A Brief History of Our River


With help from our members and supporters, FOSR works to heal the Shiawassee River and protect fresh water resources.

The Shiawassee River: A History of Misuse; a Future of Recovery

While the Shiawassee River is the most significant body of water in Shiawassee County, it has humble beginnings at its headwaters; a few small lakes and fens in northwest Oakland County and Livingston County. During the river’s course, it flows northeast 110 miles and connects to several other river systems, including the Flint River, Cass River, and Titabawassee River. Together, these waterways form the Saginaw River, which drains into the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron.

Historically, the Shiawassee River has faced a number of challenges stemming from improper disposal of industrial and sewage wastes, and misuse. Prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Shiawassee River, along with many freshwater rivers in the United States, struggled with an overload of poorly treated municipal sewage and industrial waste. In 1983, a section of the river in Livingston County was declared a superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency, due to industrial pollution from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in a poorly contained wastewater lagoon.

Thankfully, these point sources of pollution have been dramatically reduced. In the 1980s, federal, state and local governments made significant investments and major upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Sources of industrial pollution were identified and eliminated. The Shiawassee River has made amazing progress in the past few decades. However, it still negatively affected by several dams and from runoff contaminated by excess sediment, fertilizer, city storm drainage, and trash.

Despite its challenges, the Shiawassee River is considered one of the healthiest warm-water rivers in Michigan (a warm-water river is fed mostly from surface runoff, thereby causing mild temperatures). It is well known for smallmouth bass fishing and supports a high diversity of aquatic life. The river, its wetlands and fens sustain more than 60 species of fish; 12 species of freshwater mussel; and globally rare species such as the Indiana bat; eastern massasauga rattlesnake; blanding’s turtle; and a small butterfly, the poweshiek skipperling. The river also plays an integral role in the travel of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds.


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