Watershed Features

All watersheds exhibit a number of key features that are important to the health and quality of the region’s water and land.  In the Huron River Watershed, the most prominent among these features are:

Geology and Topography

In the Paleozoic Era of geologic time, the North American continent was inundated by ancient seas.  Over several periods spanning 570 to 340 million years ago, these marine environments deposited a variety of sedimentary bedrock – sandstones, shales, carbonate-rich rocks, rock salt, and gypsum – in the Michigan basin.  At the onset of the Great Ice Age (approximately two million years ago), continental glaciers from the Hudson Bay area advanced into the Michigan region, and the existing bedrock guided two major lobes of glacial ice that became part of the Wisconsin Glacier.  As the glacial climate began to wane, and the rate of melting increased, the glacier receded and the thinner ice zone between the lobes began to waste away.  Around 14,000 years ago, the earth below this zone was exposed, meltwater streams began to flow, and the first portion of what is now the Huron River Watershed emerged.

As the glacier’s enormous mass advanced, it scraped, shoved, and heaved the underlying earth, churning up particles as small as sand and as large as boulders.  This forward  movement created distinctive land forms known as terminal or end moraines at the “toe” of the glacier.  When the climate warmed, the ice mass melted and receded, leaving behind the more subtle land forms we call ground moraines.

In the path of their retreat, the glaciers left a rich and varied debris of sand, gravel, and clay known as glacial till.  The end moraines, in particular, are areas where glacial processes deposited very large quantities of rock and soil material of various sizes in one place.  This mix of particle sizes increases the soil’s ability to hold moisture and nutrients, and is conducive to agriculture.  We find coarse-textured end moraines (with moderate permeability) primarily in the northern and western parts of the watershed, and medium-textured end moraines (with low permeability) around the watershed’s periphery.

The melting glaciers also created glacial outwash plains where the meltwater runoff sorted soils into layers of similarly sized particles, including sand and gravel – particles that facilitate the rapid infiltration of surface water to groundwater aquifers and stream systems.  Both glacial outwash plains and the coarse- to medium-textured end moraines described above characterize much of the Huron River Watershed.

The earliest ancestor of the Huron River was a glacial stream that appeared in the vicinity of modern southeastern Livingston County and flowed westward and southward ultimately to join the Illinois and Mississippi River systems.  Over the next four thousand years, the early Huron River changed course several times, and reversed course at least once, responding to the stops and starts of the retreating glaciers, the topographical demands of the end moraines, and the meltwater’s need to find the lowest elevation.

Between 14,000 and 13,500 years ago, the Huron River’s final shift in course established its direct drainage southeast to old Lake Maumee, just north of today’s Tecumseh.  This event marked the close of the first phase of the river’s geologic history, when ice margins and land forms dictated most of its development.  During the subsequent phase, the evolution of the Huron River and its watershed was defined largely by the fluctuating levels of the various lakes in the Erie basin.  For most of the past 10,000 years, the Huron River and its watershed have remained (more or less) in geologic equilibrium.

Current Topography

In Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, glacial movements determined the modern topography of the Huron River Watershed, defining the upper and lower basins that we recognize today.  The upper basin (over 730 square miles) stretches from the Huron River’s headwaters at Big Lake in Oakland County southeast to the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti corridor.  This basin is characterized by rolling hills and a well-defined pattern of tributaries, lakes, and wetlands.  Beginning at Ypsilanti, the lower basin (approximately 150 square miles) is narrow and flat, resting as it does in the ancestral bed of Lake Erie.  This sharply narrowing lower basin contains an ever-widening Huron River, one that moves more slowly toward its point of entry into the great Lake Erie.


The Great Lakes provide a mixing zone for tropical and polar air masses. Seasonal climatic changes are one of Michigan’s most important features. The southwest part of Michigan can receive between 40-45 inches of precipitation annually. In comparison, the Huron River basin in southeast Michigan is located in a relatively dry area and receives an average of 30 inches of precipitation annually. Seasonal precipitation patterns are fairly stable because the warmer temperatures tend to hold more moisture in the air.

As a result of southeast Michigan’s higher temperatures and slightly drier air, moisture evaporation in the Huron River Watershed is higher and annual water runoff is lower than in most of the rest of the state. Climate data gathered over a 30-year period indicate that average high temperatures in the watershed range from 32ºF (January) to 84ºF (July), and average low temperatures range from 15ºF (January) to 59ºF (July).


The Huron River Watershed is home to a rich array of animal and plant life, there including over 90 species of fish and 34 species of reptiles and amphibians. Smallmouth bass thrive in the main branch of the Huron and in the warmer tributaries. Macroinvertebrates living in the water provide important indications of water quality and river health. Common mammals include raccoon, mink, muskrat, beaver, and deer. Full-time and part-time resident bird species include the great blue heron, a variety of wild ducks, and numerous songbirds. The watershed is an important stopover for migrating bald eagles, peregrine falcons, Canada geese, ospreys, warblers, and sandhill cranes.

The watershed’s flora is equally rich in variety, and includes a wide range of mixed deciduous and evergreen forests, flowering shrubs, wildflowers, and prairie grasses. Common woodland trees include oak, hickory, beech, and maple. Tamarack swamps, as well as black ash, elm and other hardwood swamps, are found in the western region of the watershed, while wet prairies of sedges and grasses are more typical of the eastern region.

Unfortunately, the watershed also has become home to a number of invasive species – plants and animals that are non-native to an ecosystem and whose introduction, in addition to being a human health hazard, is likely to cause economic and environmental damage. Examples of invasive species include purple loosestrife, a flowering “weed” that has the potential for wiping out native wetland plants, and the zebra mussel that has caused severe problems at power plants and in municipal water supplies. Zebra mussels also have nearly eliminated the ecosystem’s native clam population.


A floodplain is a land area immediately adjacent to a river, stream, or creek.  It is an area that may be covered with water after heavy rainstorms.  The floodplain collects and holds the excess water from storms, allowing it to be released slowly into the river system and to seep into groundwater aquifers, the underground layers of soil, gravel, or porous stone that yield and carry water.  Floodplains, along with wetlands and shorelines, are considered to be critical areas for a river and its watershed.

Floodplains, also known as riparian zones or systems, can support particularly rich ecosystems, both in quantity and diversity of species.  Soaking the floodplain’s soil releases a surge of nutrients – some left over from a previous flood and some resulting from the decomposition of organic matter in the current flood.  Microscopic organisms thrive, larger species rapidly breed, and opportunistic feeders (especially birds) move in to take advantage.  While the production of nutrients peaks and falls quickly, the emergence of new growth continues for some time.

Residential and commercial development projects in natural floodplains remove or reduce water storage capacity, and often cause flooding both up and downstream.  Artificially controlling stormwater, in an effort to keep it out of the floodplain, causes the water to overflow riverbanks in other locations.  This often creates floods of greater magnitude and danger.  Building on floodplains increases the risk of property damage and life-threatening conditions.  Diverting stormwater into channels forces the water to flow faster, and this both erodes topsoil and destroys habitats.


Wetlands, along with floodplains and shorelines, are critical environmental areas. Wetlands are saturated lowland areas (e.g. marshes and swamps) that have distinctive soils and ecology. Wetland areas filter flowing water, hold flood water, and release water slowly into surrounding drier land. Traditionally, wetlands have been regarded as undesirable, because they cannot be farmed or developed. Many of the wetlands and marshes in the Huron River Watershed have been dredged, drained, and filled. This has occurred without an awareness that these actions could have long-term consequences for hydrological systems, water quality, and wildlife. To date, the Huron River has lost an estimated two-thirds of its wetlands to agricultural, industrial and residential development. Wetland protection, restoration, and management are, and will continue to be, environmentally critical in the upper and middle sections of the watershed.

Wetlands perform several functions that are essential to environmental health.

Pollution Control. A major function of wetlands is water quality protection. Wetlands function as living filters by retaining or removing polluting nutrients and sediments from surface and groundwater. They do this in four ways: (1) uptake by plant life; (2) absorption into sediment; (3) deposition of organic material; (4) precipitation of chemicals. Nutrient chemicals such as phosphorus are necessary for plant growth, but are also a classic example of the harm done by “too much of a good thing.” Excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen can damage aquatic ecosystems by promoting an undesirable increase in algae and aquatic plant growth. The result is water reminiscent of pea soup, depleted levels of dissolved oxygen, weed-choked and rapidly aging lakes (a process also referred to as eutrophication).

Sediment Control. As sediment-laden water flows through a wetland area from the surrounding watershed, the sediments are deposited into the wetland. This reduces the formation of silt in lakes, rivers, and streams. Wetland vegetation and flat topography slow the water’s flow and increase the deposition rate of silt and organic matter. Heavy metals and toxic chemicals often attach to the sediment particles found in surface water runoff. Wetlands can trap these man-made pollutants and remove them from the water column. However, when the natural ability of wetlands to function as filters is overstressed, the wetland and its functions can be destroyed and the wetland itself can become a source of pollution.

Erosion Control. In their natural state, wetlands function as an inhibitor or barrier to erosion. The root systems of wetland plants stabilize soil at the water’s edge and enhance soil accumulation at the shoreline. Wetland vegetation along shorelines also reduces erosion by damping down wave action and slowing the speed of the water’s current.

Flood Prevention. Wetlands act as a hydrologic sponge, temporarily storing flood waters and releasing them slowly, preventing flood peaks and protecting downstream property from flood damage. Wetlands and floodplains often form natural floodways that convey flood waters from upland to downstream areas. This wetland function has become increasingly important in urban areas where development has increased the rate and volume of stormwater runoff.


Groundwater begins with rainfall and snow melt that seeps or infiltrates into the ground. The amount of seepage varies with the type of land surface – water seeps more readily through porous material such as sand or gravel and less readily through material such as clay. The water that does not seep into the ground either runs off into lakes and streams or evaporates into the atmosphere.

The water that seeps into the ground descends by force of gravity until it reaches a depth where it fills all the openings in the soil or rock. This is called the saturated zone and typically includes water-filled crevices in the upper layer of bedrock. The top of the saturated zone is called the water table. The water table rises and falls with the seasons and the seasonal amount of rain and snow.

Another zone is found between the water table and the surface of the land. This is the unsaturated zone, where the openings in the soil are only partially filled with water. Plant roots can capture the water passing through this zone on its way to the water table.

An aquifer is a water-bearing soil or rock formation that is capable of yielding usable amounts of water. When groundwater becomes trapped under impermeable soil or rock it is called a confined or artesian aquifer. A well piercing a confined aquifer is known as an artesian well. Aquifers that are not confined under pressure are called unconfined or water table aquifers, and the water level in an unconfined well is the same at the water table outside the well.

Water seeping into an aquifer is known as recharge. Recharging occurs intermittently both during and immediately after rainfall or snow melt. The areas where permeable soil or rock allows the water to seep into the ground are called recharge areas. Groundwater enters the ground in recharge areas and leaves the ground at discharge points, usually as seepage into wetlands, lakes, and streams. Streams that receive groundwater discharges are known as gaining streams. The level of water in the stream (or wetland or lake) is the water table level for the adjacent aquifer.

Groundwater moves very slowly from recharge areas to discharge points. The rate of flow may take years, decades, or even centuries to move long distances through some (less permeable) aquifers. However, it may take only a few days or weeks for groundwater to move a short distance through loose soil.

Pumping water from a well lowers the water table near that well. This is known as the cone of depression. The groundwater is diverted toward the well as it flows into the depression cone. The cone of depression formed by a pumping well may extend to a nearby stream or lake. When the level of the water table is lower than that of the stream or lake, the stream or lake loses water to the adjacent groundwater aquifer. This is known as induced recharge. Streams and wetlands have been known to completely dry up as a result of the induced recharge from pumping wells.

The Huron River Main Branch

The Huron River’s main stem flows 126 miles, from its origin at Big Lake and the Andersonville Swamp in Oakland County to its mouth at the shores of Lake Erie. Through a complex series of wetlands and lakes, the river meanders in a southwesterly direction from its headwaters to Portage Lake where it begins to flow south to the Village of Dexter in Washtenaw County. There, the river turns to the southeast and proceeds to its final destination at Lake Erie.

Between its headwaters at Big Lake and its point of entry into Lake Erie, the Huron River drops 446 feet. Along its course, 24 major tributaries flow into the main stem. However, the Huron is not a free-flowing river system. 17 impoundments are located on the river’s main stem. Throughout the whole system, at least ninety-seven dams segment the river system. This number does not include undocumented dams.

Geography of the Main Branch

In the following section, we divide the course of the Huron River into five geographically defined sections. This is simply a convenience; it is a practical way to describe the geography of the river and its watershed. However, the boundaries imposed by these divisions are man-made images and have little to do with the ecological distinctions found in nature. With that caveat in mind, the imposition of five geographical sections does help us to understand the river’s 126-mile progress from steeply sloped, relatively unpopulated land areas to more level urban industrial areas where population density is high. It also underscores the impact that human beings have on the natural environment of the river and the watershed.

Section I: Big Lake (Oakland County) to Kent Lake Dam (Livingston County)

Length 35.9 miles; Drainage Area 152 square miles

Descent 1,018 to 869 feet above sea level

In the upper half of this section, the Andersonville Swamp is the dominant feature of the landscape. The river is shallow and narrow, with many lakes punctuating a rolling and often hilly terrain. Land use within this drainage area is mostly rural residential, with clusters of urban development at Walled Lake and Milford. There are two major impoundments (bodies of water created by dams) at Milford and Kensington MetroPark. Recreational opportunities abound along the southern stretch of the Huron River in Section I − fishing, swimming, canoeing, hiking, bicycling, and picnicking.

Section II: Kent Lake Dam (Livingston County) to Portage Lake Dam (Washtenaw County)

Length 17.6 miles; Drainage Area 372 square miles

Descent 869 to 850 feet above sea level

The upper reaches of this section are primarily natural and undeveloped. Island Lake Recreation Area protects a variety of habitat and wildlife, and the river’s varied shoreline includes steep wooded banks, flat areas, gentle slopes, and extensive wetlands. The river is relatively wide, yet shallow, and the southern stretch of Section II is often called the Chain of Lakes. Both the river and the lakes are popular for water recreation, and Portage Creek (one of the river’s largest tributaries) enters the Huron at Portage Lake. A few pockets of viable agriculture remain in this section’s drainage area, but advancing residential development is evident.


Section III: Portage Lake Dam (Washtenaw County) to Superior Road Bridge (Washtenaw County)

Length 26.7 miles; Drainage Area 277 square miles

Descent 869 to 711 feet above sea level

The northern stretches of this section include woodlots, farms, pastures, and steeply wooded slopes. The southern stretches are intensely commercial and residential in their development, and increasingly urban in character. Section III is renowned for recreational opportunities. It is a destination for world class fishing, canoeing, and kayaking, with notable rapids at Hudson Mills and Delhi MetroParks. In this section, the river is wider and deeper, with major impoundments at Barton, Argo, and Geddes Ponds. Mill Creek, the largest tributary to the river, drains 144 square miles of agricultural land and enters the Huron River near the Village of Dexter.

Section IV: Superior Road Bridge (Washtenaw County) to US 275 Bridge (Wayne County)

Length 35.3 miles; Drainage Area 66 square miles

Descent 711 to 580 feet above sea level

In Section IV the river becomes even wider (up to half a mile across) and deeper, as well as steeper in descent, with the riverbanks dropping off sharply. This section includes the river’s two largest impoundments: Ford and Belleville Lakes. Most of this shoreline is privately owned, with multi-family residential development very near the water. Industries and municipalities use the river for both waste disposal and recreation, primarily boating and fishing. South of the major impoundments, the topography becomes increasingly flat, and most of the land use is densely urban and/or suburban in character.

Section V US 275 Bridge (Wayne County) to Pointe Mouillee (Monroe County) at Lake Erie

Length 9.3 miles; Drainage Area 41 square miles

Descent 580 to 572 feet above sea level

In Section V the Huron River achieves a mature river form − very wide and slow-moving. There is an abundance of wetlands along its banks and the entire drainage area is flat. The river’s final large dam (originally created to produce hydroelectric power) is found at Flat Rock. Below this point, the drainage area narrows rapidly, with land and water merging into marshlands that nurture a rich variety of fish and fowl. Two international migratory flyways intersect over Pointe Mouillee. At the mouth of the Huron, diked and drained land supports productive traditional agriculture. Throughout this section, one can sense the presence of a larger body of water (Lake Erie), a longer history of human habitation, and the influence of the river on the lives of the people who live here.


There are a variety of resources available on the main branch:

Huron River Creeks

Parts of Arms Creek flow through beautiful dense forests and wetlands.

HRWC is working to to summarize what is known about each major tributary and its creekshed. (Under construction; news links are added every 3-4 months)

Major Tributaries to the Huron River:


If your creek of interest is not yet linked in the list above, you can find it here: River Monitoring Reports and Plans

To see the various creeks that flow to the Huron River, or figure out what creeks flow near your house, see the Watershed Map.


The riprap placed here is designed to decrease erosion, but such control methods often fail.

Like floodplains and wetlands, shorelines are critical environmental areas. Shoreline development and stream flow alteration – along the inland lakes, the tributary streams, and the Huron River itself – dramatically change the immediate environment and frequently lead to the degradation of water resources. The most common causes of this degradation are stormwater runoff, malfunctioning septic systems, and stream bank cave-ins.

In an effort to prevent erosion, lakeside residents often install vertical sea walls, also known as bulkheads. Both science and experience tell us that these structures are environmentally degrading. The installation of sea walls requires the removal of native vegetation, allowing increased sunlight to reach the water and resulting in a water temperature too warm for aquatic life. Ironically, sea walls increase erosion rather than prevent it. By deflecting wave action from the shoreline, increased wave energy is directed elsewhere along the shore.

In an effort to improve drainage or reduce flooding, watershed residents often alter streams by damming, straightening, deepening, dredging, or widening them. Recognizing the enormous potential for serious environmental impact, the State of Michigan allows such activities only by permit from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

Today, there are many effective options for shoreline stabilization and stormwater runoff control – options that promote environmental health and reduce cost and maintenance. Bioengineering techniques provide construction alternatives that incorporate natural features such as gradual slope, native plants, and rocks. Bioengineered alternatives work with nature, rather than against it, employing tree and plant roots to infiltrate and stabilize the soil and protect the habitat of waterfowl, fish, and aquatic insects, and vegetated gradients to absorb wave action and manage flood waters.

And Us!

Another key feature is human history.  While very different from the physical features listed above, the past, present, and future interaction of water, land, and human beings often defines the unique characteristics found in a river’s watershed region.  It is a special heritage that will not be found anywhere else.

The archaeological record tells us that human beings arrived in the Great Lakes region, sickness from the west, almost 11,000 years ago. These early Native Americans were nomadic hunters and gatherers who pursued mastodons, woolly mammoths, and migratory game along the edges of the receding glaciers.

Michigan’s earliest residents were largely affiliated with the Algonquin nation, a people who had been driven by the Iroquois from Canada’s Georgian Bay. Down through the centuries, this migratory population came to organize themselves into three major tribal cultures – the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potowatomi, forming a loose confederation known as the Three Fires. A fourth group of people, calling themselves the Wendats (Wyandots), settled in southeastern Michigan. Both the Wendats and the Potowatomi established permanent and semi-permanent villages along the Huron River. They were culturally highly developed, with intricate social systems and complex religious beliefs. They engaged in varying degrees of agricultural practice and/or permanent settlement, pursued cooperative barter and trade, and struggled competitively for life-supporting resources.

Europeans began to arrive in Michigan at the beginning of the 17th century. First to come were the French explorers, who were followed by fur trappers and traders, and later by Jesuit missionaries. It was the explorer Robert Cavelier Sieur de LaSalle and his party who “discovered” the Huron River in 1680 while traveling overland from Lake Michigan. They paddled south from Portage Lake to the area near modern-day Belleville. Resuming their land route, they encountered the established Native American settlements near the river’s mouth. The French named the people who lived there the Hurons (from the French word hure referring to rough hair and inferring uncivilized characteristics), and named the river the Riviere Aux Hurons, or River of the Hurons.

The 18th century was marked by unrelenting European and colonial American settlement as homesteaders made the long journey across Ohio to Michigan’s fertile southern plains. The settlers who found their way to the Huron River Valley discovered the same environmental attributes that had attracted their Native American predecessors – clear water for drinking, flowing water for transportation, fertile soils, productive forests, abundant wildlife, and edible flora.

In 1805, after the successful American Revolution and the winning of independence from British rule, Michigan became part of the Northwest Territory. The Erie Canal was completed in 1825, connecting Michigan to New York State via Lake Erie. This opened the way for an even larger wave of American settlers. By 1830, Michigan’s non-native population had tripled and in 1837 Michigan gained statehood. As a result of dislocation, relocation, epidemic disease, and western migration, Michigan’s indigenous native communities dwindled and all but disappeared by the end of the 19th century.

During the 1800s, settlements in the Huron River Watershed were populated almost entirely by farmers. Agricultural production was largely self-sufficient and every town and village had access to a mill powered by the river or one of its tributaries. Life in the watershed has always been enriched by the extraordinary cultural diversity that traces its origins to the early settlement of homesteaders and missionaries from northern and western Europe, from Canada, and later from southern and eastern Europe.

In southeastern Michigan, industrial development followed closely on the heels of the early settlers, beginning with lumber and mining and expanding quickly into shipping and transportation. In 1855 the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie lifted the first steamship from Lake Huron to Lake Superior, and in the late 1800s Ransom Olds and Frank Clark built the first gas-fired “horseless carriage.” By 1908 Henry Ford was producing America’s favorite automobile, the Model T.

The rise of the transportation industry in the 20th century transformed human history in southeastern Michigan and the Huron River Watershed. In the early 1900s, automobile factories dominated the industrial scene, especially in and around Detroit. World Wars I and II added to product demand with the need for tanks, trucks, and airplanes. The industry’s wartime employment attracted thousands of workers – both white and African American – from the nation’s southland. For at least 50 years, southeastern Michigan rode the crest of an unprecedented economic prosperity promoted primarily by the automobile industry.

At the same time, the benefits of industrial growth have been costly. Area residents have paid a severe price in urban blight, racial strife, high unemployment (a byproduct of foreign competition, industry restructuring, and a depressed economy), and environmental degradation.

Negative consequences notwithstanding, economic prosperity remains embedded in the history of the Huron River Watershed. Cities and towns have flourished, as have the arts, theater, music, and higher education. The citizens enjoy an abundance of parks and natural preserves, and outstanding recreational and leisure opportunities, including some of the nation’s finest fishing and canoeing. Individuals, communities and industries alike have supported, and continue to support, a tradition of cultural and environmental conservation and preservation.

Dave Wilson
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