Photo of the Blue Heron Lagoon at Belle Isle on the Detroit River

Detroit River AOC – Lake Okonoka Habitat Restoration Design

Funded by: NOAA

Funding - Total Project Budget: $389,692

Federal: $319,692 Local Match: $70,000

Start/End Date: August 1, 2014 - January 31, 2016

Belle Isle is positioned at the "gateway" to the Detroit River. Here, the river's water quality is at it best, clear and fast flowing from Lake St. Clair. The island's unique, 200-acre, wet-mesic flatwoods forest along with its interconnecting lakes and canals provide a significant framework for fish and wildlife habitat. However, most of the island's internal waterways are isolated from the river and the Great Lakes. This project makes advancements in reconnecting Belle Isle's internal waterways to the river and restoring the wet-mesic flatwoods forest to enhance habitat for a great diversity of animal and plant species.

In addition to being the City of Detroit's most popular open space for recreation, the island's unique, old growth, 200-acre, wet-mesic flatwoods forest and penetrating canals provide a haven for migratory and resident birds and an important nursery habitat for larval fish species. Water bodies on Belle Isle include three lakes, a lagoon, and over two miles of canals, totaling 106 acres of open surface water. Historically, these waterways were connected to the Detroit River, providing aeration and circulation for fish habitat. In the 1950's, the waterways were closed off from the river, creating stagnant conditions and eliminating the ability for fish to migrate into the canal / lake system. Pumps were installed to circulate the water, but are costly to maintain and operate; therefore, are currently functioning only on a limited basis.

Manipulation of the internal waterways has contributed to degradation of the wet-mesic flatwoods community and Lake Okonoka, which are both identified for restoration as part of the Detroit River Public Advisory Council's plan for removing fish and wildlife related beneficial use impairments (BUIs). The canal system routes through the wet-mesic flatwoods community, which is rated according to the Heritage Methodology as "vulnerable to imperiled globally and imperiled within the state". This rare community on Belle Isle is, by far, the largest remaining example in Michigan. Hydrology is the most important natural process that maintains a wet-mesic flatwoods community. The canal system also routes through Lake Okonoka, a linear-shaped lake with several forested islands providing a diversity of terrestrial and aquatic habitat.

In late summer of 2014, FDR received Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct a two-part design project on Belle Isle to accomplish work outlined below.

  • A hydrologic assessment and pre-design of Belle Isle's interconnected lakes / canals and wet-mesic flatwoods forest.
  • Design and engineering for improving the hydrologic function of Lake Okonoka by enhancing connectivity with the Blue Heron Lagoon and the Detroit River coupled with habitat enhancements along Belle Isle's south shore adjacent to the South Fishing Pier – complete through permitting by regulatory agencies.

The proposed hydrology/pre-design could lead to habitat restoration of 286 acres for fish and wildlife within a dense urban area. Restoration work is anticipated to be completed in the following areas: Belle Isle's wet-mesic flatwoods forest (200 acres); the isle's internal lakes and canal system consisting of three lakes and two miles of canals (totaling 65 acres); and the nearshore area of Belle Isle's south coast (21 acres along 3,000 feet of shoreline). Of the 286-acre total, design and engineering through permitting will be completed for Lake Okonoka enhancements (24 acres) and the isle's south, nearshore enhancements (21 acres). These enhancements combined with the recent opening of Blue Heron Lagoon (41 acres) to the Detroit River will total 85 acres of calm spawning and nursery habitat for Great Lakes fish protected by a narrow landmass.

The hydrology/pre-design is necessary to develop a final design for the restoration of Lake Okonoka and is a prerequisite for design work associated with the wet-mesic flatwoods forest ("Forested Wetland Restoration" project), which will be completed under a future grant. The Detroit River Public Advisory Council identifies the "Hydrology/pre-design", "Forested Wetland Restoration" and "Lake Okonoka and South Shore Restoration" projects as necessary steps to remove the "Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat" and "Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations" beneficial use impairments. Significant positive recreational and economic impacts are anticipated as a result of these project outcomes that will enhance southeast Michigan's quality of life and further strengthen the Great Lakes fishery worth $4-7 billion annually.

Project Updates: The project is getting underway early in 2014. The project team anticipates the completion of a Quality Action Project Plan by early February so that environmental data gathering can begin in early spring. Design work will be completed during the summer. Construction documents and permitting will follow late in 2015.

Blue Heron Lagoon Restoration

Blue Heron Lagoon and Lake Okonoka

Lake Okonowa

South Fishing Pier on Belle Isle