Stormwater runoff carrying sediment, litter and contaminants from human development poses a risk to wildlife habitat supported by the watershed, which crosses four counties.

Stormwater runoff carrying sediment, litter and contaminants from human development poses a risk to wildlife habitat supported by the watershed, which crosses four counties.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Group continues work with public to protect the Clinton River

By: Andy Kozlowski | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published June 28, 2021

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STERLING HEIGHTS — The Clinton River is of vital importance to local wildlife, and humans, as well. But with summertime comes more construction and people recreating — and as a result, more adverse effects on the watershed.

Helping to monitor things is the Clinton River Watershed Council, a nonprofit group that works alongside volunteers from the public to protect the river and the habitat it provides.

“You can think of the Clinton River as a main artery feeding our heart,” Chris Bobryk, the CRWC’s watershed planner, said in an email. “Instead of carrying blood, which would be weird, the Clinton River carries freshwater to Lake St. Clair — the heart of the Great Lakes. We must be diligent and cognizant of the health of our heart and arteries to ensure that we keep ticking. That takes a lot of work and cooperation.”

The watershed spans a 760-square-mile area comprising thousands of lakes, ponds, wetlands, marshes and bogs, as well as cold-water tributaries, brooks and streams, all of which drain into Lake St. Clair through the Clinton River.

The place is home to great blue herons, trout, numerous frog and toad species, and many other animals and insects. But there are also 1.5 million people living along its banks, making it the most populated watershed in the state.

The Clinton River watershed spans four counties, including Macomb County, roughly half of Oakland County, and smaller sections of Lapeer and St. Clair counties. The watershed is also part of the Great Lakes Basin, one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world.

The river begins with freshwater streams northwest of Pontiac in Oakland County, and it travels for 81.5 miles through marshes, forests, farmland, cities and parks, crossing both suburban and urban areas en route to Lake St. Clair in Harrison Township. The river and its watershed not only help keep the environment healthy, but people as well, providing opportunities for tourism, boating, fishing and other recreational activities.

Yet the development of nearby land can take its toll.

“The important thing to keep in mind about Clinton River flows, and urban rivers in general, is that it can be flashy, meaning stream flow and depth can increase quickly with heavy rainfall events,” Bobryk said. “The root cause of ‘flashiness’ is the area of impervious surfaces, like roadways, driveways and parking lots, that exist in the watershed. Urban areas will have more impervious surfaces than rural areas and can cause large amounts of water to flow quickly into the river. This surge of stormwater runoff will cause the river to rise very quickly.

“The river is constantly changing, and this characteristic is one of the greatest virtues of a river system. However, where changes occur and how quickly they happen can create challenging situations when private property or infrastructure is involved,” he continued. “The river is constantly trying to find a balance between erosion — moving sediment and soil downstream — and accretion — building up or depositing sediment.

“The rates that we see erosion happening is the most alarming situation,” he said. “This can be tied to the flashiness of the river. When a large slug of water enters the system, there is not much to slow it down, like trees, shrubs, or simply large expanses of green spaces. Floodplains of the river play a critical role in naturally slowing water down and helping recharge the ecological system with nutrients and moisture, but we have lost much of the river’s floodplain due to development.”

One way the CRWC gauges the health of the watershed is by working with the public to sample macroinvertebrates — insects living in the water between rocks, sediment, twigs and leaves. Eric Diesing, a watershed ecologist for the CRWC, explained in an email how it works.

“We collect these aquatic macroinvertebrates, typically in their early stages as larvae, before they can change into their adult bodies, like dragonflies, damselflies or mayflies. These insects are wonderful indicator species for the health of a river, because different species have different tolerances to pollution,” Diesing said.

The insect populations are monitored through the CRWC’s Adopt-A-Stream program, where volunteers trained by the CRWC gather insects and other data from the watershed twice a year — information that helps the CRWC understand changes over time in the ecosystem.

“Today, we find very sensitive species of macro-invertebrates in our headwater streams and several tributaries,” Diesing said. “We even have a dedicated search for the very sensitive winter stoneflies (families Capniidae and Taeniopterygidae) each winter.”

Findings from recent Adopt-A-Stream surveys can be found online at crwc.org.

Diesing said one of the bigger issues impacting river health is the use of coal tar sealants on driveways and other infrastructure. During rainfall, these release polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or  PAHs, which flow into the river with stormwater runoff.

“PAHs can cause many issues for both the environment and human health, and there are readily available alternatives to using a coal tar-based product,” Diesing said.

He noted that other stormwater contaminants include excess nutrients from fertilizers, chemical compounds from car soaps, and even oil and trash from local streets.

“Everyone has a piece of the watershed in their backyards. Whatever enters the storm drain from your property will eventually end up in the river and then Lake St. Clair,” Diesing said. “We can all have an impact by simply cleaning up after ourselves and being mindful of how we dispose of items.”

Michael Eovaldi, a CRWC program assistant, described other ways people can help. There’s the Keeping It Clean program, where the CRWC hosts cleanup events throughout the year. The weekly trash cleanup program, Weekly Clean, takes place every Wednesday 10 a.m.-noon from April through November, with locations changing each week. Upcoming sites can be found at crwc.org/events/volunteer/keeping-it-clean. No registration is necessary, and the CRWC provides volunteers with trash bags, gloves and trash grabbers.

The CRWC also hosts one “Trash Run” each month during the summer, in collaboration with Clinton River Canoe and Kayak. Volunteers paddle down the river, picking up litter from the banks. Registration is required, and more details are available at the website.

On the third Saturday of September, the CRWC hosts a watershed-wide cleanup event called The Clinton Cleanup, made possible through the combined efforts of hundreds of individuals, businesses, local governments and community groups.

“Aside from CRWC-hosted events, we absolutely encourage residents to help clean up on their own,” Eovaldi said in an email. “Picking up litter, even if it is not yours, can make a huge impact on the amount of trash in our watershed, Lake St. Clair and the Great Lakes.”

Residents can visit the website to schedule a group cleanup of their own, with supplies provided by the CRWC.

Bobryk said that preserving the watershed will continue to be a collaborative effort.

“CRWC takes great pride in working with cities, neighborhoods, schools and community leaders to constantly improve the health and vitality of the river,” Bobryk said. “We work with others to ensure all our efforts can reach the diversity of communities throughout the watershed and effect real change in communities that need help the most.”

Individuals and businesses can also support the efforts of the CRWC by donating. Checks can be made out to the Clinton River Watershed Council and mailed to its offices at 115 W. Avon Road, Rochester Hills, MI 48309. Online donations are also accepted by PayPal at the website, crwc.org.

Alternatively, people can call the office at (248) 601-0606 to make a secure donation using a Visa or MasterCard. There are also options to give annually by becoming members, or by sponsoring specific programs such as WaterTowns, Stream Leaders or Adopt-A-Stream.

For more information, visit crwc.org.

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