Clinton River goes from most polluted to sought-after recreational hot spot

UTICA, Mich. (WXYZ) - The Clinton River was once the most polluted river in all of Michigan. These days, the river has a new look.

“Look at this, we just cleaned up the river and they’re taking off,” said Jerry Santoro, pointing to a native Paw Paw tree as he kayaked down the river near Sterling Heights.

The trees bear a fruit that looks similar to a banana, since the river cleanup began several years back they’ve begun to produce more and more fruit. Mulberries can be snagged as you maneuver around long bends. It almost feels like you’ve escaped to the Upper Peninsula in your own backyard.

While kayaking the river to get a first-hand look at the comeback the county has declared, 7 Action News spotted blue heron, beavers, ducks and plenty of fish -- the litter that once peppered the shoreline seems to have vanished.

Dating back six years, more than $20 million has been invested between federal, state and local funds in Macomb County alone. The river has received even more money when you look at its footprint throughout the region. That money has gone towards fixing up banks, removing old trees that had fallen into the river and cleaning up dump sites.

Several decades ago there were more than 40 unregulated dumpsites along the Clinton River — in recent years the DEQ has gotten involved cleaning up the areas.

The biggest problem that had to be handled was the effects of the Emerald Ash Borer. The insect is well-known for decimating trees, killing off entire forests. Along the river, the Ash Borer had killed so many trees that many had fallen into the river and created blockages that made it impossible for kayakers to make it through the river.

In the past few years, dozens of blockages have been removed, making it possible to freely maneuver the entire 42-mile stretch through Macomb County, only exiting once to get around a dam.

“Once we did that, you started to see the natural ecology of the river return,” said Santoro, a planning manager for Macomb County that oversees land and water resources. “You start to see the riffles, gravel beds and sandbars return within a season or so.”

A big part of the comeback of the river coincided with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Back in 2011, a remedial action plan was launched to continue the work to bring the river back to life. That included a more exhaustive look at how storm water drains into the water table — it also has local governments looking at new standards of storm water treatment before it empties into the river during large rain events, an issue that has lead to treated sewer water making it into the river in the past.

So far, the river has bounced back with some of the largest spawning seasons of walleye and an increased presence of fish like salmon and trout.

“People kind of sit back, relax and say, ‘I can’t believe this is in Macomb County,’” said John Paul Rea, Macomb County’s Director Department of Planning and Economic Development. “When you get in the corridor of trees and see the terrain it’s an environment you wouldn’t expect to see. We’ve got a natural asset, here.”

Companies like Clinton River Canoe & Kayak Rentals have been working along the river for years. Its owner said that the recreation on the river has spiked as more landings have been built throughout Macomb County, and as the river has bounced back so has business. He said in the past year, he’s witnessed as many as 300 kayakers on the river on a given day.

Those who make the trip can pick 1 hour, 2 hour, or even 3+ hour rides depending on their desire. They’re treated to woods and wildlife views with the occasional bend right under a major road reminding you that you’re merely minutes from some of Michigan’s largest cities.

“It’s hard to believe that this was considered the most polluted river in the state of Michigan about 14-15 years ago,” said Santoro. “Now we’re seeing that it’s an incredible river. It’s very scenic.”

If you’re interested in getting a first-hand view of the work, the folks that rent kayak trips can be reached online.

Santoro said for those interested in getting involved with helping the ecology of the river, homeowners can do a lot by simply retro-fitting their storm drain hook-up on their own property. They’ve put out a simple to follow how-to guide available to download online.

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