Macomb County officials are looking to widen a butterfly flyway by adding tens of thousands of plants in an open channel drain in the city of Sterling Heights.
The Macomb County Public Works Office has submitted a grant proposal through the Sustain Our Great Lakes program to provide more habitat for migratory birds and butterflies in an additional 1.5-mile stretch of the Sterling Relief Drain.
“We looking to build on the success of an award-winning green infrastructure project and butterfly flyway by expanding it, including the planting of many pollinator species of plants that attract butterflies,” Public Works Commissioner Candice S. Miller said.
The entire length of the Sterling Relief Drain is approximately 5 miles -- from Ryan Road to east of Schoenherr Road where it flows into the Red Run Drain. With grants from the United States Environmental Protection Agency ($1.25 million) and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation ($602,183), the 2 miles of drain daylighting and green infrastructure retrofit featuring the butterfly flyway includes more than 135,000 native perennial plants, over 1,000 shrubs and hundreds of trees that have been planted and are flourishing today.
Recently, 15 species of butterflies – including the monarch butterfly -- were spotted in a single day in one area.
“It’s really something to see,” Miller said. “We have had great partnership with the city of Sterling Heights and our Macomb County Board of Commissioners on this project.”
Officials have applied for funds from the Sustain Our Great Lakes program, managed by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, to redesign and retrofit another 1.5 miles of the Sterling Relief Drain, west of Mound Road. The Public Works Office also is overseeing the conversion of approximately 17 acres of mowed turf grass in the western 0.8 miles of the Sterling Relief Drain right-of-way to prairie grass to improve habitat.
Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor applauded the improved habitat in the Sterling Relief Drain.
“Certainly, we need that functionality, but then to create this space where the pollinators can come, it’s a beautiful, wild native area,” said Taylor, who as of July was one of 365 mayors and heads of local government in the U.S. who have signed the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. Under the pledge, they vow to educate the public about the decline of the monarch butterfly population and the need to create habitat.
“The more I learned about the monarch butterfly, the more I learned about how important it is to the natural balance of the ecosystem -- how much we rely on these pollinators for all the food that we eat. We take that for granted a lot of times,” said Taylor, “so I’ve been encouraging residents, and encouraging my colleagues in other cities to take the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge and do what you can to create areas within public property where you can put fly zones like we have here.”
Through the Sterling Heights Beautification Commission, Michigan’s fourth-largest city has provided free packets of pollinator seeds to residents for the past two years to encourage residents to plant pollinator-friendly gardens. The Sterling Heights Senior Center has a pollinator garden.
Macomb County Commissioner Joseph Romano of Sterling Heights, who has resided just a few blocks from the Sterling Relief Drain for almost 50 years, noted the dual benefits of plants helping to absorb stormwater and attracting butterflies.
“People say to me, ‘What’s the big deal about butterflies?’ Well, they’re nice to see. The plants help them, and I think they’re pretty in the area,” Romano said.
By daylighting, or exposing, stormwater flow in what had been enclosed portions in the eastern two miles of the Sterling Relief Drain, much of the flow can be absorbed into the ground which acts as a sponge. Designed infiltration removes nitrogen, phosphorus and sedimentation that otherwise would eventually reach Lake St. Clair.
In 2021, the Sterling Relief Drain “daylighting and green infrastructure retrofit” that included the pollinator plants was awarded Project of the Year in the category of Quality of Life/$1 million to $5 million, by the Michigan chapter of the American Public Works Association.
Press release distributed by Macomb County Public Works.