“The Heart of the Great Lakes”: New book looks at the Detroit River’s history and its environmental recovery

“The Heart of the Great Lakes”: New book looks at the Detroit River’s history and its environmental recovery
May 14, 2019 Gary Wilson, Great Lakes Now

Bad environmental news about the Great Lakes is something author Dave Dempsey is familiar with. He’s already written six books about the region, covering a range of topics from sturgeon to the consequences of exporting Great Lakes water.

For his seventh book, Dempsey makes a turn for the positive, narrowing in on the Detroit River, its history and its environmental recovery.

In “The Heart of the Great Lakes: Freshwater in the Past, Present and Future of Southeast Michigan, Dempsey takes readers on a trip from Port Huron bordering Lake Huron, south through Detroit ending where the Detroit River empties into Lake Erie.

The journey covers the 1600s to the present as the region attempts an environmental recovery and water-based renaissance.

At the core of his book, Dempsey cautions that the people will ultimately determine the fate of southeast Michigan’s freshwater abundance.


Great Lakes Now recently talked with Dempsey while he was attending a conference in Detroit. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

Great Lakes Now (GLN): You’ve advocated for and written about the Great Lakes for decades. Why this book, why now?

Dave Dempsey (DD): No. 1, I think people are looking for hope. There’s a ton of bad environmental news and I’ve written about a lot of it in my books. But there’s a lot to celebrate in southeast Michigan in terms of water recovery. I don’t by any means think that all the environmental problems are resolved, but there are certainly positive trends. I wanted to convey that message to a bigger audience.

GLN: The Detroit River is not a body of water that garners regional recognition the way the Straits of Mackinac or Soo Locks do. What’s the significance of this narrow body of water to the Great Lakes region?

DD: As the title suggests, it’s the heart at the center of the Great Lakes region. In the process of researching and writing the book I found that there’s a lot about the Detroit River and the other bodies of water in southeast Michigan that exemplifies basin-wide trends with environmental recovery. There’s the return to valuing waterfronts versus using them as dumping grounds. There’s wildlife recovery, and more people need to hear the story about the Detroit River. If they knew it they’d be impressed with what’s happened.

GLN: Why should people in Minnesota and Quebec care? Why should the Detroit River be important to them?

DD: If the river is the heart of the lakes, people should care as if it was their own heart. The system couldn’t survive without the river. It connects the upper and lower lakes and is the conduit for fishing, boating and fish and wildlife. It’s central to the whole Great Lakes system. Their share of the Great Lakes wouldn’t be the same without the Detroit River.

GLN: You were raised not far from the river. Did you grasp the role the river played?

DD: No, I did not. I thought of it as scenery. We used to come to the river to watch the freighters pass by. It was cheap entertainment for a family that didn’t have a lot of money. I recall going to the river to see a freighter that sunk after a collision in the early 1960s. But I had no idea the river was anything but a nice body of water to look at. We did go to Belle Isle a lot and that was cool because you could watch the boats pass by while being out in the river.

GLN: In addition to Detroit proper, this region includes affluent Grosse Pointe to the north and industrial suburbs downriver where the river empties into the lush fishery of Lake Erie. How well have wealth, industry, blue-collar life and nature co-existed in modern times?

DD: Not well. It’s better recently, but there have been huge geographic, income and class divides, racial divides, in the way the river has been managed and treated. But a lot of that’s changing. The development of Milliken State Park, the Greenway and the Riverwalk are all things that are bringing people back to the river. They’ve brought a more diverse group of users to the river. It wasn’t always that way. Thirty or forty years ago it was much more stratified in terms of people in the communities. We’ll never erase all of that, but enhancing the river and using it as an asset narrowed the division between the rich and poor and between urban and suburban.

GLN: The book documents some of the environmental recovery of the Detroit River after the pollution of the 1950s, ‘60s and ’70s. Yet toxic sites that were officially declared in the 1980s remain and federal and state agencies say it will be 2025 or longer before they are remediated. Are advocates being realistic when they tout the Detroit River’s recovery?

DD: If they don’t oversell it they’re being accurate. If they say the river has recovered fully then they’re exaggerating. A lot of things have gone ahead of schedule and have surprised experts in terms of wildlife and fishery, and some things have been more time consuming in terms of recovery.

I worked for Gov. Jim Blanchard in the 1980s after the Area of Concern program to deal with toxic legacy sites began. He put together a proposal to fund cleanup of those sites. It was called Great Lakes 2001, meaning by 2001 those sites would be cleaned up. It’s now 18 years later and we still have ten or eleven left in Michigan. That’s been the most intractable Great Lakes problem other than just chemical issues like PFAS. That’s one of the biggest surprises of my career, how long it’s taking to clean up those sites.

GLN: You end The Heart of the Great Lakes with a quote from noted literary naturalist Loren Eiseley. “If there’s magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” To achieve its greatness again, southeast Michigan need only recognize that magic and make it work for the common good, you wrote. Is that possible? Can Michigan work for that common good?

DD: I hope so. When you write a conclusion to a book like that it’s like a crossing your fingers statement. You’re hoping that the best will happen, and certainly the water assets are here to make southeast Michigan a freshwater capitol like other communities have become, but it’s up to the people and their elected leaders in the state. Will they grasp the opportunity?  I hope they will, but I don’t know.

Senior Correspondent Gary Wilson conducted the interview and it was recorded, transcribed and edited for clarity.

Check out some of Great Lakes Now’s coverage on the Detroit River:

Detroit River Great Lakes to Take Center Stage on DPTV

Toxic Clean Up in a Defunct Steel Mill in the Detroit River

Toxic Clean Up of the Detroit River going at a Snails Pace







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