Michigan Land Use Institute

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On Hands and Knees:

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

Probably nothing exemplifies the human costs of unchecked suburban growth more than the tide of raw sewage that backs up each year in hundreds of Detroit-area homes, such as the one Lee and JoAnn Shirley own.

The Shirleys raised five children in a handsome home they bought in 1961 along Ecorse Creek in Dearborn Heights. The home included a finished basement that is now ruined because of municipal sewage that, since 1969, has oozed up in the basement drain, toilet, and sink when rains flood wastewater pipes in the area.

At least three times, including last September, the Shirleys have pulled on boots and gloves and spent hours scrubbing the mess and stink out of their home. They’re not the only ones. Last September’s flood spilled sewage into more than 500 Dearborn Heights basements.

“It just comes at you as raw sewage,” said Mrs. Shirley. “You have crap on your floor. It’s awful.”

Mrs. Shirley said the frequency of the flooding seems to be increasing. Dearborn Heights officials say it’s because neighboring, upstream communities continue to pave over fields and fill in wetlands, which increases the stormwater runoff that floods the pipes. Dearborn Heights’s upstream neighbors have yet to join a regional effort to reduce sewage overflows by protecting naturally absorbent, open land.

Mrs. Shirley believes it’s time for some local governmental action. “Every time the water comes up in the streets and the creek gets full, I start bringing things upstairs. My husband takes out the washer and dryer and puts it in the garage,” she said. “We’re getting older and this is more than an inconvenience at this point.” KS

Empty Hooks on Top Rivers

Behind every blue-ribbon trout stream are dozens of little creeks and swamps miles upstream that help keep the water clean and cool. The good fishing can turn bad, however, when changes in the land upstream flow downstream as warmer, polluted water that kills fish.

This tragedy repeats itself almost daily in Michigan despite reams of evidence about the effect of suburban stormwater runoff on streams and the fact that the outdoor recreation industry generates millions of dollars in revenue annually.

In southwest Michigan, for example, the Rogue River — a protected state Natural River since 1973 — is now at risk from a proposed 700-unit manufactured home complex upstream on Becker Creek. Fertilizers from lawns, oil from roads, and fast water running off pavement all threaten to contaminate the creek, and thereby the Rogue River, with warm, dirty water.

“The Rogue is a great fishing river,” says John Reinders, a 23-year-old Grand Rapids resident who began angling there just last year. “It’s close to the city, still relatively undisturbed, and full of steelhead and rainbow trout.”

Upstream in Courtland Township, local officials are working to enact an ordinance that could help keep the Rogue full of fish by protecting Becker Creek from intense housing development. The ordinance would require developers to slow stormwater, prevent erosion, and reduce pollution runoff.

“The creeks are what keep the Rogue cool,” Reinders says. “Without that clean cold water coming in, the trout don’t stand a chance.” AG

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