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Natural Prosperity

August 1, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

New upstream approach
Fixing the problem is not a matter of simply building bigger stormwater pipes or more treatment plants, though engineers say that will help Detroit in the short term. Judge Feikens recognized that the solution to the pollution was to restore rain-absorbing capacity to land across the region and to save the valuable wetlands and streambanks still remaining.

Evidence in the 1977 federal case yielded expert testimony over the years about the theory of preventing nonpoint pollution not only through treatment plants but primarily with “watershed management” — developing land with respect for the fact that all water ends up in a downstream river. Cleaning up the Rouge, therefore, depends on cleaning up its watershed, where four main branches originate and flow into the Rouge. These four branches have tributaries across Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties.

In practice, state and national experience with watershed management is thin. In most places watershed management translates into politically safe monitoring programs to track water quality and popular civic events like annual streambank stabilization and debris cleanup days. These projects are important for clearing debris from streams, repairing eroded banks, and giving thousands of people a way to feel directly connected to a river. But they do not approach the tough engineering and intergovernmental work required to significantly clean water or prevent pollution.

In a few rare cases, such as the 25-year Chesapeake Bay cleanup on the East Coast, states and local governments made major investments to upgrade treatment plants, enact new laws to protect natural areas, and undertake broad public education programs. Brochures informed people that doing such things as throwing used motor oil down the sewers would eventually end up killing fish.

Watershed pioneer
Judge Feikens is one of those rare leaders who early on embraced the concept of watershed management. Born and raised in Clifton, New Jersey, Mr. Feikens studied at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, received his law degree from the University of Michigan, raised five children, and gained statewide attention in the 1950s during a high-profile career as one of Detroit’s rising attorneys.

Government and politics, however, proved to be passions as strong as the law for the young Mr. Feikens. A moderate Republican, he climbed the ranks of the state party and managed Dwight Eisenhower’s Michigan campaign for the presidency. His work as a party activist eventually earned Mr. Feikens a permanent seat in 1970 on the federal bench — a seat that Judge Feikens and his colleagues note would likely not be available to a Republican of his moderate convictions under President George Bush’s conservative requirements for judicial nominees.

A strong, broad-chested, stocky man with clear blue eyes and a shock of white hair, Judge Feikens looks every bit the senior judicial statesman. Around the Detroit federal courthouse, he’s known as a man who shields an innate certainty of purpose, even toughness, behind an appealing good sense. Indeed, in talking with Judge Feikens, visitors come away impressed by his whole air of confiding and simple dignity.

In the Rouge River case, Judge Feikens’ masterstroke came in the early 1990s when he made all 48 communities in the watershed parties to the original 1977 lawsuit. In this way, the communities were responsible for obeying the law, sharing the costs of basins and other engineering repairs, and developing legal solutions, such as new ordinances, to protect wetlands and natural areas.

The 48 communities, daunted by the spectre of trying to reach consensus with so many participants, soon came up with a means to simplify the project’s management. They divided themselves into seven subwatershed groups that meet monthly to brief each other and talk about new programs.

Judge Feikens also holds regular meetings in his courtroom to keep local officials on the same page and to convince them of his resolve to bring the Rouge into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, the 1972 law that aims to make all of America’s waters “fishable and swimmable.” Behind the scenes he quietly lobbied prominent elected officials and business leaders to support the watershed management approach. And when Wayne County officials applied for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to support the project, he kept in touch with U.S. Representative John Dingell and other members of Michigan’s Congressional delegation to insure that the money would be available.

“He’s the giant on whose shoulders we all stand,” said Kelly Cave, who manages the Rouge River project for the Wayne County Department of Environment.

Out of Mr. Feikens’ work and that of dozens of local leaders came a national watershed demonstration project that is setting new trends and reshaping how the nation will manage river restorations. The Rouge River cleanup is the most significant and innovative watershed restoration project in the nation, says Paul Sturm, a water quality specialist at the Center for Watershed Protection in Washington, D.C. “There is nothing like it in the United States in terms of the cost, the scale of what’s happening, and how many communities are involved.”

Detroit leads the way
Almost every major facet of the Rouge cleanup is unique, including the project’s design. The big idea is to restore the watershed’s ability to absorb water both through engineering — such as building enormous concrete basins to store stormwater — and by restoring and protecting what’s left of the region’s water-absorbing wild places.

The second big idea is to prevent pollution in the first place by limiting how much waste ends up washing into the water. In the Rouge that means restoring eroded streambanks, enacting ordinances to limit the use of lawn fertilizer, or setting out new township rules to protect wetlands and vegetation along streambanks.

Since 1994 the 48 communities in the Rouge watershed have invested more than $500 million of federal, state, and local funds in new sewage pipes, nine immense concrete basins to slow the tide of raw wastes flowing into the river, monitoring, research, erosion control, and public education. That’s more money than any other urban watershed restoration project in the country has spent.

It takes a region
Township and county officials involved in the project are cautious, however, in describing the program’s early achievements. They note that for every successful restoration of a Newburgh Lake — which involved $12.6 million worth of dredging, digging out contaminated sediments, and controlling runoff — there are still dozens of sewage pipes and combined sewage and stormwater basins that overflow every time it rains, pouring tens of millions of gallons of the region’s accumulated wastes into the river.

And as they look out at the development that continues to spread, community leaders in the Rouge watershed realize it will take even broader cooperation to improve the region’s water quality future. For example, Dearborn Heights has had no success convincing the upstream communities of Romulus and Wayne to slow the tide of floodwater in Ecorse Creek with limits on pavement and protections for wetlands.

Last September sewage flooded the basements of 500 homes along the creek in Dearborn Heights, which is part of two watersheds. Ecorse Creek is not in the Rouge River watershed and thus not subject to Judge Feikens’ authority. Ruth Canfield, the Mayor of Dearborn Heights, said without the authority of a federal judge, there is nothing she has been able to do to convince her upstream neighbors to help. “Every time it rains, I get down on my knees and pray the creek doesn’t flood,” she said.

But the success of the Rouge River project is gaining notice across the state and nation as nonpoint water quality problems escalate and voters demand cost-effective solutions and livable cities. Steven K. Hamp, president of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which is restoring the lower reaches of the river, says that the Rouge restoration is helping the Detroit metropolitan region market a new and more hopeful story about its future.

“I love the idea of Detroit creating a positive example of change that we can go out and show the rest of the world,” said Mr. Hamp. “And that’s what we’re doing right now with this project.”

James Murray, Wayne County’s environmental director, asserts that the project’s achievements have already answered one question: Whether southeast Michigan communities of the 21st century will treat the river with more respect.

“The Rouge is the connective tissue not only for the 1.5 million people who live in the basin but the tissue that connects one generation to the next,” said Mr. Murray, who helped design the watershed cleanup. “What is the story we are going to tell in the 21st century? We must learn how to sustain what nature offers. We must find ways to get out of the river what we need without sacrificing the needs of future generations. The Rouge River project is starting to tell that story.”

Disposing of civilization’s wastes has been a problem ever since the first nomadic tribes decided to store their spears and settle in villages. The basic approach has hardly changed. We’ve moved from simply throwing it into a pit, to draining it to a ditch, to running the ditch into the nearest body of water. The 20th-century innovation was to kill bacteria and remove debris by treating wastes before draining them to the river.

The question for the 21st century is: What’s next? A study by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments found that the cost of just modernizing sewage treatment plants and pipes in the seven-county Detroit region alone could be as high as $52 billion over the next 25 years. Water bills, which average around $45 to $50 a month in the Detroit region, are rising twice as fast as inflation and could double within 15 years.

And even if Rouge watershed communities manage to complete the sewer modernization, engineers concede it won’t solve the problem alone. That’s because the old way of doing business — developing at a breakneck pace, draining land, laying sewers, building and enlarging water treatment plants — has led to new patterns of pollution that require different approaches, not only to cleaning up the contamination but also to preventing it in the first place.

It requires a different approach and, as Judge Feikens has shown, a master plumber prepared to think hard about the problem and then get his hands dirty.

CONTACT(S): Jonathan Bulkley, federal case monitor, University of Michigan, 734-764-3198 and 734-763-5068, <jbulkley@umich.edu>; Thomas Casari, Canton Township, 734-394-5150, <Tom.Casari@canton-mi.org>; Kelly Cave, Wayne County Department of Environment, 313-224-8282, <kcave@co.wayne.mi.us>; James Murray, Wayne County Department of Environment, 313-224-3631, <jmurray@co.wayne.mi.us>; Ted Starbuck, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, 313-324-3347,

More details about the Rouge River restoration are on the Web at <http://www.wcdoe.org/rougeriver/>.

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