The Detroit River's amazing comeback

The opening of the Ellias Cove Marina in Trenton, Mich., is one more step forward in the miraculous restoration of the Detroit River.

In the 1954 horror film "The Creature from The Black Lagoon," a scientific expedition on the Amazon River comes upon a fishlike humanoid that falls in love with a human female. It was great at the drive-ins. Honest.

On Saturday, June 16, another "Black Lagoon," a small backwater bay on the Trenton Channel of the Detroit River on the north side of Trenton will be declared gone forever. A ribbon cutting ceremony on the 16th will mark the opening of the Ellias Cove Marina, in what was once a stinking cesspool of oil and grease-laden muddy water nicknamed "the black lagoon." One more step forward in the miraculous restoration of the Detroit River.

I grew up on an island just across the river from Trenton — Grosse Ile, a 10-mile-long cigar-shaped isle bisecting the mouth of the 31-mile long Detroit River as it empties into Lake Erie. I caught my first fish, a sunfish, in a canal on Grosse Ile in the late 1940's. We cooked it with great celebration. My first bite of that fish was memorable; I spit out because it tasted like oil. That was my first introduction to water pollution.

Later as I grew up, I came to understand why that fish tasted oily. Huge factories on the American side of the river south of Detroit used the river as a dump for oil, grease, chemicals, and just about anything they could get away with.

In those days, if you had a boat, to enjoy good fishing and edible fish from the Detroit River, you bought a license for Ontario and fished the Canadian side of the river, which was relatively clean, and had decent perch, smallmouth and walleye fishing.

Oil slicks were common in the Detroit River in the 1940s through 1960s. Many people with boats docked on the river had lifts to hoist their boat out of the water so they would not get slicked at night when someone upstream in the middle of the night would open up a pipe and dump oil and grease and who knows what else into the river.

My wildlife management professor at the University of Michigan, George Hunt, estimated that an average 10,000 to 20,000 migrating ducks and geese were killed by oil slicks every winter at the mouth of the Detroit River in those days. What was especially insidious about this was that in the winter, when much of Lake and river froze over, warm water discharges from the factories kept open pockets of water along the shore where the birds congregated. After they were slicked down and could not fly, many simply were drawn under the ice by the steady pull of the current.

When I did research for my Master's Thesis at U. of M. on the economic costs of water pollution in the Lower Detroit River, I easily found millions of dollars of damage — drinking water intakes closed and cities forced to buy water from Detroit who got their water from upstream Lake St. Clair; bathing beaches closed; fish and aquatic life either depleted or tainted with chemicals; recreational facilities barely used; etc.

And to make matters worse, in the 1960s phosphate-rich detergents came on the market. The phosphates were not removed by sewage treatment facilities and the nutrient-laden waters were discharged into the river, stimulating plant growth that clogged the river and covered Lake Erie with a thick blanket of weeds. When the aquatic plants sank to the bottom, they formed a mat that smothered aquatic insects like burrowing mayflies (Hexagenia) that was principle food for walleyes, perch, etc. Whole areas of the Lake had no oxygen in its bottom waters.

Walleye populations really plummeted in those days. About the only thing found in the sediment at the Trenton Black Lagoon was sludge worms.

In the 1960s, 29 of the 31 miles of the Detroit River were declared unsafe for any water contact sport including boating by the International Joint Commission.

There was little or no public outcry about the horrific air and water pollution of the Downriver Detroit area prior to Earth Day 1970. Smoke clouds and oil slicks meant jobs and prosperity. Keep your mouth shut was the Chamber of Commerce message.

Walleyes on the American side of river often tasted like oil. Sturgeon, whitefish, etc. were long gone — replaced by carp that frolicked in the weed-choked waters. Trenton's "black lagoon" was one of many eddies along the shore with thick layers of oil, grease and other chemicals covering the bottom, and often the surface. Some tributaries like the Rouge River were red from iron ore dust, mixed with black oil.

To be honest, dumping in the Detroit River was not new. Beginning back in the l700s, residents of Detroit would clean out the stables in winter and throw all the manure and other garbage on the ice in the Detroit River so spring thaws would carry it away downstream. Their water intakes were placed upstream of where the dumping took place; the waste was the other guy's problem downstream. This new pollution of the 20th century, however, was of a different magnitude — chemicals, as well as organic wastes.

What has happened to the air and water of Downriver Detroit since 1970 is nothing short of an ecological miracle. Trenton, Mich., is now the walleye capital of the world.

The restoration of this aquatic resource has not been easy or cheap. Just to transform Trenton's Black Lagoon from an embarrassing, odorous public health hazard to a marina meant 115,000 cubic yards of oily, greasy black sludge sediment had to be removed at a cost of $9.3 million. The Great Lakes Legacy Act of 2004 & 2005 pumped in $151,250 to restore habitat around the lagoon.

It took another $582,315 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and $200,000 matching from Trenton to build the Ellias Cove marina. As a result, swarms of boaters will be able to enjoy a rejuvenated fishery that is an international example of conservation hope, and public embarrassment is gone.

As those boats travel downstream from the marina in pursuit of millions of walleyes, boaters may see bald eagles. At least seven pairs now nest in the vicinity of the also new Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, created in 2002. I never saw a bald eagle south of Grayling, 200 miles north, in the l950s, l960s or 1970s, let alone along the lower Detroit River.

Today, eagles, ospreys and peregrine falcons all enjoy the Downriver area like in the real good old days — BP — Before Pollution.

And when anglers drop their lines down into water that is clearer than it has been in decades, they may catch whitefish, sturgeon and even salmon, as well as fat yellowbelly perch and walleyes in record abundance.

Dr. John Hartig,* the Manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, smiles a lot these days, but he points out there is still plenty of work to be done. Pollutants such as mercury and PCBs are a concern. Willful discharges of oil may be gone, but oil spills are still a problem, as are introduced exotic species like milfoil, zebra and quagga mussels, and ruffe.

Environmental vigilance is of paramount necessity in such a highly developed area. But, unlike the mid-1900s, today there are strong citizen action eco-groups, like Friends of the Detroit River, to support antipollution and habitat restoration work.

Congratulations to Trenton and the Downriver Detroit region. Keep up the good work!

A footnote: while the Black Lagoon of Trenton, Mich., is gone forever, the "Black Lagoon" movie is making a comeback. A remake of the 1954 classic is currently in production and expected out next year.

*Special Thanks to Dr. John Hartig for sending many informational links about the current status of the Detroit River.