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Issues of the Environment: Assessing the health of the watershed in advance of Huron River Day 2024

Rebecca Esselman
Huron River Watershed Council
Rebecca Esselman


  • This April, the Huron River Watershed received a grade from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, the global leader in developing watershed report cards. The indicators evaluated in the report card are environmental, social, and economic.  (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.hrwc.org/huron-river-report-card/)

  • The Huron took home a C+, showing the health of the watershed as “moderate.” “On the one hand, it shows lots of room for improvement. On the other hand, I am certain that if this effort were completed 30 or 40 years ago, it would illustrate just how far we’ve come.” “I think that we are in a recovery chapter in this region from a very heavy industrial past,” said Rebecca Esselman, Huron River Watershed Council executive director. “If we would have done this report card 20 or 30 years ago, we would have seen much lower grades across the watersheds in the region.” (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2024/04/the-1st-river-report-cards-are-in-and-washtenaw-county-waterways-have-some-work-to-do.html)

  • The 125-mile Huron and its network of 1,200 miles of tributaries were the top performers out of five southeast Michigan watersheds evaluated through the scoring exercise, which also included river systems covering metro Detroit. 
  • The Huron River has made great strides in addressing some pollutants in part because the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, which addressed point source pollution (pollution released to the river in pipes), and the Michigan Natural Rivers Act kept critical lands for water quality, undeveloped. However, other pollutants (like PFAS) dragged the Huron's score down. And Rebecca says the gravest concern for the Huron river system is the likelihood that there are hazardous chemicals in the water that are not yet recognized (or regulated) as being damaging to human health or the aquatic environment. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.hrwc.org/huron-river-report-card/)

  • Rebecca says, "Where we are not doing as well is largely where new threats have surfaced. Ever-expanding impervious surfaces from urbanization (and shrinking forests and wetlands), along with increased rainfall due to climate change, lead to increased flooding and its resulting costs. Bacteria in our waterways show we have a long way to go to combat the offending sources, which include septic systems, overflows in our wastewater systems, and domestic and wild animal waste. Our fish consumption score shows the mark of PFAS in our watershed. While it is safe to consume some fish from some isolated lakes, gains we made as we recovered from mercury and PCB contamination of fish in the 70s and 80s have been lost to new classes of chemicals. If we are not careful and we do not actively protect remaining natural lands and build our river’s resilience to the impacts of climate change, we will see the grades associated with ecosystems decline. Now is not the time to ease up.” (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.hrwc.org/huron-river-report-card/)

  • Huron River Day is Sunday, May 19th, 2024. This free family-oriented event will be at Island Park, 1420 Island Drive in Ann Arbor, Sunday, May 19, noon-4 p.m. Live music, food vendors, representatives from Ann Arbor nonprofits and organizations who are interested in the river, and nature walks and a mobile river learning station. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and the water may still be a bit chilly, but it's about time to start hitting the river again. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. Huron River Day will be held this Sunday, May 19th at Island Park as the unofficial start to another year of fun in the sun and in the water. It's also a good time to take another look at the health of the Huron River. Who better to help us with that than Rebecca Esselman? Rebecca is executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, and thanks for the time. And a early Happy Huron River day to you!

Rebecca Esselman: Hello, David. It's good to be here.

David Fair: I imagine you're looking forward to the weekend and Huron River Day.

Rebecca Esselman: I am. It's a really fun, family-friendly event that happens every year on the banks of the Huron River in Ann Arbor. And there's usually lovely weather, local food vendors, nature-themed exhibits, lots of children's activities. People tend to walk or bike or run to the event because so many people live by. And, yeah, it's just a really fun weekend activity for a family.

David Fair: We'll talk more about Huron River Day in a bit, but I do want to talk about the assessment of the Huron River Watershed and its health. A great deal of work is done throughout the year internally. I was fascinated to learn that watersheds in Michigan were recently graded by an external source. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science gave the Huron River Watershed a C+ grade, but also rated it, of the five watersheds in our region, as the best. What was your gut reaction to that?

Rebecca Esselman: That's a good question, David. Frankly, I was not surprised by the C+ overall rating. We are a very healthy watershed and river, considering we're in an urbanized area like Southeast Michigan. But the Huron has a lot going for it because we have some nice remaining forests and wetlands in our headwaters. We have a lot of public lands that have been protected in perpetuity, and we've been doing a lot of work to improve the condition of the river.

David Fair: Well, let's talk about some of the high marks in the report card. When it comes to recreation, the Huron River Watershed stands out with a 74% score. Now, through the past few decades, there's been a concerted effort to kind of turn communities around to face the river once again and create more opportunities. Where can you still build in that area?

Rebecca Esselman: Well, recreation has been a real gem for the Huron River. We have a couple of things really going for us in this space. We have a 104-mile state-designated and national-designated water trail, and we've been working really hard to get people access to and maintain that water trail for paddlers and boaters and folks who like to fish and, otherwise, recreate with the river. We also have a really incredible, land-based trail system that runs a lot of time adjacent to the river.

David Fair: The Border-to-Border Trail.

Rebecca Esselman: The Border-to-Border Trail. Yes. And then, of course, we have all of our lakes, which every Michigander--most Michiganders--are spending a lot of their time in the warm weather at our lakes.

David Fair: Well, I think one of the under-recognized components of the Huron River Watershed comes in the area of economic impact and what that does for our communities. Can you put a figure on what it contributes on an annual basis?

Rebecca Esselman: We had an economic analysis done for the Huron River a few years back and learned that, on an annual basis, the economic output of the Huron River itself is similar to the University of Michigan's football season, which we all know and recognize.

David Fair: That's tremendous!

Rebecca Esselman: It's a big economic driver for our county and communities. So, it's a big deal. And I think that's relatively unrecognized.

David Fair: You're listening to a Huron River edition of 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. We're talking with the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, Rebecca Esselman. And to be sure, there are challenges to contend with now and looking forward. Contamination remains a huge issue. And we still have a do not eat fish advisory in effect, do we not?

Rebecca Esselman: We do.

David Fair: We have PFAs contamination.

Rebecca Esselman: PFAs is predominantly the reason that we see such a low grade for fish consumption in the Huron River and throughout rivers in southeast Michigan. And this is an issue that really needs to be addressed with some state and some federal level action to ensure that we're turning off the pipe on PFAs and we're making sure that we're protecting our waterways from whatever future chemicals are used in our manufacturing processes and otherwise.

David Fair: And there are so many different kinds of PFAs. We're only really testing for very few of them, so the contamination might in fact be worse than we think.

Rebecca Esselman: We're learning more every day about PFAs: its impacts to human health, how it moves through systems, how it persists, how to remediate contamination events. So, it really is emerging science. And we're learning more all the time and trying to keep pace with the kind of lawmaking and regulation as more information emerges about what we need to monitor and how we need to regulate that class of contaminants.

David Fair: As we deal with these contaminants, is there a way to project forward and determine perhaps a time where this fish advisory--do not eat fish advisory--might be lifted?

Rebecca Esselman: I hesitate to do that because we are learning more all the time. Initially, we thought there is a life of a fish, and once the fish that were contaminated from that large event had died and we have new young fish growing up, there was going to be a lower contaminant load inherently. That's probably the main mechanism by which this PFAs will kind of move out of our fish population. But that's only the case if we're not adding additional PFAs contamination to our river system, which is why the Huron River Watershed Council is working on that issue so aggressively.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and our Issues of the Environment conversation with the Huron River Watershed Council's Rebecca Esselman continues in advance of Huron River Day this Sunday. What are going to be some of the new challenges you have to contend with to not only preserve, but to improve the water quality in the Huron River?

Rebecca Esselman: A couple of things that we see on the horizon--the contaminants issue we've covered pretty thoroughly already. But another one I'll call out is flooding. We are seeing more flooding and more economic impact of flooding in our region and in the Huron River Watershed in recent years. And we only expect that to get worse. There's a couple of factors here. One is climate change is bringing larger and more frequent rainfall events to our region. And the second is as we continue to pave and build out metropolitan Detroit, we tend to make our flooding issues worse. So, there's a couple of strategies we need to employ to make sure that we're protecting our waterways and our residents from getting impacted by flooding.

David Fair: In its totality, it's probably wise to look at progress instead of the quest for perfection. So, had this C+ grade assessment been conducted back in the 1970s or even just 20 years ago, do you think the Huron River would have been rated much lower? I get the impression that the Huron River only improves over time.

Rebecca Esselman: When we take that time horizon. I think you're right, David. You know, if you go way back to prior to when the watershed was developed at all, we would have been an A system, right? But the industrial past would definitely have shown if we would have done this grading system back in the 70s, for example, I'm certain we would have ranked much lower. We've made a lot of investments. We've learned a lot about how to care for and recover our waterways, and we're seeing a lot of great progress. I do encourage listeners to take a look at the watershed report card when they have an opportunity, because you'll see a lot of green in there, which are A's and B's, and a lot of them are around water quality--so, the Clean Water Act, actions by local governments, water resource commissioners, offices and groups like watershed councils and river groups have been making a lot of progress to raise the grade. And we hope to keep doing that.

David Fair: Well, the progress will continue. And while it does and while we watch and participate, the Huron River is a great place to go. So, as we look to Huron River Day on Sunday at Island Park, what are your favorite opportunities for the community to experience?

Rebecca Esselman: Getting close to the river and spending time with friends and family is something that I try to do with my family multiple times every summer. And doing that in an urban area like Ann Arbor, it's a pretty large event. It's well-attended. And it's just has a great energy. There are opportunities to interact with birds of prey that Leslie Science and Nature Center bring. There's always great food and live music. And this year, we'll hear from Evan Pratt, who is the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, who will say a few words about the state of the Huron River and what a gem it is in our community.

David Fair: Well, a lot to look forward to! I hope you all enjoy! Thank you so much for the time today and enjoy Huron River Day this weekend!

Rebecca Esselman: Thank you, David!

David Fair: That is Rebecca Esselman. She is executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, joining us with a health assessment of the Huron River ahead of Huron River Day. That celebration will be held this Sunday, May 19th at Island Park. For more information on all aspects of our discussion, including links to the report card and information about the work being done on the Huron River by the Huron River Watershed Council, simply pay a visit to our website at wemu.org when you get a minute. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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