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The Rouge River Gateway Corridor is one of the most important natural and cultural assets of southeast Michigan. It includes the last eight miles of the Rouge River and neighboring communities. This area has all of the basic ingredients for a vibrant urban place: nature, culture, people, and economic might. Yet the Rouge River and its riparian communities are distressed. Like many urban waterways, pollution, channelization, and industry have severed the Rouge from people and ecology. Sixteen years ago, the Detroit Free Press noted that, “By the time the main branch of the Rouge has wound its way past 40 miles of suburban sewer overflows, industrial discharges, and storm water runoff it has picked up enough garbage to kill off nearly all but the lowest forms of life.” The Rouge was unquestionably the most polluted river in the state.

Since then, forty-eight Metro Detroit communities, three counties, and numerous stakeholders have made great strides in eliminating combined sewer overflows (CSOs), non-point source pollution, and other sources of impairment. This watershed approach to pollution control has had a significant impact. Last year, the Rouge met the state dissolved oxygen water quality standard (5 mg/liter) during dry weather and more diverse species of fish have been sighted.

Powerful stakeholders, realizing the renewed potential of this neglected river, have combined forces to create a vision for the Gateway Corridor. The Rouge River Gateway Partnership is a diverse alliance of leaders representing Wayne County, five municipalities, cultural institutions, and private businesses. While attracting new investment is one goal of the Partnership, celebration of heritage, preservation and enhancement of natural habitats, and support of recreational opportunities are also priorities.

Under the guidance of the Partnership, a master plan has been developed that will allow people, ecology, and economy to coexist equitably in the landscape. Currently, these elements arerigidly compartmentalized, reflective of traditional zoning patterns. Existing public access to the river is limited and uncomfortable. From the streets and highways, the Rouge is barely noticeable. The Rouge Gateway Master Plan aims to create connections where barriers now exist.

The plan includes a number of projects that will restore relationships between the Rouge and its natural and social systems. Ecosystems are strengthened by projects like the greening of the Rouge Manufacturing Complex, restoration of an oxbow at Greenfield Village, bank stabilization at Henry Ford Community College, and a fish ladder around a historic landmark dam at the Ford Fair Lane Estate. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department plans to cover a twelve-acre concrete CSO storage facility with a songbird meadow. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying models for partial removal of the concrete channel to create new fish habitat and natural riverbanks. These efforts will restore the Rouge as a shimmering ribbon of water that is home to diverse wildlife and indigenous plant species.

A public greenway and riverboat taxi is proposed for the entire eight-mile length of the Gateway Corridor once renaturalization of the riverbanks is complete. A path system will connect to fourteen miles of existing greenway through adjacent communities and become a critical link within a larger greenway plan for southeast Michigan. Interpretation of the area's rich history, best stormwater management practices, and ecological restoration will occur along the path. This multi-modal transportation network will reconnect thousands of urban residents to the Rouge'snatural beauty.

The Rouge River will be both a magnet for community activity and a way for residents to better understand their unique role as stewards of this riparian ecosystem. This paper will discuss development and elements of the master plan, partnership and consensus building, and ecological restoration progress.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2002-01-01

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