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Natural Prosperity

Detroit teaches Michigan a lesson in natural economics

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

Unlike the wind, which is fleeting, a river is a steady chronicle of a community’s values and its conduct. Nowhere in Michigan is the story of painful lessons and a promising future more plain than on the Rouge River in Detroit.

In 1919 at a broad bend downstream, Henry Ford completed the immense River Rouge industrial complex, the first factory in the world to mass-produce finished products like the Model T out of raw materials and put tens of thousands of workers on assembly lines. Ford’s River Rouge complex was an industrial showcase and, with its steamship berths and wastewater discharge pipes, a testament to the 20th century’s view of a river’s usefulness.

More than 80 years later, the River Rouge complex and all the other once hulking factories along the river are gaunt and diminished skeletons. Corroded smokestacks and rusted girders haunt the banks of the river’s lower reaches. The water is turgid and brown, swollen with the refuse of industry and abused by five generations who steadily built communities upriver, convinced the Rouge could absorb and carry away everything that washed off the urbanizing land.

The Rouge’s darkest days came in the 1980s, when tests showed it was still one of the dirtiest rivers in the country despite progress in the 1970s reducing toxic outflows from factories and sewage plants. The new contamination comes from the 438 square miles of land that drains into the river — its “watershed” — and 1.5 million people who live and work there.

Surges of new suburban stormwater, which runs off parking lots and driveways throughout the watershed, wash oil and chemicals into the Rouge’s many tributaries and into the metropolitan area’s vast network of stormwater pipes, which also carry the city’s sewage. The high volume and incredible force of the stormwater tear up the tributaries and overwhelm the city’s stormwater pipes and basins, which then spill the sewage.

Economic re-think
This turn-of-the-century picture of a river in ruin and a city suffering the contamination costs is alarming, but it is also fading quickly as a grand, regional effort to restore an urban watershed begins to show impressive results. The 21st-century business and government leaders involved envision a new life for the city that they will build using and restoring Michigan’s economic ace in the hole: Water, lots of water for people to enjoy.

To seize this opportunity, they are now reckoning with the reality that rivers begin their lives far away in upstream marshes and creeks. They know that attracting new business and residential investment to metropolitan Detroit depends on upstream and downstream communities working together to clean up and protect the water. They’ve also learned that the most economical way to do that is to invest in nature’s strengths.

New era
Perhaps the best testament to the dawning of a new vision for making Detroit a world-class city was an event last May in which William Clay Ford Jr., chairman of the Ford Motor Company, joined an impressive gathering of southeast Michigan business and civic leaders assembled in a leafy glen upstream from his great-grandfather’s industrial complex.

Among those present were Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, and U.S. District Court Judge John Feikens, who for 24 years has used his gavel to call attention to the Rouge’s health and, in recent years, to force 48 local governments to do something about it.

What attracted these men and women of wealth and power was the opening of a new environmental education center on the river at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus. The $3.6 million center is one of more than 100 cleanup, restoration, and preservation projects across the three counties that the Rouge drains.

The education center and other projects — ranging from enormous and costly combined sewage and stormwater control basins to lower-cost pollution prevention projects, such as streambank restoration efforts and local ordinances to safeguard wetlands — reflect a new appreciation for Michigan’s natural assets.

“This is a huge undertaking,” Mr. Ford said, at the center’s dedication, of the effort to restore the Rouge River watershed. “But we’re doing it, and it’s going to work. We are going to see the day when we can take boat rides up and down the river again, where it’s safe for swimming, and fish are going to come upriver to spawn. The progress we’ve made in the last five years is fantastic. But we’re only at the 20 yard line. We have a long way to go.”

Lesson worth learning
Communities across Michigan and the nation have plenty to learn from the story of the Rouge River.

On one level, the pollution in the Rouge, and the decades and billions of dollars yet to spend before it’s clean enough for swimming and fishing, is a study in the ruinous economic and social costs of failing to understand the consequences of unbridled growth. Hundreds of elected officials and business leaders — and thousands of southeast Michigan residents — are now paying the price of poor planning, sprawling patterns of development, and weak leadership at every level of government.

It’s also a warning that communities in the relatively undeveloped watersheds of northern and west Michigan should do everything in their power to heed. They will end up with the same levels of pollution, as well as the costly social and economic consequences, unless they apply the growth management tools and intergovernmental, watershed-based cooperation that have proven to work in the Rouge cleanup.

On another level, the Rouge cleanup is about even more than that. The remarkable cooperation among governments, and between governments and business, is a national model of how a city and a region can move beyond the resource exploitation of the past and move on with the understanding that protecting and restoring natural assets is essential to prosperity.
The Rouge cleanup proves:

• It costs much more in the end to pave over wetlands, farmland, and forests than to keep them working naturally to clean water and air and protect land and wildlife.

• Broad problems, like water pollution and traffic congestion, require regional solutions. These solutions depend on communities talking to each other, reaching consensus, and taking action.

• Strong, persistent, and credible leadership is essential for uniting independent thinkers behind a common goal. The indispensable leader on the Rouge was a federal district judge with the law on his side.

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