Going green: how infrastructure can save Michigan water bodies

“We need to make greater investments in local infrastructure, like our storm drains, to protect our water from pollution if events like the Canoe Classic are going to continue in the future,” Macomb County Commissioner Fred Miller said prior to the event. “Pollution from storm water runoff is already a problem in our local waterways and has led to beach closures that strike a blow to local businesses and tourism, and threaten public health in Macomb County.”

By Nick Mordowanec, C & G Staff Writer

July 9, 2014

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — It’s never too early to talk about the future of the planet. Sometimes the problem lies in getting people to listen.

One way that certain organizations are trying to gain awareness in communities is to show residents what kind of recreational opportunities can take place within the confines of a body of water, and how such natural wonders can be saved by what we do on the mainland.

For example, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony V. Marrocco hosted the second straight Canoe Classic on Clinton River on June 28. The race promoted beautification and stewardship through not only cash prizes, but also the experience.

“We need to make greater investments in local infrastructure, like our storm drains, to protect our water from pollution if events like the Canoe Classic are going to continue in the future,” Macomb County Commissioner Fred Miller said prior to the event. “Pollution from storm water runoff is already a problem in our local waterways and has led to beach closures that strike a blow to local businesses and tourism, and threaten public health in Macomb County.”

Margi Armstrong, the Lake St. Clair program coordinator for Michigan Clean Water Action, said the Canoe Classic was just one way for people in the area to become acclimated with the different ways they can help save the Clinton River, Lake St. Clair and other bodies of water.

One aspect introduced to Canoe Classic attendees and participants were native plant seeds that result in higher water absorption through larger root systems, thus taking pressure off of storm drain systems during rain events.

Armstrong explained that communities have one of two types of sewer systems: combined systems (toilet, sink, etc.) that use the same pipe and make their way to a water treatment facility to be treated and discharged. The second system means rainwater is in its own pipe and discharged into the nearest body of water without any proper treatment or filtration, collecting debris (fertilizer, trash, oil from leaky cars, pet feces) that contaminates water with extra pollutants.

Combined systems are partially treated and raise E. coli levels in beaches, while separated systems discharge trash into waterways and don’t go to treatment facilities.

During heavy rainfall, those systems become overloaded, water is discharged and water can’t come in. Green infrastructure would help, Armstrong said, because if you have more natural features,  then more water can be absorbed and take pressure off the sewer system. There were natural spaces for rainwater to be absorbed, at least prior to big development.

“Soil works as a natural filtration system: rain falls, it’s absorbed in the ground, it replenishes underground and in aquifers, and goes into lakes, rivers and streams,” Armstrong said.

She said a great example is Lake St. Clair Metropark. They redid their parking lot to have little ponds that hold rainwater, so that water goes into depressions and are naturally absorbed rather than polluting the lake. It’s a good concept in Michigan in terms of its climate, and the amount of maintenance needed is pretty low.

Prior to the Clean Water Act of 1972, Clinton River was the most polluted river in Michigan (and arguably the United States) and used to be a dumping ground. Much progress has been made the last few decades in improving that particular water body, but more work needs to be done.

“Ideas have been around for a long time and certain groups have pushed for it, but recently I think it’s really starting to come into the spotlight,” Armstrong said. “People are really beginning to understand what green infrastructure design is and what it means for water quality. It makes the most sense because it’s most cost-effective in the long-run.”

Armstrong said Lake St. Clair is a beautiful lake with a shoreline that has unfortunately been polluted to a high level. E. coli levels along the shore prevent recreational swimming, and increased levels of contaminants close the park frequently.

A few helpful tips that can alleviate sewage and pollution in our water systems include not using washing machines during rainstorms because it’s excess water; landscaping in a feasible way in which your rain garden can absorb water; not littering; and limiting fertilizer on your lawn because lawns only need to be fertilized twice a year, with the superfluous amount of fertilizer running off in storm drains.

However, even though there is pollution, Armstrong said that people may be coming around and becoming more privy to everything that Michigan bodies of water have to offer. The success of the 2014 Canoe Classic was some proof of that.

“I think we are moving in the right direction; sometimes, it just happens more slowly,” she said. “We need to educate communities about things, like designing parking lots and roadways. Let’s start to look at it a little bit differently and incorporate smarter designs.

“I still think there’s a ways to go, but we see more people kayak and canoe on the river, and walk by the river and use it recreationally. They begin to see it’s a fun, vital resource, and if people use it more, they’ll start to take care of it.”