Graham Sustainability Institute

Detroit River Watershed and Lake Erie Water Quality

Monday, August 1, 2016

Detroit River project

Earlier this year, bi-national leaders in the Great Lakes region agreed to curb phosphorus runoff to Lake Erie by 40% by 2025 to halt harmful algal blooms (HABs) and hypoxia, also known as the central Lake Erie “dead zone.” Both HABs and hypoxia negatively impact fisheries and drinking water systems. Much of the nutrient pollution to date has focused on farms in Lake Erie’s largest watershed, the Maumee River, located in the western basin of Lake Erie. The Water Center has contributed to this focus by leading a report analyzing phosphorus contributions from the Maumee watershed and agricultural best management practices to reduce it. But other watersheds may be significant contributors as well.

Drawing from its Maumee experience, a project team from the University of Michigan has set out to answer the question, “How much does the Detroit River watershed contribute to nutrient-related water quality issues in Lake Erie?” Over the next three years, researchers will determine the amount of nutrients the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River — all part of the Detroit River Watershed — may contribute to the central basin of Lake Erie. Supported by the Water Center and the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, the team will assess nutrient loads at the confluence of the Detroit River and Lake Erie and model nutrient flow through the Detroit River watershed. Once developed, the models will be used to assess phosphorus loadings from different tributaries, and evaluate land use strategies for meeting water quality objectives for Lake Erie.

The Detroit River watershed presents a new modeling challenge. The watershed is bi-national, includes a diverse mix of land uses (e.g., urban, suburban, agricultural), and has significant point sources of nutrients. Team member Branko Kerkez, U-M Assistant Professor of Systems Engineering, will play a key role in understanding the role of urban and suburban stormwater and sewer infrastructure in the watershed. Kerkez and others will leverage the modeling experience from the Maumee River watershed project and lean on a diverse Detroit River watershed advisory group to provide local context and direction for model development.

This diverse, 29-member advisory group will also help ensure that Detroit River watershed project results are useable for current policy and management efforts. In May the research team held a project kick-off meeting was held with the advisory group, which includes leaders from federal, state, and provincial governments; non-profits; universities; and local organizations actively involved in watershed management, policy development, and applied research. The group is helping the research team better understand agricultural practices, waste-water treatment technology, and urban planning initiatives in the watershed. Project leaders will provide many opportunities for the advisory group to give feedback and ensure that real world conditions and practices are accurately represented in the models.

For more information:

  • Assessing Detroit River Nutrient Loads (project webpage)
  • The Maumee watershed project released their final report this past spring, summarizing results from six different modeling teams, see: Informing Lake Erie Agriculture Nutrient Management. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency are using the results from Maumee watershed project as they develop strategies for achieving Lake Erie water quality targets.