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fill ‘er up

The Rouge River is an urban river, and its urban character is nowhere better reflected than in its last few miles, after it passes through the campus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Henry Ford’s former estate. As it approaches Michigan Avenue all sense of riverness ends: this is where the Rouge gets harnessed into its concrete straitjacket, and it remains shackled down to where it empties into the Detroit River.

The channel was built in the mid-1970s by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control. We’ll leave the pros, cons, and results of that for another discussion. But, among other things, it was a feat of engineering. Consider these photos from 1971 from Wayne State University’s Virtual Motor City project.

That’s the Ford Rouge complex in the background of the photo above. It’s also in the upper right corner of the photo below, from the Corps, just after the channel was completed.

The Rouge is my urban river, concrete channel and all. Technically, you’re not supposed to walk along it, though it’s not unusual to see walkers and bikers. Although it looks calm enough, the channel is V-shaped and from 15 to 21 feet deep. It’s not particularly steep above the water line, but in places it can be slippery and the current is usually deceptively fast.

Frankly, there isn’t much to see and what you do see is fairly ugly.  It’s amazing to me the amount of plastic detritus I find in the wrack line. Much is unidentifiable plastic bits, but the majority is represented by plastic tampon applicators, followed by disposable lighters, prescription pill bottles, and ball point pens. People, quit flushing non-organic stuff down the toilet! I have also found, not once but twice, er, marital aids*.

Despite the general sterility of concrete, nature perseveres on the channel. Remarkable little ecosystems arise from the cracks and the accumulated debris.  There is also grassy and shrubby vegetation above the concrete banks, and some wooded patches on buffer property. In fact, the efforts of a few of us have managed to accumulate records for 154 bird species.

This stretch of the Rouge lies between two heron colonies, and they frequently fish along the river, as evidenced by this “graffiti.”

Other animals take advantage of vertical surfaces under overpasses to mark their territories.

And there is also evidence of them fishing in the river and creating their own little ecosystems.

This spring is the second wettest on record for Detroit; we’ve already had over 14 inches of rain in the last two months. Last week, the Rouge watershed had about 4 inches in one day. Here’s a typical view of the channel looking north from this point towards a large hotel.

And this was the view when the river crested on 26 May — well over the top of the concrete banks, something I have never seen.

And here is the view from the same overpass, looking downstream.

The river crested at over 5 feet above flood level. The argument could be made that the channel did its job, keeping water more or less within itself, and draining the watershed like a massive flume. On the other hand, just upriver on campus, the natural floodplain also did its job — the one nature intended. If more floodplain remained in the watershed, if far less land had been converted to concrete and other impervious surfaces, this much water would never make it to this point in the river, an enormous “flood control project” would not have been necessary, and a river would be just a little more free.


*Of course I have photos, and good taste is not one of my strong suits, but I think it’s best they remain unpublished. One has to wonder about the backstory, though. Both were inhumanly large (though not the inspiration for the title of this post) and probably could not have made it down the toilet. The first one was found in the general vicinity of an adult book store. It doesn’t take too much imagination — and you’d only want to partake in the minimum amount — to conceive a scenario on how it may have ended up nearby. We found it during a Christmas Bird Count, and took great delight in announcing it at the tally as “dicky bird sp.”  The second one, however, was quite a distance upstream. Further, it was sort of charred looking (a burnt weiner) and appeared thoroughly battered. Hopefully this was due to its arduous journey downstream from wherever it originated, and not [shudder]. Well, if that’s the most disgusting thing I discover urban birding, I’ll consider myself very fortunate.



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