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Sterling Heights

December 4, 2012

Donation fuels Blue Way Water Trail enhancements

Officials targeting Utica/Sterling Heights stretch for paddle sports

By Brad D. Bates and Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writers

» click to enlarge «
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and other local officials tour the Clinton River by kayak in June 2010. The county and municipalities are working to promote and protect the area’s water resources through various Blue Economy Initiative projects, including the Blue Way Water Trail, which encourages paddlers to explore the Clinton River.

When Gerard Santoro rhapsodizes about the Clinton River, it sounds like something straight out of an exotic travel brochure.

As Macomb County’s program manager for land and water resources, Santoro has become intimately acquainted with the local waterways, and his praise comes across as earnest and sincere.

“Once people get on the river, they cannot believe how incredibly beautiful it is through Shelby, Utica, Sterling Heights,” he said. “You would not believe you’re in Sterling Heights. You would think you’re in Up North Michigan. It’s absolutely amazing.”

So Santoro is understandably enthusiastic about a $10,000 donation from ITCTransmission to Macomb County Planning & Economic Development to further recreation and tourism along the Blue Way Water Trail, the 36-mile stretch of the Clinton River that runs from the northwestern Macomb County border to Lake St. Clair.

Santoro and his cohorts hope to promote the waterway as a prime place to canoe and kayak, as part of County Executive Mark Hackel’s Blue Economy Initiative, which concentrates on “advancing the economic opportunities, public access and environmental stewardship” of Lake St. Clair and Clinton River.

Making the Blue Way Water Trail fully functional is one of about 50 projects in the Blue Economy Initiative’s strategic development plan, said Santoro.

Currently, the “trail” is open for paddling from Yates Cider Mill, at Dequindre, to North Clinton River Park, in Sterling Heights, and from Clinton Township’s Budd Park and Mount Clemens’ YMCA to Lake St. Clair, a total of about 20 miles.

As the current focus is on the river’s Utica/Sterling Heights segment, the county is splitting the ITC donation between the two municipalities.

Sterling Heights will use its $5,000 share to put in a low-impact launch at North Clinton River Park, near Riverland and Van Dyke, and direct the remainder toward the purchase of waders, chainsaws, pulling chains and a winch kit needed to remove large woody debris blockages that impede public access.

Utica intends to apply the windfall toward installation of a low-impact launch between Auburn and Hall roads, across from the city’s new downtown river walk.

Prime paddling
The continuous alteration in elevation along the Clinton River in Macomb County — there’s a 600-foot difference between the highest and lowest points — “lends itself well to paddling sports,” said Santoro.

The skill level necessary to navigate the river varies by location. The portion from downtown Mount Clemens to the mouth of the river has traditionally been open to paddling, but there are even more thrills to be had on the northwestern end, said Santoro.

“The area from Rochester to Utica is a very unique part of the river that you can’t replicate anywhere else in the state,” he said, describing the rapids as suitable for the intermediately skilled and above. “(There), it drops several hundred feet, so it makes for pretty exciting paddling.”

From downtown Utica to Sterling Heights and through Clinton Township, the river is deeper, wider and slower, “so it’s a little bit more friendly for family paddling,” he said.

Santoro acknowledged the dubious reputation the Clinton River had in years past, but he insists efforts like stormwater drainage improvements, local cleanup initiatives and large woody debris management programs are contributing to a turnaround.

“It’s really coming back,” he said. “It’s amazing, the species of fish that are returning. We’ve been working with the local governments, and it’s pretty amazing how much progress we’ve made on it. The last two years, there’s probably been an additional 13 miles of river open up.”

Blockages have been “a massive issue” during the last decade, primarily due to the emerald ash borer, which caused many trees to die and topple into the river, said Santoro.

In Sterling Heights, municipal crews are working on mapping out the locations where severe woody- debris jams remain, said City Development Manager Denice Gerstenberg, who estimates there are about seven or eight still lingering.

“We just cleaned up the big one at Riverland,” she said. “So they’re somewhere between that point and Hayes.”

Gerstenberg said Sterling’s new low-impact launch will likely involve installing gravel and riprap to prevent soil erosion, forming a spot conducive to placing crafts in the water. She hopes the launch will be completed by late spring.

“I think we’re looking at it from an economic development perspective: that the promotion of our waterways is a way to bring tourism to the area,” she said. “It also creates a quality of place for our residents, which is obviously something Sterling Heights is always trying to strive for.”

Utica’s new landing, meanwhile, will provide additional access within the city, along with the city’s launch at Heritage Park.

“It’s the more, the merrier and the better off we are,” Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan said of why she believes the new launch will complement the park’s handicapped accessible launch south of Hall Road. “It just means we have more and better offerings.”

Noonan described the new Utica launch as a “hitching post” along the shoulder of Auburn Road and said that it should be open by late spring 2013 to improve access to downtown Utica’s shops and restaurants.

“We think this is a really important adjunct to our own business efforts, and it’s very cost effective,” Noonan said of the landing, which will be on the south side of Auburn Road near Utica Road. “We think, being we’re the only main downtown on the Clinton (River), it’s a very important economic driver for our businesses.”

For more information on the Blue Economy Initiative, visit http:// www.makemacombyourhome.com/ blue.html.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brad D. Bates at bbates@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1029.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Cortney Casey at ccasey@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1046.