Funding a Greener Detroit to Clean up Lake Erie

The Erb Family Foundation has been funding University of Michigan’s work to improve water quality in the region for years. The funder’s latest $3 million grant to the school will help them wrangle Detroit and the Detroit River’s contribution to pollution in Lake Erie.  

Every summer, an excess of phosphorous, much of which flows from agricultural fertilizers, builds up in Lake Erie, causing massive algae blooms that produce toxins and can even shut down drinking water supplies. But a lot of this nutrient overload comes from poor old Detroit, by way of the Detroit River, which carries pollution from city stormwater and sewage overflow. 

A recent grant from the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation will help University of Michigan to get a handle on the problem's severity, and whether efforts to green-ify the transforming city are making a positive impact. The $3 million, three-year grant will go to the U-M Water Center to influence future policy and management decisions. 

Related: Why a Midwestern Funder Is Giving Two Million Bucks to Study Aquarium Microbes

The Erb Family Foundation has been around since 2007, derived from the wealth of the couple behind a sizable regional lumber supplier that they sold in 1993. The couple has since passed on, leaving a legacy foundation with assets of about $280 million and $5.6 million in giving in 2014. The funder now has three priorities—Alzheimer’s research, arts and culture, and the environment—with the green program focusing on the Great Lakes, and environmental health and justice. 

A major part of its environment funding has been a growing relationship with University of Michigan, including helping to establish a sustainable business institute and the Water Center that just landed the recent $3 million in funding. The foundation leadership says they are particularly impressed by how U-M's research is useful and directly relevant to policy.

The latest project pulls together the funder’s interests in urban sustainability and water quality, helping the center determine just how Detroit's pollution in the Detroit River are affecting the Lake. It also will monitor the impacts of a series of green infrastructure projects backed by the foundation. 

The financial decline of the former industrial boom town has been widely publicized, but like many Midwestern cities experiencing economic struggles, Detroit has been working to reimagine itself. 

As part of this, U-M landscape architect Joan Nassauer has been turning vacant lots where abandoned housing has been torn down into urban gardens designed to capture stormwater so it doesn’t pour into waterways.

It’s another example of how cities are undergoing big changes, and how sustainability projects, many backed by philanthropy, are better meshing the built environment with the surrounding environment. 

Related: For Surdna, Infrastructure is Where Justice and Sustainability Cross Paths