Detroit – Greening for Stormwater

Stormwater management is one of Detroit’s biggest challenges, and several efforts are underway to use green infrastructure to help address the problem. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), which represents more than 150 local governments in Southeast Michigan, is working to expand green infrastructure and maximize its benefits in the region. It has collaborated with the city and The Greening of Detroit to identify where trees and other types of green infrastructure can be planted and constructed to slow down and absorb stormwater runoff, which contributes to the pollution of the Great Lakes.

William G. Milliken State Park stormwater treatment system along the Detroit RiverWalk. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region

William G. Milliken State Park stormwater treatment system along the Detroit RiverWalk. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region

One of the efforts SEMCOG is involved in is helping identify locations for green infrastructure to help restore and protect the Rouge River watershed, which covers 48 different communities in three counties. In the 1980s, the Rouge River was designated an Area of Concern by the International Joint Commission because of the impact the watershed has on the Great Lakes. Since then, many efforts have been undertaken to address myriad problems — combined sewage overflow (CSO), pollution, erosion and more — facing the Rouge River. While groups like the Alliance of Rouge Communities have found some success with rain gardens, rain barrels and basin disconnect programs, CSO and stormwater runoff are issues still impacting the watershed. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was focused on gray infrastructure solutions to its CSO problems, but when financial crisis hit Detroit in the late 2000s, the city could no longer ask, nor rely on, its citizens to foot the bill for expensive gray infrastructure projects. The department revised its plans and began including green infrastructure as a solution, which is when SEMCOG became involved.[1]

“We’re working with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on how they can put in green infrastructure to achieve a 20 percent reduction of stormwater inflow into the system” to meet permit requirements, says Amy Mangus, SEMCOG’s manager of plan implementation. This work will help “a small portion of the watershed on the west side of the city.”

Some of the types of green infrastructure that will be used under the initiative include tree planting, which is being done by The Greening of Detroit; replacing pavement with greenery in vacant lots; and installing shrubs, trees and other plants along roadways and on municipal lands, Mangus says. The funding for the projects comes from the sewer rates paid to the city, she adds.

Green infrastructure may also be used in a separate effort to control overflows on the east side of Detroit. “We are just finalizing a grant agreement with the state of Michigan to partner again with the utility to develop a green infrastructure plan for the east side of Detroit,” she says. “There are nine uncontrolled combined sewer overflows there — nine direct outflows. And there’s so much opportunity there with all the vacant land.”

But because of Michigan’s strict water-quality rules, conventional gray infrastructure also will need to be used in both initiatives, Mangus adds. “This is unlike some other states that follow EPA guidance that allows some untreated overflows. The difference in Michigan compared to other places is that Michigan’s water-quality standards do not allow for any untreated discharges into waters of the state,” she explains. “So there needs to be a mechanism in place for gray infrastructure.”

SEMCOG is also working on a big-picture plan for green infrastructure in southeast Michigan. “We’re mapping land cover for the whole region, and we’ll be doing various types of analysis of that data to develop a vision of green infrastructure,” Mangus says. The project, funded by a grant from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regional sustainability planning program, will be completed in about a year.

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[1] Natural Resources Defense Council. Water. Rooftops to Rivers II. (accessed Sept. 17, 2012).