The 51 km-long Detroit River links the upper and lower Great Lakes from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie. It is the most southerly Canadian Heritage River and lies within the Carolinian zone. It is home to rare species found nowhere else in Canada. Though heavily urbanized and not designated for its natural values, it is a major migration route for birds and butterflies and provides shelter for rare species such as the Eastern fox snake and queen snake. Many islands on the river are part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Significant efforts at ecological restoration have been ongoing for three decades through the Detroit River Canadian Cleanup.
Indigenous peoples have used the Detroit River and the Great Lakes as a principal means of travel, resource gathering and trade for more than 6,000 years. The site of Ontario’s first permanent agricultural community, the Detroit River not only offered freedom in Canada to enslaved people from the United States who crossed via the Underground Railway, but also enabled rum runners to smuggle their illicit cargo across during the Prohibition era. The river also has a strong industrial history, with Ford Canada and Hiram Walker and Sons headquartered along its shores.
Commercial navigation is one of the most fascinating aspects of the river, as it is one of the busiest international crossings in North America and therefore of extreme economic importance. This traffic includes tug boats and thousands of lake freighters and ocean going vessels.
Recreational boating is very popular along the Detroit River, which has over 12,000 marina slips and one of the best urban fisheries in North America. Numerous parks along the river are fantastic for bird watching. Festivals, events, historical sites, museums, beautiful riverfront plazas and canoeing and kayaking, ensure there is something to do, no matter the weather.
The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is the only International Wildlife Refuge in North America. It includes islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals, and waterfront lands along the Detroit River and Western Lake Erie shorelines.
The Essex Region Conservation Authority is responsible for managing the Detroit as a Canadian Heritage River.
The Canadian portion of the Detroit River was designated to the CHRS in 2001. It is also designated as an American Heritage River – the only North American river with dual designation. The designation is based on the cultural history of the river and its watershed. This history dates back to the First Nations of the area as long ago as 400 A.D., and includes the site of major battles in the War of 1812, the first permanent agricultural community in Ontario, and the river’s connection to the the Underground Railway. The river’s recreational values are also recognized in the designation.
Canadian Heritage Rivers Designation a Catalyst for Water Quality Improvements
Designation and Water Quality
In the more than fifteen years since the Detroit River’s designation to the CHRS (2001), municipalities, community members and other partners along the river have undertaken more than 500 water quality improvement projects and the results have been dramatic.
As the Director General of the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA), Richard Wyma, notes: “The designation of the river for its cultural heritage acted as a catalyst in stimulating many projects to enhance the river’s natural values.”
Big Projects With Incredible Results
The Detroit River suffered the effects of its industrial history and its location in a region with a population of 5 million people but municipalities along the river, ERCA and a host of other partners initiated water quality improvement projects that included:
- The 2008 removal of 975 cubic metres of PCB-contaminated sediments from Turkey Creek.
- The 2008 expansion of the Lou Romano Water Reclamation Plant, a project that added secondary treatment and roughly doubled the overall capacity of the largest and one of the last remaining primary wastewater treatment plants in the Great Lakes basin.
- The 2011 construction of the Windsor Riverfront Retention Treatment Basin, which reduced the amount of untreated water from sewer overflows entering the river.
The battle for better water continued with other water quality improvement projects such as the creation of buffer strips and soil erosion control structures, septic system upgrades, well capping projects and wetland restoration initiatives in watersheds that drain into the Detroit River. ERCA’s ongoing monitoring of the river has shown that these projects have had a very positive impact on the water quality of the river.
Education and Community Stewardship Make An Impact
These projects, combined with education initiatives and community stewardship events such as the Detroit River Canadian Cleanup Initiative have resulted in such remarkable improvements to the water quality that ERCA is considering submitting a request to add the river’s natural values to the designation. You can read more about this remarkable success story in the Detroit River Ten-Year CHRS Monitoring Report.
The 51 km-long Detroit River lies in the heart of the Great Lakes Basin and serves as the international boundary between Canada and the United States. Designated to the CHRS in 2001, the Detroit River is the first to achieve international designation, with matching federal designation on the American side. The CHRS river manager is the Essex Region Conservation Authority.
The Canadian Heritage River plaques offer a brief glimpse into why a river has been designated to the System. They are often located nearby one of its historically significant locations, and highlight some of the most important natural, cultural and recreational values of the river.
Detroit River Plaque Text
The Detroit River - The Detroit River is unique in Canada, the United States and indeed, the world. Its shores embrace the largest metropolitan area on any international border – but rather than separating communities the river connects them culturally and economically. Archaeological finds date First Nations communities at the river as early as 400 A.D. while French settlers reached the area by the mid-1600’s. The river and its watersheds represent the history of North America in a way that is not duplicated anywhere else. Local communities, major industries, and both Canada and the United States owe their development, in part, to the Detroit River and the people who took advantage of its potential. The river was the site of major battles, was the first permanent agricultural community in Ontario, and a terminus of the Underground Railway. Today, the Detroit River is one of the premier boating areas in North America, with more than 12,000 marina slips. The riverfront offers extensive park systems, outstanding recreational opportunities and historic sites, bird watching, canoeing and one of the finest urban fisheries in North America. This 51 kilometre waterway is the busiest international border crossing point in North America and a key transportation route in the Great Lakes system. It is the only major Canadian river and watershed that lies completely within the Carolinian zone, featuring diverse ecosystems and rare species found nowhere else in this country. Honoured as an American Heritage River in 1998, the Detroit is the first river with dual designations. Designation of the Detroit as a Canadian Heritage River encourages binational cooperation in its wise management and environmental restoration and is a testament to its significance as a national treasure.