Cronies of the Rouge

By Joel Thurtell

I was tromping alongside the Rouge River in Detroit last spring with Sally Petrella, public outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Friends of the Rouge. We were looking for junk cars that people have dumped in the river. In October 2005, the Detroit Free Press ran a series by Freep photographer Patricia Beck and me about our 27-mile canoe trip up the Rouge. Our stories and photos showed junk cars among the trash that has been dumped in the Rouge.

Since then, FOTR has tried to remove them. Every spring since 2006, Sally and I have made this jaunt as I consulted my canoe trip log and located cars to be removed. It appears that as of  last June, Friends of the Rouge will have yanked 21.5 cars from the river or from the floodplain nearby.

I think it’s great that most of the derelict cars are gone. But it doesn’t change the basic fact that in 1985, government environmental officials promised to make the Rouge “swimmable and fishable” by 2005, and that in 2005,  E. coli data showed the river is swimmable at best 5 percent of the time. I’ve made that point several times, both in Free Press articles and in the book Pat Beck and I co-authored for Wayne State University Press: Up the Rouge! Paddling Detroit’s Hidden River.

Swimmable 5 percent of the time, at best? That is not good enough, and yanking junk cars won’t make it better. That abysmal statistic did not stop one Rouge official, James Ridgeway, from declaring a year ago that the mission was accomplished and the Rouge is–in his estimation–“swimmable and fishable.”

Anyway, as Sally and I walked along, chatting about birds and cars, our conversation switched to “Measuring the Rouge”, the title of an article I wrote for the December 10, 2008 Metro Times.

In the months since that article was published, I gathered that some environmental authorities were not happy with my findings. One of my main points: Ostensibly because of money shortages, the people who make decisions about how our environment will be protected have seriously reduced measurement of the vital signs of the Rouge River. Readings for levels of dissolved oxygen that were funded by Wayne County and physically made by hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey ended last November. USGS hydrological technician Robert Howell told me the decision was made by ECT, a contractor for Wayne County and also the contractor that administers the Alliance of Rouge Communities, a consortium of Wayne County and local communities whose aim is to expedite approval of storm water discharge permits.

I reported the end of DO measurements in my Metro Times article. I also reported how the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality dramatically reduced measuring for E. coli, an indicator of toilet waste in the river, at the end of 2005.

Sally bristled when I mentioned the end to measuring. She countered that the Rouge is “the most-measured river in the country. There are a billion points of measurement from the Rouge,” she told me. After a certain point, she said, it became clear that things were not changing, so why keep doing the measurements?

First of all, that is quite an admission of failure, to say things aren’t changing so why bother with science.

Secondly, the lack of data goes deeper than simply killing the studies. Would you like to see data collected by Friends of the Rouge?  Would you like to do your own study of FOTR studies? Forget it. They’re a nonprofit, and claim exemption from Michigan sunshine laws. Friends of the Rouge recently denied my Michigan Freedom of Information Act request on grounds that they’re a private institution and not subject to disclosure. They’ll study the Rouge, but don’t you dare try to study them.

But back to measurements: Here’s why we should keep on monitoring: If this river and others are to be cleaned of toilet and industrial waste, we need continuous measurement of pollutants. We need science, not guess work. We need precision, not rule-of-thumb. We need honest, straightforward, journeyman investigations, not hype and propaganda founded on wishful thinking.

Or–maybe–attempts to justify hefty contracts with private firms like ECT that failed in the mission of making the Rouge fit for recreation.

Why do we need to monitor dissolved oxygen? Because fish and other aquatic animals need oxygen to live. Take oxygen away, even for a few hours, and life vanishes in the river.

I can think of only one reason for stopping those DO measurements: Somebody doesn’t want more bad news.

Oh, I know, the authorities will tell you dissolved oxygen is the big success story of the Rouge.  That’s what they say. If that’s so, why quit collecting data? Data are evidence.

Why stomp out the basis for knowledge about the health of the Rouge?

I was told it’s expensive. But I don’t buy the argument that it costs too much.

Here’s how much the USGS charged Wayne County and ARC for DO studies between 2001-2008:

2001, $121,000

2002, $130,170

2003, $135,120

2004, $131,480

2005, $136,840

2006, $45,976

2007, $29,850

2008, $118,700

I received this information from Steve Blumer of USGS.

Note, please, that governments had — by Wayne County’s estimate — spent $1.6 billion as of summer 2008 on fixing the Rouge.

A billion six!

That’s a lot of moolah.

A total of $729,136 has been spend over eight years on measuring dissolved oxygen in the Rouge. That’s an average of $91,142 a year.

The claim that there’s no money is just plain bull.

No money for DO, but ARC budgeted $40,000-plus early this year to pay Friends of the Rouge for its annual frog/toad/bug hunt. And ARC earmarked another roughly $20,000 for the engineering firm Camp, Dresser, McKee to help FOTR with the study. Sixty grand.

According to University of Michigan-Dearborn geology Prof. Kent Murray, the bug hunt is a non-scientific study conducted by volunteers and intended to measure, impressionistically, how well the river supports life.

How is it that Wayne County, which provides 50 percent of ARC’s funding and a co-chair, can support a bug hunt but won’t fund continued disssolved oxygen measurements?

ARC’s budget for 2009 was roughly $900,000, about the same as last year. Funny how it can make room for Friends of the Rouge, but not for the USGS dissolved oxygen study.

If USGS had an employee on FOTR’s board, it might make a difference. For years, Friends of the Rouge has had as a board member and sometimes chair an employee of the main Rouge contractor, ECT. That person has been either ECT vice president and now ARC director Jim Ridgeway or ECT employee Zachare Ball. Ridgeway is the man who stood before a group at the University of Michigan-Dearborn in October 2008 and declared the Rouge to be “swimmable and fishable.”

That’s right, the same people running ARC have their hands in management at Friends of the Rouge.

The picture is coming together. The data are not showing improvements in the river’s health. Therefore, spike the data.

ARC, which is run by ECT, hands money to Friends of the Rouge, influenced by ECT. An official of Friends of the Rouge then goes for a walk with the only public critic of the official unmeasuring scheme and tries to spin him a line about how killing data collection makes sense.

I’m not buying their line.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)

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3 Responses to Cronies of the Rouge

  1. fiona lowther says:

    How many people reading Joel on the Road would pay for a subscription to a daily newspaper that covered the Great Lakes and published watchdog stories about the condition of our environment, including our aquatic environment, instead of allocating print space for and giving major coverage to Tiger Woods’ sex life?
    The Windsor Star gives its readers more information on the Detroit River and the Great Lakes than our Detroit “dailies” do. And God bless the Star for doing so.
    The only major reportorial watchdog besides the Windsor Star (and Metro Times) is One man — Joel Thurtell — is singlehandedly pursuing information on the condition of our waterways, and giving residents of the riparian area crucial information about conditions that affect our health and our environment.
    Joel Thurtell would like more hours to have a life of his own; he is a magnificent writer who would like more time to write more books following in the wake of his “Up the Rouge!” and “Seydou’s Christmas Tree.” But he cares about people and he cares about the environment — and he definitely cares about what happens to Michigan’s waterways. So he is torn between taking the time to write his books and taking the time to check on and research and
    keep an eye on the condition of the Detroit River and the Rouge River. (Not to mention keeping the other eye on the nefarious schemes of one Matty Moroun — schemes that also adversely affect this area’s residents.)
    If Joel writes books, he can sell them and earn a living. But there are just too few hours in the day; if he takes the time to write those books, there’s no time for watchdog work — which is nonpaying.
    This reader has in the past complained strongly and told Joel that his blog shouldn’t be a vehicle to promote his books (even if those books DO make great Christmas gifts); that readers don’t want him to be a shill; they want information — with some entertainment thrown in.
    Well, this reader is going to cross the line and be a shill for Joel’s work — his blog work.
    To all those who read Joel’s blog: If you’ve ever paid for a subscription to a daily paper, please pay for a “subscription” to It needn’t be a lot — even if you contribute just a dollar now and then, that will help feed the kitty, but more importantly, it will prove to Joel that the time he spends being a watchdog is not wasted, but utilized by his readers. It will encourage him to continue and will reassure him that the time he spends away from his income-producing book-writing is worthwhile — very worthwhile.
    Because if we lose Joel’s voice, how will we know what’s going on that affects our health and our lives?
    Send a dollar, send five dollars, send ten dollars. I know Christmas is coming, I know the economy is in the toilet, I know too many of us have lost our jobs. (I have.) But do it. Do it anyway. Do it right now. (I just did.) And if, after the holidays, you have an extra dollar or two, do it again. It’s one of the few things we CAN do that can make a difference.
    Just click on the DONATE icon at the top of this column, follow the directions — and Keep Joel on the Road!

  2. Citizen says:

    I’m not sure how attacking FOTR is helpful or even relevant to the lack of continuation of testing. If I understand this correctly, testing for DO was funded by Wayne Co. The county, no matter how they routed the money, contracted with, or listened to, is responsible for the decision to quit doing it.

    If the taxpayers want their money to go to more testing, they need to be informed and active citizens and apply pressure to the county. The FOTR has a solid track record of heightening awareness of the problems of the Rouge and getting thousands of citizens informed and involved in the health of the river. An argument can certainly be made that funding a bug hunt is not as important as continuing testing — but it is through these types of activities that FOTR has reached out to citizens, gotten them out on the river, and increased awareness.

    I don’t know if there are problems with the board structure that might make it difficult for FOTR to encourage their members and supporters to lean on the county for more testing. But it seems like you should consider FOTR an ally in enlightening the public (which I think and hope is what you are trying to do here) not an enemy.

  3. What else is new? says:

    Doesn’t surprise me at all, in the era of our illustrious ex-mayor of Detroit, that FOTR is rife with cronyism and conflicts of interest.

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