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Posted on Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

Q&A with Laura Rubin on the RiverUp! Project to improve the Huron River

By Lucy Ann Lance

Efforts are underway to make the Huron River more of a community magnet by cleaning it up and building it up with businesses and river-friendly features. Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, talked with me recently on 1290 WLBY about the RiverUp! Project and how it could change the way we utilize our river.

Lucy Ann: How important is the Huron River to our community?


Laura Rubin is the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council.

Rubin: It’s really the dominant natural feature in the area. When you talk to people about what is the big natural feature in the area, it’s the river, and the watershed is what shapes our landscape. So when we have uplands or woodlands or rivers or streams, it’s all part of the watershed, and despite that, a lot of people in this town don’t know there’s a river down there, it really is what defines this community.

Lucy Ann: We don’t celebrate our river the way other communities do. You see a lot of other places build up their riverfronts with businesses. You don’t see a lot of economic development here.

Rubin: You don’t and that’s a big effort of ours right now. Historically the river was used mainly to convey waste, then it became very industrialized and it was our main source of navigation. So traditionally we built our backs to the river, the backs of our businesses, the backs of our community, because it wasn’t really a desirable place to be. I think there has been a real shift nationwide and locally of re-embracing the riverfront. We call it a river renaissance. I think most people are familiar with the San Antonio River Walk, but even in some of our Great Lakes cities, Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, they found a lot of economic opportunities by cleaning up the industrial lakefront and riverfront and utilizing it. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Lucy Ann: I would’ve thought the Huron River Watershed Council wouldn’t want to see a build-up of businesses along the riverfront, but it could be an economic driver if it’s done in a graceful way.

Rubin: Exactly. We’re not talking about building it up with big high-rises and a lot of pavement, because we know that’s what really harms our water quality. We have to balance access with protection. We’ve done a very good job especially in Ann Arbor, but through the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority of protecting a lot of parkland along the river, but we need to improve access. Not everyone can get to the river. Ironically, there’s really not a restaurant, there’s really not a place you can go and eat.

Lucy Ann: It surprises me that no one has tried to do that. Are there rules against that?

Rubin: No. It hasn’t been a desirable location especially in terms of downtown Ann Arbor. Downtown isn’t really connected to the river; we don’t have that connector. We’d love to see that come in. We’ve been working with the Downtown Development Authorities in Milford, Dexter, Ann Arbor, and Flat Rock, and they’re really excited about this project. We saw in Dexter when we took out the Mill Pond Dam two years ago that has now made Dexter a destination for paddlers who come in and spend the weekend there and they go to the brew pubs and they go to the convenience stores and the bakery and they spend their money there and it’s a real nice economic driver. In Ann Arbor, we have been looking at that North Main corridor down to Broadway. In Ypsilanti, Angstrom has a site, the old Ford plant, where they have a 14-acre parking lot that’s not being used. We’ve been working with Washtenaw County Parks, the City of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. Could we make that a better trail linking Ford Lake into downtown Ypsilanti and EMU and get a restaurant there? We’re trying to be creative about some of these lands that were historically heavy manufacturing or industry, giving us the opportunity to clean those up.

Lucy Ann: How do you do this and who takes ownership?

Rubin: It’s tricky and it also depends on the property. If there’s contamination then that’s one area that needs to be cleaned up first and there’s funds there. There’s either the original property owner or there’s Brownfield money. If it’s a clean site then it’s really talking about putting together the funders, and in this economy that’s a little iffy. We can also bring in community foundations as being landholders. Sometimes they hold land until there’s an interested developer to buy it.

Lucy Ann: Is the Watershed Council prepared to do that?

Rubin: We don’t take lands; it’s not a business we want to get into. But we’ve got a lot of nice partners. One of the nice things on this project is we’ve been working with a team called the Wolfpack, which is a lot of private individuals and businesses coming in and working with the local governments. We’ve really got a nice relationship there and working with the community foundations to make something happen.

Lucy Ann: Tell me more about that.

Rubin: The Wolfpack is a group of business and community leaders that the National Wildlife Foundation has worked with and they’ve approached us to work on this river project. Congressman John Dingell has been very interested in it, again trying to leave some legacy of river revitalization.

Lucy Ann: What kinds of businesses do you see for the Huron River front?

Rubin: Definitely liveries. We’ve got a lot of interest in getting more paddlers, canoers, kayakers. The City of Ann Arbor is adding some whitewater features and so we’ll have more people coming down to the river to watch that. Restaurants, whether it’s just a brewpub or just a restaurant, both involve people coming down and sitting and watching. Could be an outfitter or outdoors gear type of (store), coffee houses. I know there’s been some interest in this town and Ypsilanti of having some offices that overlook the river.

Lucy Ann: How much of this land is available right now for purchase?

Rubin: Good question. Right now there are more blocks (of property) here and there of fifteen or ten acres. In Ann Arbor, there’s the DTE MichCon property. In the Village of Dexter, there are a lot of properties that sit there right next to the river. Past industrial, old metal finishing shops, things like that. You go up to Milford, it’s the same thing.

Lucy Ann: Are you also talking about some kind of public-private partnership between the landholders such as the City of Ann Arbor?

Rubin: Could be. Washtenaw County is talking about building a recreation center down at Water Street in Ypsilanti. That could be that public-private partnership if you were to build a recreation center. It really would draw a lot of the youth, the seniors. Then that becomes more of a magnet for the private businesses to come in. Where we can have some of the public money jump start it, that’s all the better for us.

Lucy Ann: What’s it going to take to make this happen and how long are we talking before it does?

Rubin: You know, it depends on how vibrant we want to see it initially. I think in a good ten to fifteen years we’re going to start to see some of this. We’ve seen some interest from restaurant owners who’ve looked at sites. We want to get the marketing underway to build some excitement. We’re going to have to do a lot of bulldozing, just improving portages, improving launches, just trying to get better access, just trying to get better signs. That would be the first step to get us there.

Lucy Ann: And the Huron River Watershed Council is a catalyst in all of this?

Rubin: We’re trying to be a big partner in this. As you can imagine, we want to get a lot of people there. We need the public, we need the private industries, we need the community foundations, we need all of the people to make this happen because it’s sort of a mix of clean-up and land use and economic development and so it’s really going to be a lot of partners and a lot of projects.

Lucy Ann Lance co-owns Lance & Erskine Communications, which produces “The Lucy Ann Lance Business Insider” (M-F, 8 a.m.-11 a.m.) and “The Lucy Ann Lance Show” (Saturdays, 9 a.m.-12 p.m.) on 1290 WLBY. The programs are live streamed at, and podcast on The above interview is a condensed version of a longer conversation that is edited for clarity. The complete audio interview is posted online at


Kai Petainen

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 6:01 a.m.

I take back my comment above. I thought she would be great, but then I learned that she was partially responsible for the $750,000 piece of art outside city hall. I want someone who would take spills seriously and spend time on them, and spend time educating the public about the spills that we had... not someone who would rather spend their time on art appreciation. The HRWC should be about the environment, it should not be about art. "Another 'good news' event this fall was the installation of a public water sculpture that integrates stormwater into its artwork. It was installed at the Ann Arbor Municipal Center in early October. This is the culmination of four years of my work" - Laura Rubin, HRWC

Rita Mitchell

Sun, Nov 13, 2011 : 11:33 p.m.

I second George Gaston's proposal. Just move the train station over the tracks from its current Depot St. location, to the DTE side, and the parking will be improved, there will be access for multiple train tracks, and the location has the potential to connect with north/south trains, that cross at Main St. Add the restaurant there, with a view of the Argo Dam. Note: The site has serious pollution from its industrial past that must be addressed, but it is the best location to consolidate a lot of services and potential improvements.


Sun, Nov 13, 2011 : 10:37 p.m.

One of the major problems with getting a restaurant or similar place on N. Main st. in A2 is the railroad existing right there.

Sun, Nov 13, 2011 : 12:15 p.m.

If Huron River dams are not going to be removed, will fish ladders be installed over the dams by the Veteran's Administration ? The V.A. Hospital has expressed interest in buying Huron River dams and restoring their electrical generating capacity, as opposed to removing them. I'd like to see a study indicating which native fish lived in the Huron River before the dams were installed. It would also be interesting to know which types of native fish migrated up the river, historically, from Lake Erie to spawn/lay eggs. Have the dams damaged these native fish populations and/or stopped them from swimming up the river, from Lake Erie, to spawn? It's hard to debate dam removal if you have no knowledge of the Huron River's original native species, that were present before installation of the dams. Obviously the dams have caused considerable stagnation of the rivers waters and changes in river water temperatures, which affects native river fish populations adversely. It seems that the lower dams, such as the dam at Flatrock, which is about 10 miles from Lake Erie, would most severely affect fish migrations/spawning from Lake Erie, so removal of the lower dams should be a high priority to free up river spawning territory for these Lake Erie fish. The upper dams have far less impact on fish spawning/migrations which come up the river from Lake Erie. Species of fish which must swim up rivers from Lakes/Oceans to spawn/lay eggs are called anadromous fish. I think the public is not very well educated on matters such as this, so debates to remove dams tend to focus on how pretty Argo Pond is etc., instead of the environmental impacts which dams can have on anadromous fish populations etc. Drops in Lake Erie/Great Lakes fish populations can likely be connected to the damming of many of Michigan's rivers which flow into the Great Lakes, these dams have blocked spawning fish from accessing these rivers.

Michael Psarouthakis

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 10:18 p.m.

I believe the city is negotiations with Veterans Hospital to electrify both Argo and Gallup dams. As I understand it Argo dam is not adjusted for water flow, meaning it stays the same height at all times and the flow is determined by rain fall and snow melt from the surrounding areas, meaning the river would fluctuate from a trickle to torrent no matter if Argo was there or not. I do like the idea of getting some restaurants, brew pubs, coffee houses etc. built so people could come down to the river and watch the kayaking, canoeing and rowing. Why not integrate this into some of the park areas to generate some funds for the city?

Ric Lawson

Tue, Nov 15, 2011 : 3:50 p.m.

Hi Mike. Yes, there have been rumors of the VA being interested in getting power from dams, but when one actually does the math it does not compute. Small, low-head dams just don't make sense as power generators. The cost of maintenance and liability currently far exceeds the value of electricity generated. Market electricity costs would need to rise significantly to change this. Otherwise, the city would be currently operating the dams for electricity, which they don't. On your point about water level fluctuation, you are only partially correct. Yes, the dam is operated "run of the river" and not for flood control. However, the mechanism is not perfect and often results in highly erratic flows during, and sometimes not during storm events. Several articles have appeared on this site about this. You might consider reading them to get more informed. USGS considers the gage in Ann Arbor to have one of, if not THE most erratic flows in the state. This is due to Argo. However, despite the well-documented problems that dams create, I think we can all agree that river access can and should be improved to take advantage of the greatest natural asset we possess.

George Gaston

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 9:12 p.m.

The recently vacated DTE property at Broadway and the river is one of the very few, if not the only, parcels of land bordering the river available for development within the city of Ann Arbor. The rest of the land along the river in the city is parkland, owned by the university, or already developed. This DTE property is an ideal location for our proposed local transportation center. It is the only place where one transportation center could service both the Detroit-Chicago and the WALLY lines. The parcel is large enough to accommodate a new station, across the tracks from the present Amtrak station, that would connect to a platform/station to service the WALLY. the center of the parcel could be dedicated to caes, buses, and bicycles. The river side of the property could be developed for public access to the river with pathways connecting to the already existing parks and add amenities such as bars and restaurants overlooking the river. This could be a very vibrant, popular, and positive addition to our urban center.


Mon, Nov 14, 2011 : 8:03 p.m.

I've tried to interest the Parks Department in that parcel since 1967. Even then, Detroit Edison told me that they had plans to divest themselves, and the price was negligible. Development of that parcel into an entertainment and recreation complex can be a focus for many productive projects. Let's hope that someone with vision comes into the picture. I agree with George Gaston that this will be a terrible loss if this opportunity is again squandered. This is a unique site.

David Cahill

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 7:45 p.m.

I'm delighted to see that the HRWC has abandoned its campaign to restore the Huron River to--wait for it--its "pre-European status", and given up on its "Argo Dam is failing" campaign. Good news!

Joe Edwards

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 4:25 p.m.

More tiresome talk from braggslaw... The dam issue has been resolved, in spite of the misinformation campaign waged by Ms. Rubin and her supporters. The Huron River is a valuable community asset, but I will always be leery of the efforts of the Huron River Watershed Council as long as the current leadership is in place.

Kai Petainen

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 4:34 p.m.

From my dealings with the HRWC, I think they're a good group of folks and they're going after a worthwhile cause and improving the Huron River. So, I like them.... But, I also believe in a bit of critical commentary: When the river was covered in oil last year, the HRWC did not speak up. They knew of the spill, and they knew folks that helped clean it up.... but they did not speak up publicly. Due to their inability to speak up on the issue, it brings some credibility to the idea that they are a political organization, and less of an environmental one. However, I can also understand why they kept quiet on the issue, as any public declaration about it may have had political consequences against them. And when someone wants to pursue an agenda, its sometimes best to not say anything. They are doing work with RiverUp! and other stuff, and for that they are to be encouraged and congratulated. But, for the lack of courage to speak up about the oil spill in Ann Arbor, they lose some points in my book.

Kai Petainen

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 3:43 p.m.

Laura.... I mean this with sincerity and honesty.... You should apply for the job that McCormick had. I think you could bring some positive stuff to Ann Arbor.


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 3:34 p.m.

With Argo no longer producing power, what interest does DTE have with keeping the prime plot of river frontage in the Main/Depot/Broadway block? Seems like it's just sitting there unused, and could be a very valuable piece of land for development or park as the closest to downtown river frontage there is. I know there are obstacles of being in a flood plain, brownfield clean up, and access issues from being tucked behind the railroad tracks, but it really seems there would be some way to put this property to better use, and surprising that DTE would have any interest in hanging on to it. Then the old power station on the other side of the river at Broadway seems like it would be very desirable - A microbrewery, restaurant with an outdoor deck, kayak rental and sporting goods store - seems like there are lots of businesses who would jump on that place for redevelopment.

Kai Petainen

Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 3:24 p.m.

This is a really nice interview. Laura, nicely done!


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 2:20 p.m.

Here's a thought project. The Watershed Council favors removal of the Argo Dam. As discussed, and so far rejected, that would cause the demise of Argo Pond--an upsetting thought not only to residents along the Pond but recreational users of the Pond. How about the Watershed Council comes up with a plan to remove the dam but keep the pond?


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 1:56 p.m.

What a great venture! I always thought if they could do somehting with the blight along north main st. to M-14 that would b an awesome... Huron river dr. is a great place to ride bikes out to Dexter but to get there you have pass the gauntlet that is North main -the run-down buildings, homeless poping out of bushes, and traffic moving at 50+ mph just a few feet from you.


Sat, Nov 12, 2011 : 12:53 p.m.

The Huron River is a fantastic paddling and fishing river. It is one of the few southeast michigan rivers with a consistent ephron and hexagenia hatch, illustrating the overall health of the river. My biggest issues with management of the river are the darn dams. The water flow on the lower huron can go from a trickle to a torrent based on upriver water release by the dams, leading to the death of juvenile fish and other wildlife (and a few times me). This needs to be fixed. I realize there are certain dams like Barton that will never be removed but there are numerous other dams that should be removed.