Water Quality Board Gets an Eagle-Eye View of Community Water Priorities in Detroit

Picture of Allison Voglesong Zejnati
Allison Voglesong Zejnati
allen chandler park conservancy great lakes water quality board

A bald eagle circled overhead, rousting a flock of cormorants and a great blue heron from the calm waters of the oxbow on the lower Rouge River in Detroit. As members of the IJC Great Lakes Water Quality Board looked on, Friends of the Rouge Trails Manager Herman Jenkins joked that their staff planned the avian flyover for the board’s field trip.

“The presence of these fish-eating birds is a good signal that the water quality and ecosystem health of the Rouge River is improving, that there are fish here for them to eat,” Friends of the Rouge Watershed Ecologist Sally Petrella added. “That wasn’t always the case here.”

The Great Lakes Water Quality Board is the principal adviser to the International Joint Commission (IJC) under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. In early May, the board met in Detroit, Michigan, for its semi-annual in-person meeting. As a part of the visit, members toured the area, learning from a variety of organizations working on water issues in the Detroit River and Rouge River watersheds.

At their first tour stop in Dearborn, staff from Friends of the Rouge and the Alliance of Rouge Communities highlighted how they, along with partners, received US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding to help improve degraded fish and wildlife habitat in the Rouge River Area of Concern by reconnecting the naturalized oxbow to the industrialized, channelized lower portion of the river.

Friends of the Rouge also highlighted ways its projects are bridging ecosystem improvement with social and cultural goals. The work provides community members with greater access and connection by weaving water trails and recreation features into river restoration efforts.

friends rouge petrella

Friends of the Rouge Watershed Ecologist Sally Petrella explains the oxbow reconnection project on the Rouge River in Dearborn. Credit: IJC

Along the Detroit River, also an Area of Concern, board members heard about ways the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is expanding trails and fishing access near the downtown core, with plans to extend the access further northward to connect to Belle Isle.

Detroit River Waterkeeper Bob Burns showcased the Friends of the Detroit River’s leadership in its latest efforts toward improving impairments to fish and wildlife habitat, leveraging Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding to hydraulically connect Lake Okonoka and Blue Heron Lagoon on Belle Isle to the flow of the Detroit River.

Friends of the Detroit River also coordinates with counterparts in Windsor, Ontario, at the Detroit River Canadian Cleanup. As Burns explained, the Detroit River is a binational Area of Concern, and each organization works in its respective country to clean up its “side” of the river.

Visiting Detroit’s East Side, the board learned about the human dimensions of Detroit’s relationship with nature and the water cycle. Chandler Park Conservancy President Alex Allen showcased how the community-based group integrated green infrastructure and wildlife habitat features into the park by constructing a marshland area to handle and treat stormwater runoff.

At the Eastside Community Network Stoudamire Wellness Hub, Climate Equity Director Erin Stanley and Climate Equity Manager Alexis Sims said extreme precipitation events overwhelm Detroit’s combined sewer and stormwater infrastructure and disproportionately impact the city’s East Side residents, flooding their basements.

Stanley and Sims explained how climate equity programming helps residents respond to basement backup and overbank flooding events, creates climate resiliency hubs to provide other resources, and proactively addresses root causes, including through climate equity policy advocacy.

sims eastside community network

Alexis Sims, Eastside Community Network Climate Equity manager, presents on community climate resilience and flood response work. Credit: IJC

Great Lakes Water Quality Board member Monica Lewis-Patrick, also president of We the People of Detroit, hosted the board at the community-based grassroots organization’s headquarters. There, youth leaders talked with board members about how their organizations empower youth to lead programs and policy advocacy to address the intersections of drinking water and against injustice.

We the People of Detroit’s Norrel Hemphill, Esq., presented policy work advocating for the human right to water and programs addressing drinking water affordability and city shutoff policies. Youth from Toledo’s Junction Coalition highlighted community education efforts to inform neighbors about water quality and drinking water issues including the impacts of harmful algal blooms. Flint Community Lab members virtually showcased their facility that provides free water testing for lead and other harmful chemicals and programs that help repair residents’ trust and relationship with their drinking water. The Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council explained how its work in water and youth education is focused on ensuring democratic processes so that community members’ needs and priorities are fundamentally reflected in environmental decision-making.

We the Youth of Detroit leader Brooke Bowers, 14, concluded the session with an explanation of the importance of putting racial justice at the heart of work to build a coalition of organizations focused on mobilizing their communities “to transform water trauma into community transformation.”

we the people detroit toledo flint

Board members at the We the People of Detroit offices where organizations from Toledo and Flint joined virtually to discuss community efforts focused on drinking water quality, testing, affordability and access issues.

Chris McLaughlin, board Canadian co-chair and executive director of the Bay Area Restoration Council, said: “We are indebted to all the staff, volunteers and youth leaders who welcomed our board members to your community here in Detroit and who shared valuable insights that will have a lasting impact on each of us.”

Jon W. Allan, board US co-chair and University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability senior advisory and research program officer, added: “Hearing the wisdom of communities around the Great Lakes, as we did in Detroit … is a critical opportunity for the board, not just as a reflection point to absorb new information and perspectives, but as an inflection point, to allow these experiences to truly influence the trajectory of the work we do next.”

Read more about board leadership and ongoing work: “What’s in Store for the IJC’s Great Lakes Advisory Boards in 2023.”

Picture of Allison Voglesong Zejnati
Allison Voglesong Zejnati

Allison Voglesong Zejnati is public affairs specialist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.