By Renee Summers
Telegram News Reporter 

Friends of the Rouge Promoting Environmental Awareness for 35 Years


Since 1986, Friends of the Rouge (FOTR) has been busily working to raise awareness of the need to clean up the Rouge River and restore and protect the Rouge River Watershed through stewardship, education, and cooperative efforts. The river runs 127 miles throughout metro Detroit.

The four main branches of the Rouge River cover the watershed, a 467-square mile area which drains into the Detroit River. Creeks, tributaries, lakes, and ponds abound and most of the lower and middle branches flow through land owned by Wayne County Parks. The watershed encompasses all or parts of 48 communities and three counties, Oakland, Wayne, and Washtenaw. Because the area is so heavily populated and industrialized, the Environmental Protection Agency states that sediment and water contamination from development and discharge, along with residential pollutants and sanitary sewer overflow have contributed to the river's notorious reputation of being dirty and polluted. In 1985, the river was declared an "area of concern" by the EPA.

"When Friends of the Rouge was founded in the 80s, people really treated the river like it was an open sewer and a place to dump your trash," says Cyndi Ross, Restoration Manager with FOTR. "After decades of cleaning it up, peoples' perception of the river has changed; it looks nice so it's not a place to dump anymore, people are hiking along the river, people are using it as a recreational resource, we now have a Rouge River Water Trail...we're really excited about that, what a beautiful way to spend an afternoon, to put your kayak or canoe in the river."

Established by a group of concerned citizens, FOTR has been working with community partners to educate groups and individuals on how our actions affect the river, steps we can take to minimize pollution, and how to manage storm water to help improve the river's condition. Ross says storm water management is crucial as the watershed is more than 50 percent urbanized and includes hard surfaces such as roofs, roadways, and parking lots which do not absorb rain water and melting snow, resulting in all that extra water running to the Rouge River. "The rain water as it runs over the land is picking up pollutants from our lawn care chemicals, pet waste, road salt, motor oil, ; everything that's on the land or on our streets is being washed into the waterway every time it rains. If we can manage that runoff, we can really improve our water quality," she says. "We want to make our water clean to the standards of the Clean Water Act, which means our goal is a fishable, swimmable, drinkable river; it's going to take us some time to get there but the river is really improving."

The organization works all year through hands-on programs to get community volunteers involved in caring for the watershed. Each spring, the Rouge Rescue brings people from all over metro Detroit to clean trash out of the river, remove invasive species, and plant native species of plants. Other programs include storm water management education, education about rain gardens and native plants, and monitoring the quality of the river and watershed through bug hunts, frog and toad surveys, and fish monitoring, The condition of such biological species can tell a lot about the health of the watershed. "Educating the community is one of the primary goals of Friends of the Rouge," says Ross, adding that FOTR engages roughly 7,000 volunteers each year through these programs. In fact, since its founding, FOTR has had over 60,000 volunteers working at more than 1,000 works sites. FOTR's work is funded through grants, corporate sponsors, fundraisers, membership dues, and private donations.

Ross encourages everyone to learn all they can about protecting our rivers, watershed, and ecosystem and says the FOTR's website is a great place to start. You can find educational resources, videos, and information about volunteer opportunities at "We need to protect that resource for us, for future generations to come," she says. "You can't care about something you're not familiar with, and so by being connected and gaining an appreciation for the river and the greenspace that the river provides is what we're all about."


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