The long and winding road
Since 1910, when Henry Ford opened what was then the nation's largest manufacturing plant on the banks of the Rouge River in Highland Park, the river's watershed has suffered the downside of economic growth. In 1991, EPA launched one of the nation's first wet-weather demonstration projects, a court-ordered initiative backed by federal funding to restore the 438-square-mile watershed. After substantially reducing combined sewer overflows, the program shifted to reducing nonpoint source pollution though watershed-wide improvements.
As one of 48 cities, townships, and villages within the watershed, one of Southfield's roles is to avert flooding downriver by storing excess runoff. This is easier said than done in a 26-square-mile area that's 95% developed and contains no natural water bodies except the river and its tributaries.
In the past, the parks and recreation department acquired park land through the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The multimillion-dollar grant program pays up to 75% of local parkland acquisitions with revenues from oil leases on state land. But application and approval takes two years. Though the department successfully applied three times between 1985 and 1999 for funding to acquire a 30-acre parcel, nothing happened because the land's potential owners changed hands.
The first two attempts failed over price. The third time, the owner sold the land after the city's application was approved but before the state legislature authorized the grant package. When the new owner's plan to build a church and school faltered, the city tried again.
In the meantime, a developer across town wanted to buy a 5-acre park next to his office park. The city had obtained Optimist Park under the National Park Service Federal Lands to Parks Program. The Lands to Parks Program disperses excess federal properties, which in Southfield's case was a U.S. Army Project Nike anti-aircraft missile base, to local governments. If they want to sell the land, recipients must get park service permission and replace the parcel with parkland of equal or greater monetary value.
When Carlock submitted a request to trade the park, National Park Service Program Manager Elyse LaForest flew in from Boston to tour potential replacement parcels. She gave the 30-acre Carpenter Lake the highest review, and the land exchange was approved. The city put the office developer in touch with the church developer and finally, in a unique three-way closing in Chicago in 2003, the developer bought the Carpenter Lake property from the church and then immediately traded it for Southfield's Optimist Park.
Everyone was happy. The church developer recovered his initial investment plus some, the office developer built space that's re-entered Southfield's tax rolls, and the National Park Service transferred deed restrictions that protect those 30 acres as a park in perpetuity.
Just two more hurdles to clear.
Years earlier, a 12-acre parcel had been sold off the front of the city's newly acquired property, leaving only a narrow extension 950x80-feet wide to access the main road. Building a road all the way back to the park would be costly; clearing land for a parking lot would destroy the wetlands and forest that the project was designed to preserve.
Discussions had progressed to the point of an appraisal when the owner disappeared. The city eventually learned the property had a large federal tax lien on it and was now owned by a bank that was happy to unload it, giving the city total control of the 42-acre site in 2003.
Well, almost total control.
Siedlaczek and Carlock had their land. But restoring the site (see above photos) required draining and dredging the lake. The bottomland belonged to lakefront property owners on the opposite side of the lake. When they declined to sign easements, the city was forced to begin condemnation proceedings to obtain the right to dredge the lake.
Meanwhile, Siedlaczek and Carlock proceeded to line up funding to restore the sediment-filled lake and crumbling dam their city now owned.
The Wayne County Department of Environment administers funding for Rouge River remediation projects. When they applied for a $1 million grant, Siedlaczek told attendees of the American Public Works Association's 2010 Sustainabilitiy Conference; they had only a rough estimate of how much restoration would cost.Creating ‘natural' habitat
The project restored a lake impoundment that was formed in the 1940s by damming a branch of the Rouge River. By the turn of this century, portions of the concrete-and-earthen structure were failing and partially washed out.
Silt and nonnative plants had reduced the lake from 6 to 3 acres and its depth from 3 feet to 18 inches, making it ideal breeding ground for the fish that washed downstream from private lakes during storms. They crowded out virtually all other life.
During construction, the branch of the river that feeds Carpenter Lake was pumped over the dam through a diversion channel. After the lake was drained, more than 30,000 cubic yards of non-toxic sediment was removed. Half was landfilled, the other half dewatered and used to grade and plant meadows. Interpretive signs along a single mile of crushed limestone trail showcase the land's native species.
Using skeins and electroshock in five streams and two lakes, biologists removed and landfilled 1,500 pounds of common carp and replaced them with 14,000 largemouth bass, channel catfish, bluegill, sunfish, and minnows. The fish were full size by the time the lake opened for fishing this year.
“It gives visitors a truly interactive experience with nature,” says Parks and Recreation Director Bill Waterhouse. “It's a great place to enjoy a beautiful day whether you're walking, fishing, viewing wildlife, or just relaxing. It also provides a different kind of park than our typical venue of play lots and ball fields and therefore serves a different segment of the community.”
And although visitors don't know it, it's Southfield's contribution to healing the state's most dense watershed.