Carlos Osorio  /  AP
Jim Murray, who has spent decades  to rejuvenate what once was one of the nation's dirtiest rivers, stands next to the Rouge River at the Henry Ford estate in Dearborn, Mich.
updated 5/24/2006 4:10:45 PM ET 2006-05-24T20:10:45

For years, the Rouge River was among the nation’s dirtiest waterways, little more than a dumping ground in the shadow of the massive Ford industrial complex that turned raw iron ore into Model As and Mustangs.

Today, blue herons and fish have returned, reflecting how much the river’s health has improved. Public outrage and the federal Clean Water Act helped draw money to the project, making it a model for conducting massive cleanups of filthy watersheds.

“We are changing the culture of the whole region,” said Kurt Heise, director of the Wayne County Department of Environment. “We are telling people it’s OK to return to the Rouge River.”

The Rouge, which meanders through heavily developed residential and industrial areas before emptying into the Detroit River, still has problems. Most swimmers avoid it, and heavy rains cause some sewers to overflow into it.

But with industrial pollution under better control and efforts to stem the flow of stormwater, the Rouge is becoming a place to fish, canoe or take a stroll.

“As we’re solving the water quality in the river, the debate now is how do we use it,” said Jim Murray, a community activist and former county environmental official who helped rally government and volunteers. “We used it so long as a sewer.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has described some of the collaborative work to restore the Rouge as a “blueprint for success” in improving water quality. Observers from other American cities — and as far away as South Korea and China — have traveled to the Detroit area to learn from the Rouge project.

“They are a national leader,” said Quintin White of the EPA’s Chicago office.

Annual Rouge Rescue
Next month, thousands of volunteers will fan out along the 126-mile river system for Rouge Rescue — an annual springtime cleanup. What started 20 years ago as a day to pull trash and debris from the river now includes efforts to make the river healthier for people and wildlife.

Carlos Osorio  /  AP
A heron sits in the shadow of a powerhouse built steps from the Rouge River by auto industry pioneer Henry Ford to light his estate.
The cleanup project, organizers say, also helps bring residents to a river that for generations was shunned as unsafe. And it illustrates how volunteer efforts, coupled with nearly $1 billion in government spending on major projects, can complement each other.

“It’s been a community-wide effort,” said Murray, the first president and still a board member of Friends of the Rouge. “It’s one they know is long-term. I think people take pride in it. You have to have hope.”

A canoe rental service has enjoyed booming business since opening five years ago along the river bank. And the state has said it’s now safe to eat some fish caught in Newburgh Lake, which originally was constructed as a millpond on the Rouge and nearly destroyed by pollutants.

Golf wetlands help
Elsewhere, the improvements are more subtle across the 450 square miles of land that drain into the river, a region that is home to more than 1.5 million people.

The lush Inkster Valley Golf Course, which opened in 1998 on 400 acres along the Rouge, challenges golfers with an abundance of water hazards. But the wetlands that make up about a quarter of the site also help clean water before it runs into the river.

Industries such as Ford Motor Co. that were long blamed for the river’s decline have stepped up efforts to improve it.

Ford spent $2 billion to refurbish its Rouge complex, which now includes a truck plant with living plants on its 10.4-acre roof and other vegetation to soak up stormwater. Vegetation has replaced what once was concrete to ease pollution along some of the roads outside Ford’s facility, just down the river from Henry Ford’s estate.

But major challenges remain. Continued residential development in the Detroit suburbs sends more water from lawns, parking lots and roads into the river, much of it contaminated with fertilizer, oil and other pollutants. And E. coli bacteria keeps most swimmers away.

“It’s going to be a long, extensive undertaking. But I think it underscores the need to act as good stewards today,” said Robert McCann, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “It’s much easier to protect it than restore it.”

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