance of Rouge Communities. “We’re seeing an increase in fishing and birding and that will generate millions of dollars in revenue.”

Cameron Davis, the Obama Administration’s point person on Great Lakes issues, praised local efforts to restore the Detroit, Rouge, Huron, Clinton and St, Clair rivers, as well as River Raisin. “There has been amazing progress in southeast Michigan under the GLRI,” he said.

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