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Watershed Progress: Rouge River
Watershed, Michigan

Since 1991, the U.S. EPA has been promoting the watershed approach as a mechanism to achieve the next generation of water protection. The focus on watersheds, or drainage areas, provides people living there a meaningful context in which to identify problems and solutions. Below is a description of the Rouge River Watershed where the watershed approach is making a difference.

"Historically, we could point to industries and municipalities as the major contributors. Now we recognize that as individuals we must change our behavior if water quality standards are to be achieved...The citizens of Southeast Michigan deserve a river which is safe and clean for our children and our future."

Jim Murray, Director,
Wayne County Department of the Environment


The System


The Stresses


The Sources


The Strategy


Measures of Success


EPA's Role


The System

The Rouge Watershed comprises 467 square miles, including parts of 3 counties, 48 municipalities and 1.5 million people. The River itself is 127 miles long, has four main branches, and many tributaries. Located in southeastern Michigan, the watershed contains the most densely populated and urbanized land area in the state, including major portions of Detroit. The river empties into the Detroit River which connects Lakes St. Clair and Erie. Much of the river is surrounded by parkland, making it highly accessible to the public.

The State designated uses for the Rouge River are: water contact recreation; warm water fishery; industrial and agricultural water supply; commercial and recreational navigation (e.g., canoeing); and general aesthetic. For a number of years and in many parts of the river, these designated uses were not being met in dry or wet conditions. The International Joint Commission in the Great Lakes designated the Rouge River as one of the Areas of Concern due to its highly polluted condition. There have been fish consumption advisories in place and the county health department has prohibited total body contact at certain times.

Using the watershed approach the residents of the Rouge River have instituted a large number of actions to address the degraded water quality. As a result of those efforts the Rouge River is well on its way to recovery.

The Stresses

Because the Rouge River Watershed is the drainage system for a heavily urbanized area, one would expect discharges from industrial and wastewater treatment plants to be the major stresses to the system. These, however, have been effectively controlled under the State's wastewater permits system. The main remaining stressors to the system come from what is called "wet weather pollution" such as combined sewer overflows (CSOs), sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs), storm water runoff plus sources such as discharges from failed on-site systems, and discharges from illicit connections. In addition, loss of habitat and wide variations in stream flow all stressed the river's ecosystem. The result was a degraded river.

The Sources

The completed CSO basin in the City of Inkster protects water quality and provides recreational opportunities for area residents.

  The early focus of the Rouge Project (see below description) was on the control of CSOs in the watershed. As a finite number of point source CSO discharges could be identified and responsibility for each defined, the traditional regulatory approach of issuing NPDES permits mandating corrective action worked relatively well. Additional monitoring of the river showed that the other sources of pollution such as industrial and municipal point sources, storm water runoff, discharges from illicit connections, discharges from failed on-site septic systems, and SSOs, needed to be controlled before full restoration of the river would be achieved throughout the watershed.

The Strategy

The Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project (Rouge Project) is a working example of how a systematic watershed approach to pollution management can result in cost-effective and ultimately greater and faster achievement of designated uses in a water body. The Rouge Project was initiated in 1992 by the Department of the Environment, Wayne County, Michigan. This cooperative effort between federal, state and local agencies is supported by multi-year federal grants from the United States Environmental Protection Agency and additional funding from local communities.

The first focus was on CSO controls which are being implemented in three phases as established through NPDES permits:

  • Phase I - elimination of raw sewage and the protection of public health for approximately 40 percent of the combined sewer area
  • Phase II - public health protection for the remaining combined sewer area
  • Phase III - meet water quality standards in the Rouge River

Under Phase I, six communities have separated their sewers and eight communities have constructed 10 retention treatment basins. Each of these basins is sized for different design storms and several employ innovative technology. Facilities also incorporate a variety of additional features or variations in compartment sizing and sequencing in an effort to improve their effectiveness.

It is very important to note that all six of the CSO treatment facilities that have completed their evaluation have been certified by MDEQ for meeting the State's criteria of the elimination of raw sewage and the protection of public health. The certification for the remaining basins is expected.

Based upon what was learned through the monitoring program, the focus of the Rouge Project became more holistic to consider the impacts from all sources of pollution and use impairments in a receiving water. This watershed management method is based on the use of a cooperative, locally based approach to pollution control. Using the watershed approach requires such tools as a comprehensive sampling and monitoring program, various water quality and water quantity modeling tools, data management and a geographic information system. The Rouge Project has aggressively invested in these tools in order to develop the necessary holistic watershed management strategy. These innovative, readily transferable tools are being shared with other cities and state agencies. Use of the watershed approach has proven to be very efficient and cost effective in dealing with wet weather issues.

At the heart of the watershed management approach being used in the Rouge Watershed is the Michigan NPDES General Storm Water Permit. This voluntary permit establishes the process for developing watershed management plans to address the control of storm water and other sources of pollution.

The General Permit requires permittee to develop:

  • Watershed Management Plan developed in cooperation with others, to resolve water quality concerns. The Plan would include: short and long-term goals for the watershed, delineation of actions needed to achieve the goals, estimated benefits and costs of management options, an opportunity for all stakeholders to participate in the process. The Watershed Management Plan is due two years after the certificate of coverage is issued to the applicant.
  • Illicit Discharge Elimination Plan (IDEP) that has the goal of eliminating raw sewage discharges and includes addressing failing septic systems and improper connections of sanitary sewers to storm drains and open waterways. The IDEP is due at the time of permit application.
  • Public Education Plan (PEP) designed to inform residents and businesses what actions they should take to protect the river. The PEP is due at the time of permit application.
  • Storm Water Pollution Prevention Initiative (SWPPI) which includes evaluation and implementation of pollution prevention and good housekeeping practices and the evaluation and implementation of BMPs to minimize impacts of new development and redevelopment. The SWPPI is a subset of the Watershed Management Plan and is due 2.5 years after the certificate of coverage is issued to the applicant.
  • Monitoring and Reporting Plan including schedule for revisions to the Watershed Management Plan.

Over 40 communities in the Rouge River watershed have submitted storm water permit applications. The seven subwatershed management plans have been developed under the permit. The Subwatershed Advisory Groups (SWAGs) have made noteworthy progress in the development and implementation of those plans. They have:

  • developed their public participation plans,
  • established short term and long term goals for protecting and/or restoring the River,
  • developed information on the nature and status of the subwatershed,
  • developed actions to be taken to achieve the short term and long term goals,
  • assesses management alternatives,
  • developed actions to be taken to achieve the short term and long term goals.

The 40 communities and the three counties are now developing their SWPPIs for submittal to the MDEQ. These are due in December 2001. Upon approval by the MDEQ, the communities and counties will then begin the implementation of the required actions.

The Rouge River Project has learned a great deal about what it takes to restore an urban waterway to its beneficial uses. Using the various tools of the watershed approach, the Rouge River Project stands as a model in pollution management based upon the results to date. Seven subwatershed plans have been developed. These plans identify alternative steps needed to address remaining problems associated with storm water, combined and sanitary sewers overflows, failing septic systems, and non-point sources. Communities and agencies have already taken actions to address concerns from excessive runoff caused by new development and are planning projects to correct existing flow problems in already developed areas impacting habitat and riparian properties in the watershed. Specific measures have been identified that will help determine whether or not the actions underway and planned will achieve the short term goals. It is fully expected that achieving the long-term goals for full restoration of the Rouge River will require a series of iterative steps over several years. However, the goals, action steps, and measures tailored to individual subwatersheds have established a strong foundation to guide existing and future cooperative efforts to fully restore the impaired uses of the river.


"This is a huge undertaking. But we're doing it, and it's going to work. We are going to see the day when we can take boat rides up and down the river again, where it's safe for swimming, and fish are going to come upriver to spawn. The progress we've made in the last five years is fantastic. But we're only at the 20-yard line. We have a long way to go."

William Clay Ford Jr., Chairman of
the Ford Motor Company

Measures of Success

The Rouge Project is a working demonstration of a watershed-wide approach to restoring and protecting an urban river system by using a cooperative, locally-based approach to pollution control. The watershed management tools developed by the Rouge Project have aided decision-makers and the general public in evaluating options for preventing, reducing and minimizing pollution loading impacts on the Rouge River. The Rouge watershed management tools facilitate the prioritization and tailoring of pollution control and ecosystem restoration solutions to specific river reaches while coordinating efforts throughout the watershed.

The Rouge Project approach demonstrates that a watershed can be "managed." Key to the success of watershed management is the active participation of local units of government.

The Rouge Project has resulted not only in concrete and steel structures, but also in real institutional changes that integrate the work of storm water and watershed improvement into the basic institutions of government.

As a result of the CSO control program to date, 130 miles of stream are now free of CSO discharges. All of the completed basins are controlling CSOs at a rate of about 4 billion gallons per year. The aesthetics of the river are greatly improved. Also, there are more sightings of larger and more diverse species of fish. And finally, the recreational use of the River is expanding at an increasing rate. This success can be attributed to CSO controls, illicit connection elimination, a multitude of other Rouge Project programs including developing better public, industry and community awareness of pollution control and prevention. The basic tenet of the Rouge Project's very effective public information and program based is the concept that each citizen has the right to expect clean water from their upstream neighbor and are also expected to assure that their downstream neighbor is given the same courtesy.

The most important measure of success is that the water quality in the Rouge River continues to show significant improvement as the watershed management plans are being implemented. For example, during the year 2000 the long-term monitoring network showed steady improvements with the water quality being at the best levels in decades. For example, in the lower Rouge the mean dissolved oxygen (DO) increased from 4.5 mg/l in 1994 to almost 7.0 mg/l in 2000. The percent of DO readings that violated the State water quality standard of 5 mg/l dropped from 61 percent in 1994 to less than 4 percent in 2000. Similar improvements occurred at all stations in the watershed. It is important to note that these figures are for the entire year during wet and dry periods. This clearly reflects the benefits of the watershed management strategies that have been aimed at controlling both dry and wet weather pollution sources in the watershed.

For more information, visit the Rouge Project web site at

EPA's Role

EPA has awarded several grants to Wayne County for the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project. EPA Region 5 has been actively involved with all aspects of the Rouge Project. For more information on EPA's involvement, contact EPA Region 5 at (312) 353-2147.

Nationally, EPA has been reorienting its programs and developing tools to facilitate the watershed approach since 1991. For more information on the watershed approach, please contact the EPA at Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds, 401 M Street, S.W. 4501F, Washington, DC 20460 (Attention: Watershed Outreach Coordinator) or visit us on the world wide web at

Watershed Progress: Rouge River Watershed, Michigan

Last Updated: 11/20/01

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The Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project is funded, in part, by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Grants #XP995743-01, -02, -03, -04, -05, -06, -07 and C-264000-01.