“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

With over 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams; freshwater is not something that North America lacks. Yet in our modern age of rapid urbanization, there are many watersheds throughout the country that are at risk of extensive environmental damage. The threats posed to rivers are multiple and varied, but all can be traced back to human activities. For instance, modern sewer and storm drain systems, though greatly improving the health of cities, have introduced a number of pollutants to urban waterways that endanger the health of nearby communities and the ecosystems they support.

Trying to remedy these environmental ills is a long and arduous process that communities all over the country struggle with. Thankfully, there are a number of local organizations out there that are willing to act as shepherds for these fragile ecosystems.

Founded in 1986, Friends of the Rouge (FotR) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration and stewardship of the Rouge River ecosystem. The Rouge, located just west of Detroit, flows for 127 miles through a mix of industrial and residential areas. The extensive development of these areas over the course of the 20th century resulted in the river becoming heavily polluted. At one point, the river caught fire as a result of oil slicks that had built up on the water’s surface, mirroring the famous burning of the Cuyahoga River.

Since then, the river has made a remarkable comeback thanks in large part to the actions of Friends of the Rouge. Since its founding, the group has organized a massive summer cleanup called Rouge Rescue. Every June the group recruits local volunteers to help remove trash and other debris from the river. Over the course of the 90’s, these annual cleanups contributed greatly to the river’s improvement as an ecosystem and freshwater resource.

At the same time, the group began raising public awareness of the effects of storm water runoff on the river. The extensive use of storm drains in urban areas often results in local rivers, such as the Rouge, becoming inundated with all kinds of pollutants including lawn fertilizers and garbage from city streets. To combat this, Friends of the Rouge reaches out to watershed residents about steps they can take around the home to improve local water quality.

As part of their public involvement efforts, FotR actively monitors the health of the river by assessing populations of fish and other wildlife. Volunteers regularly survey parts of the Rouge watershed in order to identify frog and toad populations, and benthic macroinvertebrates, all indicators of the river’s health. The group also monitors fish populations in the river through a program coordinated in partnership with the University of Michigan Water Center.

FotR is also present in local watershed schools, providing water quality monitoring education to the teachers who, in turn, teach the skills to students as part of their math and science curriculum. These students are then given the opportunity to go directly to the river to perform the chemical, biological, and physical monitoring they learned in the classroom.

The activities of Friends of the Rouge have already brought the river back from the brink, and promise to make it a thriving ecosystem once more. With hundreds of other such organizations working in tandem across the country, our waterways stand a fighting chance against the threats posed by the continued development of urban areas.