An Introduction to the Problem of Pollution of Detroit Waterways


In Detroit, among several issues that the city is presently undergoing, the waterways have undergone pollution and mistreatment for several decades. The major waterways of the Detroit area include the Detroit River, the River Rouge, Lake St. Claire, and Lake Erie.  Both the River Rouge and Lake St. Claire flow into the Detroit River, which then flows in to Lake Erie. As well as in Detroit, the state of Michigan suffers from the threat of water pollution, due to its involvement with the surrounding Great Lakes. The United States, being surrounded by two of the largest bodies of water in the world, has a great influence on the health of the ecosystems within them.

Since the mid 1800s, Detroit has been a prime location for industry and manufacturing. Copper Smelters, lumber mills, and machinery production were among the first industries of the Detroit area, and were also among the first polluters of the South Eastern-Michigan waters (Jabusch). As the development of the city and its technology went on, further industries were added to the area, especially car manufacturing. The production of automobiles raged on into the 1940s, where increased production took place due to the demand set by World War Two. Only after 1948 was water pollution identified as an environmental and health issue for waterways in contact with Detroit. An estimated six million gallons of petroleum based pollution dumped into the Detroit River, in between 1946 and 1948, led to the deaths of 11,000 waterfowl (Detroit River…Indicator Project).  Investigation into the deaths of the birds led government officials into finding that dumping took place not only from industries, but also from wastewater treatment plants, government installations, sewer overflows, and water travel (Detroit River…Indicator Project). Over the next half of a century, the Environmental Protection Agency was created and a series of environmental protecting laws passed through state and federal government. However, even with the creation of these green-promoting tools, dumping continued, just at a much slower rate. In 1965, water from the north flowing into Lake Erie caused the deaths of fish and water based flora, forcing the use of bulldozers to clear beaches of polluted debris (Hartig). In 1970, fisheries of the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and Lake Erie had to be closed due to mercury deposited into the water by chemical industries found in Wyandotte and Ontario (Hartig). Most recently, in 2002, an oil spill of 70,000 gallons of “used industrial oil” was flushed through Dearborn sewer drainage, contaminating nearly 20 miles of the River Rouge, the Detroit River, and Lake Erie shorelines (Alley).  The group responsible for the dumping was Comprehensive Environmental Solutions Inc., who was also found to have neglected almost 13 million gallons of wastewater earlier that year (Alley).

Today, pollution is still a threat to the waterways of South Eastern Michigan. Although more regulation and care has been implemented on the area, the fact that 4 counties flow in to the river basin is now a reason for worry. Metropolitan Detroit, which is home to more people than inner Detroit, runs off into the River Rouge, taking whatever waste suburbia provides into the Detroit River (Jabusch). Industrial and domestic waste are both contributors to oil spills, the death of animals, and rising bacteria levels within the water and on beaches.

         When observing and working to prevent water pollution, Michigan and the Great Lakes are vital to protect. Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior hold a significant amount of the world’s fresh water. In fact, according to the EPA the Great Lakes hold, “about 21% of the world's supply of surface fresh water,” and, “84% of North America's surface fresh water” (Great Lakes – Basic Information). Having good quality, fresh water is important in providing safe drinking water to citizens, the Great Lakes “provides drinking water for 40 million people” (About Our Great Lakes).

         Water pollution became a problem in the nineteenth century, and it continues to plague our water quality today. It is clear that industrialization and modernization of farming had many positive effects for the United States’ society and economy, but it also led to many negative effects. The large amounts of waste produced by industry and fertilizers for agriculture made their way into water runoffs, impacting the ecosystems that rely on that water supply. Further polluting cannot be allowed to destroy the Great Lakes like it has in the past.

         An example of pollution greatly impacting water quality is the mistreatment of Lake Erie. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the water pollution in Lake Erie became so bad that it was declared a “dead lake”. According to the Great Lakes Information Network, “excessive algae became the dominant plant species, covering beaches in slimy moss and killing off native aquatic species by soaking up all of the oxygen” (Water Pollution in the Great Lakes). Beaches were closed, fish and other organisms died out, and the water became useless. This is an extreme example, but if view water pollution is not viewed as a serious problem then this could easily happen again.

         Water quality in the Great Lakes has improved since the 1970s, but there are still many dangerous pollutants contaminating the water. As of 2000, a list sent to Congress of known pollutants in the Great Lakes included, “chlordane, DDT/DDE, dieldrin, hexachlorobenzene, a-hexachlorocyclohexane, lindane, lead & lead compounds, mercury & mercury compounds, PCBs, polycyclic organic matter, TCDD/TCDF, toxaphene, cadmium & cadmium compounds, and nitrogen compounds” (Engler, 2). Most of these substances are extremely harmful and dangerous to the lakes’ ecosystems and anything that relies on the water.

Throughout the United States, the effects of water pollution continue to worsen. Since the Clean Water Act placed by the federal government in 1972, the nation has pushed to improve the quality of the water in the lakes, rivers, and estuaries (Weeks). However, even with these efforts, the effects of water pollution still persist. Most of this pollution comes from city street runoff, agricultural fertilizers and animal waste, and from litter. In regards to the national state of fresh water sources, some areas are so heavily polluted that it is unsafe to fish and drink. This level of pollution has shown signs that our country is coming to a freshwater shortage. The federal government, however, has yet to enact effective policies that can improve the quality of our waterways. It is very important to consider the severity of pollution of the country’s freshwater sources and find ways to improve it.

         The United States gets all its freshwater/tap water from lakes rives and estuaries. Many of these water sources remain somewhat polluted even after 40 years of pollution prevention. Based on a 1998 study, 34% of rivers, 45% of lakes, and 44% of estuaries in the United States are polluted (Cooper). Today, 64% of lakes, 44% of rivers, and 30% of estuaries are polluted (EPA). This is a very significant increase in lake and river pollution levels. The pollution levels in our country have escalated to the point that, according to Jennifer Weeks, the nation needs to spend more than $250 billion dollars to modernize water treatment and improve the drinking-water quality. The problem here is that the federal government cannot or will not allocate funds towards reducing or even removing pollution from these water sources. Very slowly, the freshwater sources can run short and the United States may suffer a freshwater shortage.

         The most significant cause of water pollution in our nation today comes from street and agricultural runoff. This runoff contains fertilizers, animal waste, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that prevent our waters from sustaining life. Chemicals deprive the water of oxygen that helps sustain life. Most of this runoff contains harmful chemicals and toxins that kill fish, are unsafe to drink, and threaten human health (Cooper). Some pollution does not only come from chemicals but also from biological waste. For example, in 1993, a parasite found in livestock waste contaminated municipal tap water that affected 400,000 people (Cooper). It is not that the chemicals and wastes are directly polluting the waterways, but that the storm water runs through the urban environments of littered streets and toxic construction debris as well as the rural agricultural wastes. The problem with this runoff is that it is not usually treated and is sent straight into waterways. It is currently difficult to control the amount of polluted storm water that enters the water sources, but with better treatment techniques, pollution can be prevented.

         One interesting problem with water pollution regulation in the United States is that, according to Nancy Stoner and Jon Devine, “the agencies responsible for implementing the Clean Water Act have refused to apply the law to all the water bodies that they have the authority to protect.” Basically, lakes and rivers are polluted because the tributaries that flow into them are polluted. Agencies who have authority and have funding to clean those water sources do not actually clean the sources. This leaves the major water sources polluted despite the efforts of cleaning them. A larger agency would be federal government. The federal government, according to Maude Barlow, does not “have the political will” to actually safeguard the future of the nation’s freshwater sources. With the nation in danger of running out of freshwater sources, the government must react to this threat and start incorporating ways to stop pollution and improve the conditions of our water system.

         Simply put, the nation is facing a crisis with its polluted waterways. Even with policies put into place to prevent pollution, rivers, lakes, and estuaries continue to be polluted by the urban and rural runoff. Agencies that have the ability to prevent this pollution still do not do so properly. This includes our federal government that lacks the will to enact policies that will guarantee the good quality of the freshwater sources in the nation. Pollution prevention and cleaning right now is important to safeguard the quality of our national freshwater in the future.

The environment has changed drastically over the past 100 years. More specifically, water in the environment has changed, not only in nature has but also to the way humans treat it. Water is the home to many ecological systems and is what separates us from other interstellar beings, as water provides Earth with the ability to harbor life. Yet we allow global warming to affect water in a variety of ways. “Over the last century, the average surface temperature of the Earth has increased by about 1.0o F”  (Climate Change Over the Last 100 Years). This increase in temperature has a huge effect on water because as the world gets warmer, the water cycle will speed up and cause the exchange of water among oceans, atmosphere, and land. The increase in water temperature from glaciers melting and global warming will begin to destroy ecosystems and force them to adapt. In some cases the decay of organic matter will, “release trapped carbon and methane, creating an additional source of greenhouse gases.” (Climate Change Over the Last 100 Years). Some say that these events may also cause loss of life due to flooding, and soil erosion.  Even though most of the climate changes seems like it is from global warming, scientists agree that it is because of humans and the emissions that we are putting into the environment that are at the root of the problem.  The burning of fossil fuels is accelerating global warming.  Also the consumption of water bottles and the way humans treat the environment is having a drastic effect on water. The more toss toxic waste in the lakes and oceans, the more animals’ habitats that are endangered. At a smaller scale, approximately 80 percent of the microbes that live on this earth live in marine-type habitats.   Looking forward, the outlook for the next 100 years does not appear to be that much better. If dangerous emissions are released at the rate that they currently are, then the Earth’s temperature will increase by another 0.4 degrees Celsius (Endangered Species and Habitats). The changes that we have observed in the past 100 years will be insignificant to those that will come in the next 100 years. Some of the things that can be done to help prevent environmental turmoil from occurring include mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation includes reducing people’s carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions in all ways possible (Larson). Adaptation includes taking direct action to reduce undesirable effects on the climate. Types of adaptation that we can implement are smarter run off systems for our cities during city planning; we also can change our water storage systems, by implementing the uses of desalination and aquifer storage (Larson). These and many more will be the only way to help prevent climate change from being so drastic and harmful.

Contrary to public perception, industry is not the primary cause of pollution; agriculture is now the culprit (Abel 2). There was a time when industrialization was the main cause of pollution in water systems, but with increasing regulations and more studies into the effects of diffuse sources of pollution, agriculture has become the dominant polluter. Nowadays, many fertilizers and run-off chemicals seep into the ground and make their way into the water sources nearby, polluting the water with sometimes untested chemicals. These chemicals have to be scientifically and statistically proven to be harmful to the environment before it can be regulated, even if there are strong indications towards the end result (Helmer 4). Unfortunately, by the time science provides a link between substances used in agriculture and their effect on the environment, damages may have already taken place (Helmer 4).

         One study reflects the unintentional and relatively unknown effects of thermal water pollution. It is known that fish require much more oxygen while moving and tend to receive less oxygen dissolved in the water whilst moving (Abel 32). Also, fish need more oxygen at higher temperatures, which, coupled with the fact that the solubility of oxygen in water decreases with increased temperature, combines to form a sort of strangling effect on the fish present and rendering them unable to move. Thermal pollution can thus adversely affect the fish in the areas being used as dumping grounds for water coolant (Abel 33).

         Historically, control and prevention of water pollution has concentrated on point sources, as they are easily identifiable and easier to regulate at the point of origin (Abel 30). Point sources can be easy to identify because the concentration of the pollutant increases as the distance to the source increases. Diffuse or nonpoint sources are harder to determine because the concentration around the area is relatively similar to those around it. As the significance of diffuse sources arose, control strategies have been under development. However, these strategies are based on application of good practices rather than strict regulation of the sources of input and therefore are difficult to enforce.

         Water pollution is intricately tied in with the policies that govern us. A polluter-pays-principle, where the polluter pays for the pollution prevention, control, and reduction measures is not a new idea, but the implementation is difficult because of the social and economic implications (Helmer 5). Policies which deal with water pollution are either too specific or too broad and currently do not present a nice framework in which to work with. A guide published for water pollution control shows that there are three main components of a rational water pollution control system: an enabling environment that sets the scene for pollution and management authorities, a framework which allows for close interaction between administrative levels, and planning capabilities which make it possible for decision-makers to make choices between actions based on policies, resources, and the social, economic, and environmental impacts (Helmer 8). These components would allow for policies to be constructed and implemented without legislative processes consuming large amounts of time along the way.

         Two case studies, the Texas Seymour aquifer and water pollution in Vermont, similarly conclude that there is a need to write up appropriate policies to target water pollution. Vermont was regarded as one of the cleanest of the states with regard to water pollution up until recently. With the completion of two interstate highways, Vermont experienced the environmental pressures of higher population and modernity (Dutcher 707). Until a pollutant budget comes into place and is actively enforced, Vermont and other states like it will not be able to reverse the water pollution trends (Dutcher 754). The Seymour aquifer study concludes that it is difficult to develop efficient and effective policy for controlling diffuse pollution for a specific region (Lacewell 207). Good practice policies make monitoring and enforcing a major challenge. Furthermore, the uniqueness of some areas, such as watersheds, can make it difficult to construct broad long-lasting policies, but can also be applied for special cases.

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