History of the Detroit River RAP

Detroit River Significance

The Detroit River has served an important role in the history of the Windsor-Detroit area and is one of the busiest waterways in the world; connecting Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron to the St. Lawrence Seaway. The River is designated an American Heritage River and a Canadian Heritage River, the only river to have this dual designation.

When the Windsor-Detroit area underwent rapid industrialization at the turn of the 20th century, the Detroit River became notoriously polluted. Issues facing the Detroit River are combined sewer overflows, urbanization and land use or degradation of habitat and toxic contaminants such as mercury, PCBs, PAHs and metals in the water and sediment. These environmental issues have been identified as being related to, or the cause of, the impairment of several beneficial uses.

Detroit River Historical Photo Gallery

 “The Solution to Pollution is Dilution”

In the early era of industrialization it was often thought that the “solution to pollution is dilution”. If waste products were simply dumped into the river, they would be diluted and carried away. There was little understanding of the significant long-term negative environmental and health impact this would have.

Concentrations of pollutants collected around the mouth of the Detroit River at Lake Erie after the spring thaw were so high that thousands of migrating birds were killed by oil slicks and oxygen levels were so depleted fish disappeared. The lake was soon to be considered ‘dead’. Heavy metals and other toxins accumulated in the river and lake bed where fish, reptiles, and amphibians were feeding, breeding, and hibernating. These accumulated toxins lead to severe health issues for the wildlife populations.

 Cleaning up the Detroit River

The impacts on wildlife were a sure sign of potential health impacts on the area’s human inhabitants as well. People started to speak out and take action to stop the pollution and start clean up efforts. In 1970, the entire fishing industry in the Detroit River, as well as in the St Clair River, Lake St Clair, and Lake Erie was closed due to toxic levels of mercury. The 1970s and 1980s saw the development of a massive conservation effort aimed at cleaning up the Detroit River.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) between Canada and the United States, first signed in 1972, commits both countries to protect and restore the Great Lakes Ecosystem.

The Detroit River Canadian Cleanup implements the Remedial Action Plan on behalf of a community-based partnership between the government (federal, provincial, municipal), local industries, researchers, environmental organizations, and citizens working together to protect, restore, and enhance the Detroit River ecosystem.

 SOS – Saving our Strait Gallery

In 2014, An exhibit was designed for Windsor’s Community Museum that depicts the last 60 years of history surrounding the Detroit River. From its role in facilitating the industrialization of Windsor and Detroit, to the Great Lake Water Quality Agreement, to the many people who have come together in partnership to clean it up, the Detroit River has a rich and vibrant story to tell. A preview of the exhibit was displayed in the Leddy Library foyer at the University of Windsor during the month of February. During that time, over 104,000 people came through the library and bookmarks were distributed to staff and students at the circulation desk. Posters and bookmarks were also distributed to libraries in Windsor and Essex County and the response was encouraging!

Get Involved!

From tree plantings and clean ups, to advocacy and education programs, CLICK HERE to find out how you can be involved with protecting and enhancing the Detroit River.