Red Run is gorgeous. But, it stinks. It begins at the George W. Kuhn Retention Basin in Madison Heights, where Oakland County then flushes gallons of partially treated sewage into the small river when it rains hard. From there, the run flows through Warren and Sterling Heights, traveling near Dequindre, north of 13 Mile Road, to Freedom Hill County Park, and eventually into the Clinton River near Hayes and Metropolitan Parkway. The Clinton River flows into Lake St. Clair, which drains into the Detroit River.
Because they rest outside of Oakland County, Warren, Sterling Heights, and Macomb County have little control over; management of the Kuhn Drain. Some say the situation in effect treats downstream communities like a toilet for upstream communities.
It may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. In 2006, Oakland County spent $132 million to expand the capacity of the basin to try to avoid overflows of combined sewage into local waterways. But it wasn’t enough. As of October 2021, Oakland County has sent nearly 3 billion gallons of partially treated sewage into Red Run in nine separate events for the year.
And with climate change making rain events more frequent and more intense, the problem is only going to get worse.
As nature would have it, beautiful vegetation sprouts all along the river. Within a two-mile stretch, one can happen upon milkweed, thistle, pokeberry, and even walnut trees. There are signs of duck, deer, coyote, and other wildlife all about the area. But to do what humans are wont to do and consume those plants or wildlife would be dangerous. The plant life at Red Run is not suitable for human consumption because it’s exposed to sewage.
Nearby, Red Oaks Waterpark and a golf course sit just downstream of the massive Kuhn retention basin. Families splash and people swing their clubs, while beneath their feet, massive pipes carry the wastewater of Oakland County into the Red Run when it rains hard enough.
Complicating things further, the Red Run flows through the backyards of Macomb County residents along its path, many of whom may not even realize they own a little piece of the drain.
That’s because of a rather outdated public policy written when the area was still being logged, which states that any waterway big enough to float a log is considered public property. If it’s not, then the waterway is private, owned by the landowners adjacent to it. In the case of the narrow Red Run, this means that every homeowner along the river owns a tiny piece right to the center of it, directly behind their property.
Short of collective action on the part of each homeowner to agitate for change, it’s hard to know what can incentivize elected officials in Oakland County to spend even more money on the Red Run Drain. Their constituents, after all, are not directly impacted by the contamination or the stench of the drain.
In addition to advocating for expanded infrastructure to be built, activists organizing in support of Red Run hope to see the waterway become public property, preferably owned by Macomb County, so that access to the waterway is opened up. They hope that increasing visibility will increase awareness, making the river’s challenges known to the greater public and hopefully encouraging elected officials to do something about this stinky place.
Bridget Quinn is a multimedia artist, social and environmental justice advocate and resident of Warren, Michigan.