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A decade of change on the Detroit River

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The health of the river, and the ways people can experience it, improved greatly during the 2010s

Aerial view of an island and a cove connected to a river.
Restoration of the Blue Heron Lagoon on Belle Isle completed in 2013.
Friends of the Detroit River

It’s easy to see a city change. New or demolished buildings alter the skyline, roads get different markings, stores open and close.

But alterations in nature, even in an era of rapid climate change, sometimes happen slower than we can detect. While you may not have noticed it, a lot has changed on the Detroit River over the last decade. Fortunately, most of it has been for the better.

The citizens advocacy group Friends of the Detroit River (FDR) has been stewarding many of those efforts. Starting in 2010, right at the turn of the decade, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was approved by U.S. Congress to fund billions of dollars in projects across multiple states to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

As the fiduciary organization responsible for overseeing restoration of the Detroit River, FDR had an enormous task ahead of them. Due to decades of industrial pollution and building along the shoreline, the river had been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “Area of Concern”—a geographic region where man made ecological impairment had taken place.

A number of issues needed to be addressed. As much as 97 percent of the wetlands were gone. Dredging of the deep channel reduced possible spawning sites for fish. Pollution left legacy sediments at the bottom of the river. The city’s combined sewer system, as well as the construction of more impermeable surfaces, caused regular overflows into the river.

“The state of the river in 2010 was the result of 200 years of degradation,” says Sam Lovall, project manager at FDR.

Lots of money and time have been needed to reverse that damage. Over the the last decade, millions of dollars have been spent repairing the health of the river.

Several of those projects have been at Belle Isle. A fishing pier on the south end of the island was built in 2013, with natural spawning pools for fish and native plants installed. Simultaneously, the Blue Heron Lagoon on the island’s eastern shore was restored for $1.46 million. A number of natural habitats and a new bridge was built, creating an opening to connect the lagoon to the river.

These two changes have resulted in a resurgence in wildlife at the Detroit River, according to the Detroit Zoological Society.

The biggest project in the works is the restoration of Lake Okonoka, a 45-acre inland lake on Belle Isle, at an estimated cost of over $6 million. Work includes excavating thousands of feet of deep channel, creating mudflats, improving connections to Blue Heron Lagoon, and more. There are also projects near the mouth of the river at Lake Saint Clair and further downriver.

A group works on a little cove.
Volunteers plant and work on a new shoreline on Belle Isle.
Friends of the Detroit River

Though the work and reclamation of nature are slow, the benefits are significant. As the quality of the water improves, wildlife and plants return. As both improve, so does the experience of visiting Belle Isle, kayaking or fishing on the river, and other recreational activities.

An expanded riverfront with more parks and green space has created even more ways to interact with the river.

The FDR says that every dollar invested in these kinds of projects yields between four to five dollars of economic value. “It’s about improving the quality of life,” Lovall says. “When you have clean water, you have quality of life for people, plants, and animals.”

But greater changes on the river might be in store over the next decade. Some of that is because of ongoing restoration projects. The bigger factor, however, is climate change. Just this year alone saw the highest water levels recorded in the river over the previous 100 years. It’s forced the FDR to adapt.

“When we initially started scoping out projects in 2010, the water 2.5 to 3 feet lower than it is now,” says Robert Burns, riverkeeper at the FDR. “We did all the engineering and plans, and then had to redesign projects to accommodate unforeseen increases in the water level.”

But that also makes these projects all the more important. As seen with the recent collapse of potentially toxic materials at Detroit Bulk Storage, natural wetlands are much better at absorbing rising water levels than a hardened shoreline.

Next time you’re on Belle Isle or along the river, do your best to appreciate what’s taken place over the next decade. You may be surprised what you notice.

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