Rouge River Restoration: Correcting a Major Pollution Source to the Great Lakes

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In 1989, the U.S. EPA and the then Michigan Department of Natural Resources (now the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) issued orders to compel communities
and counties discharging wet weather flows into the Rouge River in Southeast Michigan to build combined sewer overflow capture and treatment facilities. The units of government who received these orders objected to the specified size of treatment facilities to be required by the regulatory agencies. This matter came before the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan. The Court appointed a Monitor to work with all of the parties to seek a solution to this initial problem. From this initial effort to resolve the differences between the units of government ordered to correct current Combined Sewer Overflows in this urban watershed of 438 square miles with 1.4 million people in the watershed developed the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project. Federal grant funds of $345 million were provided to support this activity. Local match for the federal funds totaled about $185 million. It is estimated that these funds coupled with other local funds have resulted in expenditures in excess of one billion dollars to carryout the river restoration activities to-date. At the same time, it is estimated that the accrued savings to communities as a consequence of the innovative designs for combined sewer overflow capture and treatment have resulted in major savings to the communities in excess of a billion dollars. This paper will present the elements of this river restoration project that to-date includes the construction of ten (10) major combined sewer overflow retention and treatment basins with a major tunnel under design to complete the Phase 1 Combined Sewer Control Program for the Rouge River. The Mission Statement of the Wet Weather Demonstration Project includes the commitment to demonstrate effective solutions to water quality problems facing an urban watershed highly impacted by wet weather and develop potential solutions and implement projects that will lead to restoration of water quality in the Rouge River. Both conventional and toxic pollutants are addressed in order to provide a safe and healthy recreational river resource; re-establish a healthy and diverse ecosystem within the Rouge River watershed; protect downstream resources including the Detroit River and Lake Eire; and help ensure compliance with federal, state and local environmental laws that protect human health and the environment. Summaries of improvements in the Rouge River will include the following: water quality/ecosystem health, combined sewer overflow control; sanitary sewer overflow control; implementing the Michigan Storm Water general permit (watershed management plans); public education and involvement; and advancing the watershed management vision for the Rouge River. An additional unique aspect of this example river restoration project is the creation from the ground up of a watershed wide organization, the Rouge River Watershed Local management Assembly (Assembly of Rouge Communities). It was formed in August of 2003 following nearly two years of discussion between the communities and three counties. It is designed to support collaborative local governmental efforts to restore water quality of the Rouge River. It ensures coordination among the seven (7) sub-watersheds that formed in order to be able to develop and implement storm water plans mandated under the provisions of the Michigan Storm Water general permit. Information and insights for other urban river restoration locations will be identified.

Publication Type: 
Conference Proceeding
Full Citation: 
Bulkley, Jonathan. (2005) “Rouge River Restoration: Correcting a Major Pollution Source to the Great Lakes.” UCOWR River and Lake Restoration: Changing Landscapes Conference, Portland, Maine, July 12-14, 2005.
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