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Great Lakes AOCs

Detroit River AOC

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Rose Ellison
ellison.roseanne@epa.gov
734-692-7689

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Overview

The Detroit River Area of Concern is one of five binational AOCs shared between the United States and Canada. It drains an area of land in Michigan and Ontario that is approximately 700 square miles. Physical boundaries of the AOC extend from the flashing navigation light near Peche Island to a point in the center of the Detroit River approximately in line with the mouth of Michigan’s Huron River.

The Detroit River, a 32-mile (51 km) long channel linking Lake St. Clair and the upper Great Lakes to Lake Erie, is part of the international boundary between the United States and Canada. It can be misleading to think of the Detroit River as a typical river with a fan-shaped watershed. Instead, it is part of a strait that connects the Upper Great Lakes to the Lower Great Lakes. Lake Huron water makes up 95% of the flow of the Detroit River via the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair (MDNR 1991).

There are five Michigan tributaries to the Detroit River, one of which, is the Rouge River AOC. Three additional tributaries drain from the Ontario portion of the watershed. Lake St. Clair and two additional AOCs, the Clinton River AOC and the St. Clair River AOC, are immediately upstream of the Detroit River.

Historically, the Detroit River has been a source of water for a variety of industries and has experienced rapid residential development within its watershed. For decades, the river received untreated waste discharges from industrial use, as well as inputs from urban development and stormwater runoff, which degraded the river. These pollution sources have contributed to high levels of bacteria, PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, metals, oils, and greases within the AOC.

The Detroit River AOC has the largest city in the state of Michigan along its shoreline. Fortunately, concerted efforts to address combined sewer and sanitary sewer overflows, nonpoint source pollution, contaminated sediment, habitat restoration and pollution prevention are leading to continued improvement within the AOC. This webpage only covers the United States’ side of the Detroit AOC. For information about Canadian efforts in the AOC, please visit Detroit River Canadian CleanupExit

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Beneficial Use Impairments

Remediation and restoration work is conducted with the ultimate goal of delisting an AOC. An interim success of that work is removing beneficial use impairments. Beneficial use impairments are designations given by the International Joint Commission representing different types of significant environmental degradation. As cleanup work is completed, and monitoring demonstrates sufficient environmental health improvements, BUIs can be removed. The list below shows which BUIs have been removed in the Detroit River AOC, and which remain. Once all BUIs are removed, the process of delisting the AOC can begin.

More information:

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Remediation and Restoration Work

The Detroit River AOC has many partners working together to address the existing beneficial use impairments. Efforts towards contaminated sediment remediation and habitat restoration have made significant progress, but there is still work to do.  

We've completed two Great Lakes Legacy Act sediment contamination cleanups within the Detroit River AOC, the Black Lagoon project and Detroit Riverwalk project. There are three active remediation projects: Upper Trenton Channel remediation, the Monguagon Creek – Upper Trenton Channel remediation, and Centennial Park Shoreline remediation and habitat restoration. Sampling results indicate that several additional Legacy Act projects will be needed in the future.

Highlighted below are examples of restoration and remediation projects that are necessary to remove the Detroit River AOC’s BUIs. Friends of the Detroit River created a story map of different projects in the Detroit River AOCExit

Highlighted Habitat Restoration and Sediment Remediation Work

Restoration Project Highlight: Lake Okonoka Habitat Restoration Project

Photo of Lake Okonoka was drained in the fall of 2017 to prepare for construction of channels and deep pools. Lake Okonoka was drained in the fall of 2017 to prepare for construction of channels and deep pools. Photo Credit: Friends of the Detroit River.

Lake Okonoka is located on Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River. In the 1950s, the lake was disconnected from the Detroit River, preventing Great Lakes fish from utilizing the lake for habitat. In 2014, a partnership between the Friends of the Detroit River, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Michigan Department of Natural Resources began designing the project to reconnect Lake Okonoka and the Detroit River by installing culverts and channels.

The project included the replacement of a stop-log weir at the north end of Lake Okonoka with a road bridge. This connects Lake Okonoka with the Blue Heron Lagoon, creating free passage of Great Lakes water and fish.

The hydrologic connection will enhance a variety of aquatic habitats within the lakes that will support fish and wildlife species. The project incorporated 3,800 linear feet of deep channeling, 3.2 acres of deep-water pools, 0.18 acres of gravel substrate to provide fish spawning beds, 1.5 acres of mudflats providing foraging opportunities for shorebirds and 2 acres of wet meadow for pollinators and amphibian passage between the flatwoods forest and lake.

Photo of A stop-log weir was replaced with a 50'-wide opening and road bridge to reconnect the Blue Heron Lagoon and Lake Okonoka.A stop-log weir was replaced with a 50'-wide opening and road bridge to reconnect the Blue Heron Lagoon and Lake Okonoka. Photo Credit: Friends of the Detroit River.

The Lake Okonoka Habitat Restoration project is anticipated to have a significant impact on the eventual removal of the following BUIs:

  • Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations
  • Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat

The Lake Okonoka Habitat Restoration project was a collaborative effort among many project partners that included a $70,000 local match of funds for design. Construction began in August 2017 and was completed in 2020.

Restoration Project Highlight: Celeron Island

Photo of A barge places rocks along a berm constructed to reduce erosion and provide additional spawning habitat within the Detroit RI AOC. Photo Credit: Friends of the Detroit RiverA barge places rocks along a berm constructed to reduce erosion and provide additional spawning habitat within the Detroit RI AOC. Photo Credit: Friends of the Detroit River

Celeron Island is 68 acres of uninhabited forests and wetlands, located at the south end of the Detroit River and is near the end of the Detroit River AOC boundary. The Celeron Island Habitat Restoration project included the construction of off-shore emergent shoals at the south end of the island. These rock shoals enhanced critical fish spawning habitat as well as stopover habitat for waterfowl. The project is part of a larger effort to address erosion issues on the southern end of the island and restore remnant habitat.

The project started in 2018 and finished at the end of 2019. The project created nearly 4,000 linear feet of shoals, incorporating multiple niche habitats including shallow water habitat, a depression of spawning habitat area, barrier beach, rock piles, basking logs and woody debris bundles. This will benefit multiple species including waterfowl, shorebirds, mudpuppies, turtles, and fish. The emergent shoals will provide protection against future erosion events and allow for regeneration of the island’s outer shoreline emergent vegetation. Completion of the project advanced efforts towards the Photo of A stop-log weir was replaced with a 50'-wide opening and road bridge to reconnect the Blue Heron Lagoon and Lake Okonoka.An aerial view showing the construction of emergent shoals off Celeron Island. Credit: Friends of the Detroit Riverremoval of the following BUIs:

  • Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations
  • Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat

The project partners are listed below:

  • Friends of Detroit River.
  • Michigan Department of Natural Resources
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Remediation Project Highlight: The Detroit Riverwalk Great Lakes Legacy Act Cleanup

Placement of sediment capping material at the Detroit Riverwalk.  Credit: Randy Brown Anchor QEA

EPA and non-federal sponsor Detroit Riverfront Conservancy addressed contaminated sediments from a 1.2-acre site in the Detroit River upstream of downtown Detroit in 2020. The Detroit Riverwalk project resulted in the remediation of about 13,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. Remaining sediment was capped in place to isolate contaminants from the water which eliminated exposure to contaminants. 

The $2.9 million sediment clean up allows for an expansion of the Detroit Riverwalk which is considered one of the best river walks in the United States. 

Completing this remedial action will contribute to the removal of the following BUIs:

  • Restrictions on Dredging Activities
  • Fish Tumors and Other Deformities 
  • Degradation of Benthos 

Additional sediment remediation actions are necessary to fully address these BUIs.

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Partners

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