UMCES partners with Southeast Michigan watershed organizations to produce environmental report card

April 16, 2024

On April 16, five Southeast Michigan river and watershed organizations, in partnership with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), released a suite of socio-environmental report cards. This effort integrates social, economic, and environmental data to provide a holistic view of the current state of the Clinton, Detroit, Huron, River Raisin, and Rouge rivers.

Overall, Southeast Michigan scored 49%, a C grade, showing some areas of strength and other areas needing improvement. Watershed report cards are tools used around the world to describe ecosystem status, increase public awareness, and inform decision makers. These documents assess the condition of the rivers themselves and the surrounding watersheds. The report cards were created by UMCES and the Southeast Michigan watershed organizations including: the Clinton River Watershed Council, the Friends of the Detroit River, the Huron River Watershed Council, the River Raisin Watershed Council, the Friends of the Rouge, along with Council Fire LLC. Over 100 stakeholders helped develop the report cards including scientists, government officials, business owners, and local community members.

"It’s important that the report cards are developed through strong engagement with local stakeholders so that the results are relevant to people’s needs," said Dr. Heath Kelsey, Director of the UMCES Integration and Application Network. "Partnerships created, or strengthened, during the development of the report cards can also be helpful in making the changes needed to improve conditions."

Each river and watershed’s condition is determined by 33 indicators in six categories: Water, Economy, Ecosystem, Human Health, Infrastructure, and Recreation. Overall, the highest scoring category was Recreation with 63%, a B-. Overall, the Human Health category scored the lowest with 38%, a D+. Infrastructure and Economy both had C- grades while Ecosystem and Water were slightly better, both Cs.

"These report cards can help inform decision making about restoration and management across the Southeast Michigan region," said Alexandra Fries, Program Manager, UMCES. "Report cards distill data into a grade similar to what students receive in schools, which helps to communicate complex information in a way that broad audiences can easily understand."

Of the river-specific scores:

  • Clinton River Watershed scored: 51%, C
  • Detroit River Watershed scored: 44%, C-
  • Huron River Watershed scored: 58%, C+
  • River Raisin Watershed scored: 54%, C
  • Rouge River Watershed scored: 36%, D+

"While the health of Southeast Michigan’s rivers and watersheds has improved over the past 50 years, there continues to be room for improvement," said Rebecca Esselman, Executive Director, Huron River Watershed Council. "Conditions might be moderate overall, but there are problem areas we know about that we must work hard to address."

These report cards highlight the connections between people and the environment, which is particularly striking in Southeast Michigan because of its industrial history. Urbanization in this region is a major driver of environmental and social concerns. One of the more urgent issues is severe flooding from stormwater. Replacing forests and wetlands with buildings and pavement, channelizing and burying streams, and building developments in floodplains has made floods more common, extreme, and impactful. The high cost of flooding impacts local economies by damaging properties and destroying crops.

In the Rouge and Detroit watersheds, floods overwhelm aging infrastructure, releasing diluted raw sewage into waterways. Sewage and other waste impacts river water quality and can cause human health concerns, impede recreation opportunities, and harm fish populations.

"Metro Detroit’s aging infrastructure heavily relies on combined sewers that collect both sewage and surface water," said Marie McCormick, Executive Director, Friends of the Rouge. "Heavy rain can cause these combined sewers to overflow, resulting in untreated sewage flowing into rivers and lakes. Metro-Detroit must invest in a combined green-gray infrastructure approach. This approach mixes rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavement, with conventional approaches like underground detention and retention systems, upgraded pipelines, and wastewater treatment plants."

Local nonprofits work tirelessly to improve conditions in each of the five watersheds. They run programs that include restoration, outreach, and water monitoring to protect, maintain, and improve the health of Southeast Michigan’s Rivers. Some of the efforts include:

  • The Clinton River Watershed Council coordinates Keeping-It-Clean events that encourage watershed residents to get involved in regularly scheduled trash cleanups.
  • The Friends of the Detroit River have protected and restored 185 acres of coastal wetlands for fish and wildlife, and created 245 habitat structures for amphibians and reptiles.
  • The Huron River Watershed Council partners with residents, land use planners, and local governments to incorporate nature into infrastructure planning and projects.
  • The River Raisin Watershed Council runs an Adopt-A-Stream program where volunteers look for and collect macroinvertebrates (aquatic bugs).
  • The Friends of the Rouge’s RainSmart Program aims to install 1,000 rain gardens and 6,000 rain barrels in the Rouge watershed.

An important indicator is the Environmental Justice Index, which characterizes the cumulative impacts and patterns of environmental injustice across the watershed. The index considers social factors such as poverty, race, ethnicity, and pre-existing health conditions, which can increase the impacts of environmental hazards. Overall, there are strong disparities in different areas of Southeast Michigan. Underserved, poor communities have worse conditions. Environmental justice is not only about protecting the environment, but also protecting human health and wellbeing. Addressing environmental injustice is crucial for the long-term health and sustainability of Southeast Michigan watersheds.

This project was supported through generous funding by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation. For more information about the Southeast Michigan Report Cards, including watershed-specific data and detailed analysis methods, visit

Media Contact:

Alexandra Fries
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science