Cleaning up the Detroit River

2020 was another good year for habitat restoration and sediment investigation on the Detroit River but water levels created some unexpected issues.

An aerial view of Celeron Island.
Celeron Island was completed in 2020. The project has added nearly 4,000 linear feet of shoals with a sand bar for nesting turtles, snake hibernacula, and common tern nesting areas. The shoals also protect over 100 acres of coastal wetlands with additional spawning habitat to encourage a robust fish population.

While 2020 was different and unique for many reasons, progress was still made for habitat restoration and sediment investigation on the Detroit River. The Detroit River is one of 27 remaining U.S. Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes Basin. It was a busy year for habitat restoration for Michigan Sea Grant (MISG) and our partners, such as the Friends of the Detroit River (FDR). Although some projects were delayed due to COVID-19 or high water levels, most projects finished the year on schedule:

Upper Detroit Riverfront Parks

Located in the Jefferson Chalmers Neighborhood, Alfred Brush Ford and Riverfront-Lakewood East are parks bordered by a series of canals and have over 2,000 feet of shoreline along the northern Detroit River. In 2018, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) partnered with FDR, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and others to determine the feasibility and design for habitat improvements at the parks. The project was put on a temporary hold in 2020 due to high water levels that are causing flooding issues in the adjacent neighborhood. The city of Detroit is working with state and federal partners to resolve the flooding so that habitat enhancements can begin in 2021.

Celeron Island

Celeron Island is part of the Detroit River Conservation Crescent near the southern end of Grosse Ile. The Celeron Island habitat restoration project was bid out in the fall of 2018, construction began in the spring of 2019 and was completed in 2020. The project has added nearly 4,000 linear feet of shoals with a sand bar for nesting turtles, snake hibernacula, and common tern nesting areas. The shoals also protect over 100 acres of coastal wetlands with additional spawning habitat to encourage a robust fish population.

Lake Okonoka

This project began in October 2017 and was completed in 2020 when the culvert connection from the lake to the Detroit River was made. Multiple habitat elements, such as a wet meadow, deep channels on the lake bottom, mudflats and protective shoals along the isle’s south shore provide specialized areas to support a variety of species. This project includes restoration of 45 acres of aquatic and upland habitat. Lake Okonoka's enhancements combined with the 2013 opening of Blue Heron Lagoon (another 41 acres) to the Detroit River will increase the availability of calm spawning and nursery habitat for Great Lakes fish.

Hennepin Marsh

Located on the Grosse Ile shoreline north and south of the toll bridge, Hennepin Marsh is approximately 62 acres of very sensitive coastal wetland, providing habitat for fish, shorebirds, waterfowl, turtles, and amphibians. Feasibility and design began in 2019 and is expected to be completed soon. Construction will begin when funding is secured.

Sugar Island

Sugar Island is an uninhabited 30-acre island owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge located in the southern end of the Detroit River. The downstream end of Sugar Island is exposed to Lake Erie where it is buffeted by high wave and wind action, which has caused severe erosion (as much as 10% of the island in recent decades). The project partners completed a feasibility study in the fall of 2018 and identified a preferred option calling for stabilizing and restoring 1,900 linear feet of coastal shoreline and creating 20 acres of marsh and submergent habitat to benefit both aquatic and terrestrial species. MISG and FDR are currently working with U.S. FWS, consultants and other partners on the permitting process. Construction will begin when funding is secured.

Sediment

After completing several sediment sampling efforts in 2016 and 2017, the EPA found it necessary to do additional sampling in the Harbor Town area of the Detroit River. EPA completed its additional sediment sampling work in late 2018. MISG, FDR and the Detroit River PAC are now partnering with the U.S. EPA to map hotspots in the river to direct efforts towards future sediment remediation efforts.

More information about many of these habitat projects can be found on the Friends of the Detroit River Projects webpage. Mary Bohling is the chair of the Detroit River Public Advisory Council (PAC), a group coordinates activities to clean up the river by following its Remedial Action Plan.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 34 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant under award NA180AR4170102 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statement, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

 

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