CMF Editorial Correspondent
As Detroit continues to find new and innovative ways to emerge as a prosperous, economically viable city in the coming decades, protecting its precious urban waterways is a necessary and integral component of realizing that success, says the Sierra Club’s Great Lakes Program Director.
Melissa Damaschke says it will take a unified effort by residents, businesses, foundations, schools and government to protect the municipality’s freshwater ecosystem to ensure Detroit and its environs emerge as a local and regional success.
“It’s all intertwined and we need to take the necessary steps now to protect these vital natural resources,” Damaschke told a recent gathering of foundation leaders at the Detroit Area Grantmakers (DAG) meeting held at the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle.
The Great Lakes hold one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water supply and currently provide drinking water to over 42 million people,” notes Damaschke.
“Yet each day, our lakes are damaged economically and ecologically by untreated sewage, industrial pollutants, habitat loss and invasive species. Climate change will only make these problems worse. Unless we invest in a solution today, the price we pay tomorrow will be much higher and future generations may never experience the lakes as we know them.
One major step toward protecting the Great Lakes – and the inter-connected Detroit waterways – would be for foundation leaders and others to support state and federal governments’ implementation of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy, she says.
“This is a comprehensive plan to restore and protect the Great Lakes,” shares Damaschke. “By implementing this plan, we will increase the resiliency and functioning of the Great Lakes ecosystem, protecting our communities and our environment from the worst impacts of global warming.
“In addition, we will address many of the problems that affect our use and enjoyment of the Great Lakes.”
Meanwhile, on a more micro-level, Damaschke told the grantmakers that one focus of change should be on how the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Facility – the largest discharger in the Great Lakes basin, including the Detroit River – operates.
“This plant processes between 700 million and 1 billion gallons of municipal and industrial wastewater every day,” reports Damaschke, adding that Detroit officials report scores of sewage overflows each year.
“A combined sewage overflow often happens during and after wet weather events, when rainwater or melting snow overloads many combined sewer systems. In such instances, large volumes of untreated domestic sewage and industrial wastewater flow directly into local water bodies.”
Damaschke points out that in the Detroit area, combined sewage overflows are more likely to contain industrial waste in concentrations that have the potential to negatively impact water quality.
“According to the U.S. EPA, the facility has lenient oil and grease pretreatment limits. In the event of a combined sewage overflow, the pretreated material that bypasses the facility is discharged in the Detroit and Rouge rivers and may contain industrial waste, including oil, grease and other materials.
Responding to grantmakers’ questions on how the philanthropic field can help in the effort to protect Detroit’s urban waterways, Damaschke suggests advocating to their local and state government officials to utilize the Great Lakes Legacy Act to clean-up contaminated sites.
“Local and state governments must come up with a local cost share and must get projects ready to go in order to take advantage of Legacy Act funding and keep these clean-up projects afloat.”
Also, foundations can support efforts that focus on energy efficiency, conservation and the development of cleaner, renewable sources of energy, she says. “Protect local habitats!
Additionally, and at a more “local-local level,” foundations can help get the word out to Detroit area residents to use native and/or non-invasive plants in their gardens; participate in or organize local restoration efforts; and encourage residents to participate in city or county comprehensive planning efforts to encourage smart growth principles.
John M. Erb, president of the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, says Damaschke’s presentation presented a wealth of environmentally friendly ideas “to help in the overall effort to revitalize Detroit.
At the end of the DAG event, about two dozen foundation attendees joined CMF staff members on a two-hour, informative kayaking adventure on the waterways around Belle Isle, including the Detroit River.
Organizational support for this program and generous sponsorship of the informative kayaking adventure came from the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation. The kayak tour was led by Riverside Kayak Connection, a local kayak tour operator based out of Wyandotte. The adventurous group – led by CMF’s Director of Learning Services Deb Palms – enjoyed the leisurely experience taking in the beauty, fauna and fun of the island’s scenic views from the water.
“This is a wonderful experience for everyone…and gives us a unique view of Detroit and Belle Isle that we wouldn’t normally get a chance to enjoy,” says Palms, who then swiftly paddled away.
# # #