Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Water quality of the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and their U.S. tributaries, 1946-2005

January 1, 2007

The St. Clair River/Lake St. Clair waterway forms an international boundary between the United States and Canada. The waters of the area are an important part of the cultural heritage of the area and serves as an important water-supply and power-generating resource; the waterway also supports an economy based largely on recreation, agriculture, and manufacturing. This report was undertaken as part of the Lake St. Clair Regional Monitoring Project for the purpose of providing a comprehensive assessment of the hydrological, chemical, and physical state of the surface water of Lake St. Clair and its tributaries. The data varied in focus and density over the period of compilation which in many cases this variation prevented the completion of statistical analyses because data did not meet minimum comparability or quality requirements for those tests.

Comparison of water quality of the Belle, Black, Clinton, and Pine River Basins, as well as basins of minor rivers in the study area, showed that water quality in many of the tributaries, particularly the Clinton River and some of the minor rivers, was degraded compared to the water quality of the St. Clair River/Lake St. Clair waterway. Data analyses included comparison of nutrients, chloride, specific conductance, turbidity, biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), and pesticides among the basins and the St. Clair River. Median concentrations of total nitrate were well below the recommended USEPA total nitrogen ambient water-quality criterion of 0.54 mg/L as N for nutrient ecoregion VII for all study-area streams except the Clinton River. More than 93 percent of the phosphorus concentrations for the Belle, Black, Pine and minor river basins and 84 percent of the phosphorus concentrations for the Clinton River Basin are greater than the USEPA recommended ambient total phosphorus criterion of 0.033 mg/L for rivers and streams. Nine chloride concentrations exceeded the USEPA criterion maximum concentration (CMC) for chloride set at 860 mg/L for all study-area streams, with the six largest being in the Belle River Basin. Higher chloride concentrations were increasingly common from 2002 to 2005. The urban minor river basins had the highest median specific conductance, whereas the agricultural Pine River Basin had the lowest median specific conductance. The median values of BOD for the five basins in the study area ranged from 2.4 mg/L for the Pine River Basin to 3.2 mg/L for the Black and Clinton River Basins, whereas the median for the St. Clair River was 0.5 mg/L. In 1985, the highest concentrations of pesticides were found in samples from the mouth of the Clinton River; however, in 1996–98, the majority of high pesticide concentrations were found in samples from the Black River. Changing land-use patterns, specifically conversion of agricultural lands to urban/residential lands in the Clinton River Basin, may explain this difference.

Trend analysis was done for four stream sites where adequate data were available. These analyses identified no significant water-quality changes at a stream site on the Black River, where land-use patterns have changed little in the past few decades. This stands in marked contrast to trend analysis for three stream sites in the Clinton River Basin, which has undergone significant land-use change. The changes at the Clinton River stream sites, ranging from 5 to 13 significant trends, were generally decreases in nutrients and increases in total dissolved solids (TDS) and chloride.

The greater flow volume of the St. Clair River/Lake St. Clair waterway is able to assimilate incoming dissolved and suspended constituents from tributaries with little effect upon its overall water quality, although incomplete mixing may result in localized water-quality impairment downstream from tributary confluences. Mixing effects on Lake St. Clair water quality was also demonstrated in analysis of Escherichia coli (E. coli) data collected at paired nearshore/offshore sites, which reflected similarity in water quality among many paired sites.

Publication Year 2007
Title Water quality of the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and their U.S. tributaries, 1946-2005
DOI 10.3133/sir20075172
Authors Denis F. Healy, Douglas B. Chambers, Cynthia M. Rachol, Richard S. Jodoin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2007-5172
Index ID sir20075172
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Michigan Water Science Center