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Posted on Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Huron River health: Phosphorus levels have dropped 25 percent in the past 15 years

By Amy Biolchini


People canoe down the Huron River near Nichols Arboretum on Saturday, July 13.

Daniel Brenner I

Ann Arbor often finds itself on the top of many lists - and for the Huron River, it’s no different:


Ann Arbor resident Jason Talley walks in the Huron River near Nichols Arboretum on Saturday, July 13.

Daniel Brenner I

The Huron River is the cleanest river in southeast Michigan and is the most monitored river in the state, thanks to the coordinated efforts of about 500 volunteers with the Huron River Watershed Council.

Though levels of the river’s biggest pollutant - phosphorus - have significantly decreased throughout the past 15 years, the biggest hazard to human health - E. coli - continues to be an issue.

“I think (the river) is relatively healthy,” said Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council. “It’s definitely improved from where we’ve been … but the river still has a ways to go.”

The watershed

The watershed of the Huron River does not have combined sewer systems that discharge into it or combined animal feeding operations. It also contains a very small portion of farmland.

“We have more wetlands than most watersheds,” said Ric Lawson, watershed planner for the HRWC. “We’ve done a good job as a community region to protect those features and we can see the results in cleaner water.”

The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, was effective in eliminating much of the point source pollution from industrial processes and wastewater treatment plants to the Huron River. As an urban river whose landscape has been altered with dams and piped tributaries, the Huron often experiences erratic flow rates.

Phosphorus - a common nutrient found in runoff from lawns, construction and soil exposure - is the biggest polluter to the Huron River, Rubin said. Under the right conditions and at the right levels, phosphorus can lead to algal blooms that have resulted in fish kills in the past.

From 1995 to 2011, there was a 25 percent decrease in the total load of phosphorus the Huron River carries, according to data collected by the Huron River Watershed Council.

Though the state has not set a numerical standard for phosphorus levels in waterways, it has set a regional target as a whole - which Lawson said they’re very close to meeting.


People kayak down cascades on the Huron River Saturday.

Daniel Brenner I

She attributes the reduction to state bans on phosphorus fertilizer use, the restoration projects on Malletts Creek at Mary Beth Doyle Park and County Farm Park, the filtration tank underneath the Pioneer High School parking lot, increased soil erosion ordinance enforcement by Washtenaw County and education and incentives by the city of Ann Arbor for rain barrels.

Drawn to the river

The river’s biggest issue concerning public health is E. coli bacteria - which is known for spiking to unsafe levels during heavy rain events. As more and more people are flocking to the Huron River for recreation, E. coli awareness becomes increasingly important.

Lawson said E. coli levels in the river between Argo and Gallup are typically below the U.S. EPA’s threshold level for body contact - except in the first 48 hours after major rain events.

Genetic source tracking of the bacteria in the river has shown that the E. coli in the river comes from a broad range of animals: Dogs, feral cats and geese, as well as raccoons and other animals living in storm drains.

E. coli attributed to human sources accounts for a small component of the bacteria in the river, Lawson said.

Washtenaw County Public Health monitors five public beaches at area lakes for E. coli levels - but as Huron River is technically not a public beach, the department hasn’t been asked to test it.

The health department does take reports if people get sick after being in the Huron River, and has not received any reports to date this year, said Kristen Schweighoefer, environmental health supervisor.

Sunday, July 14

Huron River Day

  • Where: Gallup Park, 3000 Fuller Road, Ann Arbor
  • What: A day full of events celebrating the Huron River
  • When: 8:30 a.m. 5K, 11 a.m. guided canoe trip with naturalist, noon-4 p.m. activities
  • More information on the HRWC and City of Ann Arbor websites
Schweighofer said although many people report norovirus-like symptoms after being in contact with the river, the health department said it’s too difficult to detect because of the volume of water in the river.

Signs are posted that recommend against swimming in untreated bodies of water, Schweighofer said.

Use of the city of Ann Arbor’s canoe liveries on the Huron set a record in 2012, as 50,336 people rented boats, said Supervisor Cheryl Saam.

“The canoe liveries were quite small when I took over 11 years ago,” Saam said. “The popularity of paddle sports continues to grow.”

Saam points to the addition of the Argo Cascades - a manufactured series of small waterfalls that can be easily navigated by kayaks or inner tubes - as the catalyst for the increased activity. Trips on the cascades doubled from 2011 to 2012.

“It’s really turned Ann Arbor to the river,” Saam said, noting she sees many people bringing their own tubes down to the Huron to travel the cascades. “It’s just opened up this whole section of the river to have this fun hangout place.”

Rubin said the future health of the river depends on an increasing understanding of connectivity to the waterway that comes from direct interaction with it.

“It’s definitely a trend we’re trying to promote. I definitely think it builds a sense of place,” Rubin said. “It’s an understanding that what comes off my rooftop or my driveway ends up in the river … That translates into land use policies; storm water policies.”

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Mon, Jul 15, 2013 : 1:37 p.m.

The cascades is a fabulous addition to our community. I was down there twice this weekend and couldn't believe the number of people enjoying the water--mostly in inner tubes. People ride through the cascades, come out at the end, walk back to the dam and start over again. Some folks said they had gone down the cascades 6 times. So much fun! But I must admit that I find myself concerned about the e-coli issue. Is there really no way to monitor for that in the river? It seems that this is something the community should be made aware of. Perhaps some signs could be added that warn people not to tube after a heavy rainstorm. I just really hate the thought of people getting sick when they are having such a great time. Thanks to the City for this fun recreational opportunity.

Mary Ann Barbary

Tue, Jul 16, 2013 : 2:43 p.m.

How DO people get sick from e Coli in the river -- thru ingestion? Or exposure on the skin? Or what?

Basic Bob

Mon, Jul 15, 2013 : 3:46 p.m.

of course there is a way. the issue is that e. coli tends to die in fresh water and sunlight so it is localized. it might be very high at the golf course where the geese congregate, and near zero elsewhere. exposure to e. coli is a good indicator of contamination but not everyone will get sick.


Mon, Jul 15, 2013 : 12:25 a.m.

What causes the summer growth of weeds in Gallup Park portion of the river? Is is nitrogen fertilizer runoff, animal poop or what? Something not clean is fertilizing the growth of those weeds. I don't recall such major growth ten or twenty years ago.


Mon, Jul 15, 2013 : 11:12 a.m.

Water in Gallop is slow moving allowing sediment to settle - providing more organic matter, plus golf corse run off and warmer water all provide an ideal place for aquatic plants to grow

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, Jul 15, 2013 : 12:57 a.m.

you mean that portion across from a golf course? What does the city use to keep the course green and weed free?

Kai Petainen

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 8:49 p.m.

"June 27, 2013 Ann Arbor treatment plant dumped 10,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Huron River due to heavy rains." Did the canoe liveries inform the canoeists of this event?

Basic Bob

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 10:11 p.m.

Did AA inform the people who use the river downstream of them? Of course not, our waste don't stink.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 9:53 p.m.

Where did this info come from?


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 9:24 p.m.

The AA treatment plant is well downstream from where any AA city canoes are supposed to be used.

Kai Petainen

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 8:44 p.m.

"The Huron River is the cleanest river in southeast Michigan" map of Michigan rivers That's not a big deal... as per that map, there are only two major rivers in southeast Michigan ... the Huron River and the Raisin River The Raisin River has something that the Huron River does not have... a portion of the Raisin River is a National Historic Park. The Raisin River has PCBs... so it's not a big claim to say that the Huron River is the cleanest.

Kai Petainen

Mon, Jul 15, 2013 : 12:04 a.m.

Russ, thanks for the map. Cool link. Thanks. My definition of SE river is based on one which goes into Lake Erie. I missed a couple, you are right. Huron, Stoney Creek, Raisin and Rouge. Clinton starts getting into the thumb region.

Russ Miller

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 10:36 p.m.

Kind of minimal map! Clinton and Rouge Rivers, Ecose and Stony Creek are all certainly in SE MI, and depending on definitions headwaters of the Grand, Shiawassee, Kalamazoo, and Maumee Rivers are also touch SE Michigan Michigan Seagrant has a nice map on the cover of this teaching guide - you can buy a big one: And these are totally different and cool

Craig Lounsbury

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 9:40 p.m.

Don't bag on the raisin river after all its the second cleanest river in Southeast ;)

An Arborigine

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 8:33 p.m.

I'm doing my part, I actually used phosphate-free tri-sodium phosphate...tell me how that happens?

Kai Petainen

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 7:46 p.m.

"It may not technically be a beach, but hundreds of people use tubes and end up swimming in the river all summer. It should be monitored like a beach." Exactly. I agree. When we have oil spills, phosphoric dumps and raw sewage going into the river.... the public must be notified. I understand that pollution goes into the river from various sources... but when we have known events -- then the public must be notified at the canoe liveries. I know cases where the public has not been notified of spills, and it's due to that non-notification... why I refuse to swim in that river.

Kai Petainen

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 5:26 p.m.

A few thoughts. 1. It's good that people are pointing out the 1,4 Dioxane. That's a huge problem and Pall is leaving town. That's a big problem. It's good that we have local heroes like Roger (he deserves a key to the city) who care about the Dioxane and have worked on the issue with passion. 2. Although I have voiced criticism at the HRWC, they do deserve some thanks and congrats. As much as I believe in complaining, I also believe in voicing congrats as well. Recently Laura Rubin won a River Hero Award. So a huge congrats to her. You can see her award here: 3. Does or has the University of Michigan used Phosphoric Acid to clean parking lots? There are a number of lots near the river (hospital area) and I'd like to know if they are using Phosphoric Acid or if they have used Phosphoric Acid to clean the parking lots. (Phosphoric Acid can be used to clean cement, and it can be used for medical purposes as well). If they never used it, then it's not an issue... but if they used it, then it would be nice to know if some of the decline deals with them not using it...

Tom Teague

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 5:10 p.m.

Took a great fly fishing/float trip from Hudson Mills to Dexter Huron parks yesterday and saw a thriving Huron River. One indicator of health is number of fauna supported by the river: Geese, ducks, Redwing Blackbirds, Cedar Waxwings, leatherback turtles, snakes that I didn't bother to identify, the largest Blue Heron I've ever seen, multiple fish species, many types of insects including a massive caddisfly hatch around 11 a.m., not to mention lots and lots of happy people. About midway through the trip, also saw a large number of downed trees in the water from last year's tornado; those are probably generating new micro eco systems that will be fun to watch develop. The Huron is clear, ecologically diverse, a real treasure, and a dream river for a long day of fly fishing.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 6:04 p.m.

the river seems much cleaner than 20 yrs ago-- things always took a turn for the worst when you passed mill creek in dexter 20 years ago


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 5:01 p.m.

Perhaps the new artwork could revolve around decontamination showers.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 3:37 p.m.

"Washtenaw County Public Health monitors five public beaches at area lakes for E. coli levels - but as Huron River is technically not a public beach, the department hasn't been asked to test it." It may not technically be a beach, but hundreds of people use tubes and end up swimming in the river all summer. It should be monitored like a beach.

Vince Caruso

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 2:39 p.m.

We have made some progress but sorry to say we have alot of work to do still. June 27, 2013 Ann Arbor treatment plant dumped 10,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Huron River due to heavy rains. We need to reduce the fresh water rain fall runoff (stormwater) and manage it at the source not in expensive, old school leaky pipes. We have done some Green Streets efforts (4th is finishing up now) which is less expensive and very effective at runoff and pollution reductions to the Huron River and Lake Erie. Lake Erie has experienced huge algae blooms the last few years, 1/4 of the lake covered, with 20M people relying on it for drinking water. The Gleman/Pall 1,4 Dioxane Plume is major threat to the city and it's drinking water with much to little is being done to address this. The EPA is proposing to reduce the allowable level to near 3 ppb by many accounts, the state allows up to 85 ppb. The hydogeology for the model that shows the plume moving to the river under the city is questionable. Some credible sources and some well data show it moving to the north also, toward Barton Pond. Clearly this needs much more analysis. The 'bend over backward' for business attitude of the current state government is treating a major urban center in Michigan, this when Pall has closed down operation and laid off almost all the workers here.

Basic Bob

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 2:57 p.m.

"June 27, 2013 Ann Arbor treatment plant dumped 10,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Huron River due to heavy rains." This is why the footing drain disconnect program must be continued. The treatment plant can't possibly be built big enough to handle the city's sewage plus all the storm water. The operators are left with no choice but to dump the excess sewage into the river. The city needs to install effective storm drains which can handle the extra 10,000 gallons during a rain storm. Even a large amount of dirty runoff going into the Huron is better than adding our toilet water to it.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 1:20 p.m.

That contradicts what this article says. The Huron River is the cleanest river yet it is still has a long way to. So what gives? It is safe to be in or not? Guess I will go with I've been told. All river water is unsafe to drink or swim in.


Mon, Jul 15, 2013 : 9:58 p.m.

That I do know. And don't go.

Basic Bob

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 1:37 p.m.

Don't swim where the geese hang out.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 12:21 p.m.

Makes more sense to me that phosphorus would have mainly dropped because farmer ( main source of phosphorus) were no longer allowed to till the land right up to the rivers edge. A natural area between the river and farmer's crops allows the rain run off to puddle up-- giving the phosphorus time to go inert before it reached the river.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 11:51 a.m.

What was the average Fecal Coliform count? Not trying to make a joke, this is a serious question. We tested the river back in biology class in High School (mid 90s)....and the Fecal Coliform count was so high back then that even without a heavy rain it was above safe levels.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 10:01 p.m.

One potato, two potato........... Oh, wrong diddly.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 11:02 a.m.

Proof of how clean the river must be the exponentially increasing number of lilypads and duckweed everyone sees. The river has become so clean, the City of Ann Arbor must hire a de-weeding boat just to cut a path through the thick bank vegatation allowing the kayakers to paddle into the center of the river where the water can flow. The Tooth Fairy will also be in town visiting the Art Fair Wednesday.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 9:51 p.m.

I agree with your logic. Something is amiss. Oh, by the way. The tooth fairy now resides in Frisco.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 3:40 p.m.

We've seen that de-weeding boat scooping up the lily pads and duckweed. Not sure where they dump all the weeds, but the areas of the river filling in with weeds is increasing dramatically.

A2 rocks

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 10:25 a.m.

Thanks to Laura Rubin & all others at HRWC for the great work they do. Good job!

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 10:24 a.m.

This is really great news, but what about the Pall 1,4 Dioxane Plume in Ann Arbor and Scio Township which is marching inexorably towards the Huron River? If we don't take more effective measures to stop its spread, it will poison our source of all the drinking water for Ann Arbor. We don't even have sufficient numbers of monitoring wells to know how far it has spread towards the river. We should demand immediate action!

Lauren Erickson

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 11:22 p.m.

Gelman Sciences: Another company that left A2 a gift that keeps on giving.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 9:43 p.m.

Correct me if I'm wrong. Didn't Gelman dump at the levels approved by government agencies?

Basic Bob

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 4:09 p.m.

@JRW, "Pall" did not dump the toxic waste. "Gelman" did, and then sold the company for hundreds of millions. Pall continues the cleanup. Gelman still lives in Ann Arbor.


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 3:42 p.m.

I fail to understand why information about the Dioxane plume in various posts gets voted down. Is someone from Pall voting down all these informational posts?


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 3:41 p.m.

I'm sure the Pall execs responsible for the plume live elsewhere and don't need to worry about their drinking water.....


Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 1:20 p.m.

Visit the SRSW/CARD booth at the Huron River Day noon-4pm today at Gallup Park for the latest info on the slow motion tragedy that is the Pall/Gelman 1,4-dioxane contamination. Lots of family-friendly activities there, too.