Safer Waters: Ecological Advocacy and Research at U-M - Detroit River Story Lab

Safer Waters

Ecological Advocacy and Research at U-M

One of the Detroit River Story Lab’s missions is to educate people about the Detroit River’s unique habitats, and to help preserve those habitats for future generations. By doing so, it continues a long tradition of Great Lakes watershed research and activism at the University of Michigan.

Industrial pollution (left) devastated the Detroit River’s ecosystem in the 20th century, but the creation of the Wyandotte National Wildlife Refuge in 1961 initiated a half century of river rescue efforts that have resulted in the rehabilitation of coastal wetlands like Hennepin Marsh (right).

(Left: Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan. Right: Gary Muehlenhardt for USFWS.)

The Detroit River’s Pollution and Reclamation

Although manufacturing and shipping along the Detroit River made both Detroit and the University of Michigan what they are today, economic benefits came at a huge environmental cost. Waste, oil, sewage, and chemicals from Detroit’s factories poured into the Detroit River and its watershed during the 20th century, decimating wildlife. Oil slicks were common occurrences through the 1960s, killing 10,000-20,000 migrating ducks each year. Phosphate detergents over-stimulated aquatic plant growth in the river, throwing its ecosystem out of balance and devastating its formerly robust walleye, perch, sturgeon, and whitefish populations. Pollution of the Detroit River also had severe downstream consequences for Lake Erie, which Time Magazine declared “dead” in 1965.

But the Detroit River’s fortunes began to change in 1961, when Congress created the 394-acre Wyandotte National Wildlife Refuge around Grassy Island (just North of Grosse Ile). In 2001 the Wyandotte Refuge was incorporated into the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge, a pioneering joint project between the United States and Canada to preserve nearly 6,000 acres of islands, coast, and wetlands along 48 miles of shoreline. In 1998 and 2001 respectively, the Detroit River also received American and Canadian Heritage River designations in recognition of its cultural, historical, and environmental significance. All of these efforts brought much-needed attention and funding to the Detroit River’s plight.

Since then, continued efforts have radically restored the Detroit River’s ecosystem. Today, the river and its shores are a cherished location for walking, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and bird-watching. Bald eagles, ospreys, and peregrine falcons can be found in the river’s coastal wetlands, and the fish population has recovered remarkably. Trenton, Michigan–just across from Grosse Ile–is now the “Walleye Capital of the World.”

One of the DRSL’s missions is to educate people about the Detroit River’s unique habitats, and to help preserve those habitats for future generations. By doing so, it continues a long tradition of Great Lakes watershed research and activism at the University of Michigan. The timeline below describes some of these important projects.

Timeline of U-M’s Detroit River Research and Advocacy


George S. Hunt, Associate Professor of Wildlife Management in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources, publishes “Waterfowl losses on the lower Detroit River due to oil pollution.”

Hunt estimates that 10,000-20,000 migrating ducks were killed each year by industrial oil spills along the Detroit River, drawing attention to the river’s dire ecological state.


Jack Van Coevering starts working as a research assistant–and later a professor–in the School of Natural Resources.

Before coming to the University of Michigan, Van Coevering became an expert in environmental issues while serving as the Detroit Free Press’s “outdoor writer” for 35 years. While Van Coevering’s journalism initially focused on recreational hunting and fishing, over the course of his career he grew increasingly concerned about ecological degradation. His articles in the Detroit Free Press and his courses at the University of Michigan frequently drew attention to pesticide pollution in the Detroit River watershed.


Clean water advocate Jonathan W. Bulkley joins the School of Natural Resources as a professor.

Between 1978 and 1983 Bulkley helped oversee the resolution of United States versus City of Detroit, ultimately forcing the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to comply with the 1972 Clean Water Act. As a result of his counsel, the City of Detroit built safer water treatment facilities that protected the Detroit River and downstream areas from excessive contamination. Bulkley also founded and directed several environmental groups at the University of Michigan between 1991 and 2004.: the National Pollution Prevention Center for Higher Education, the Center for Sustainable Systems, and the Corporate Environmental Management Program.


The University of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Commerce establish the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research.

Today, the institute conducts research on topics from algal blooms to ecosystem restoration in the Great Lakes watershed, which includes the Detroit River as a critical link between lakes Huron and Erie.


Professor Ruth Holland conducts research on the zebra mussel’s introduction to Lake Erie via the Detroit River, emphasizing the invasive species’ ecological butterfly effect.

Holland finds that certain algae populations plummeted by 86% after as the zebra mussel took over Western Lake Erie, clearing the way for harmful algal blooms.


University of Michigan researchers join a multi-institution team working to restore lake sturgeon by building rock spawning reefs in the Detroit River and the St. Clair River.

Many of the native sturgeons’ natural spawning areas were destroyed by the construction of shipping channels and by shoreline development. After the project’s completion, researchers observed sturgeon as well as 18 other native fish species spawning on the new reefs, helping restore ecological balance to the Detroit River watershed.


Lake Sturgeon Restoration Project

An initiative through the University’s Sustainability Institute worked to restore Lake Sturgeon reef habitats to protect the species from endangerment and improve the river ecosystem. In this image, stones are deposited to construct a spawning reef near Wyandotte. (Lynn Vaccaro for Michigan Sea Grant.)


University of Michigan researchers pilot a project to build bioretention gardens in the Cody Rouge area of Detroit.

This green infrastructure absorbs stormwater, keeping up to 300,000 gallons of urban runoff out of the River Rouge and the Detroit River.


The Detroit River Story Lab is founded to research and share the Detroit River’s ecological and social histories

While participating in the Detroit River Story Lab’s “Skiff and Schooner” program, Detroit students learn about not only ship construction and buoyancy, but also the Detroit River’s ecology. (Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)


 “About the Refuge.” Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, April 14 2021. Access.

 Beeton, Alfred M. and R. Stephen Schneider. “A Century of Great Lakes Research at the University of Michigan.” Journal of Great Lakes Research 1998, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 495-517.

 “CIGLR: History.” Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, 2022. Access.

 “Detroit River.” Canadian Heritage Rivers System, 2022. Access.

“Detroit River, Michigan.” American Rivers, 2021. Access.

“George Sylvester Hunt.” Faculty History Project. The University of Michigan, 2011. Access.

 Hartig, John H. “The Return of Detroit River’s Charismatic Megafauna.” Center for Humans and Nature, November 17 2014. Access.

 “History of the Refuge.” Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, April 14 2021. Access.

 “Jack Van Coevering: Biography.” Jack Van Coevering Papers: 1928-1978. The Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan, 2022. Access.

 “Jonathan W. Bulkley: Biography.” Jonathan W. Bulkley Papers: 1957-2015. Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan, 2022. Access.

 “Managing Stormwater, Beautifying Neighborhoods.” U-M Detroit. The University of Michigan, June 21 2016. Access. 

 “Restoring Fish Spawning Habitat in the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers.” Graham Sustainability Institute. The University of Michigan, 2022. Access.

Swan, James. “The Detroit River’s Amazing Comeback.” ESPN, June 13 2007. Access.

“Very Young Lake Sturgeon and Artificial Spawning Reefs in the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers.” U-M Detroit. The University of Michigan, May 17 2017. Access.

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M