Ann Arborite Laura Rubin
by Shelley Daily
Standing on a footbridge next to Argo Dam, Laura Rubin likes what she sees: a group carries inner tubes toward the new Argo Cascades, bikers and runners whiz by, a couple of paddleboarders balance clumsily on the pond, a few fishermen watch their lines. As executive director of the nonprofit Huron River Watershed Council, Rubin has an office in the New Center nearby, but the river--just a few steps away--is her true domain.
Everything about the Huron concerns Rubin, but the view isn't always this peaceful. For nearly a decade, HRWC advocated removing Argo Dam to restore this part of the river to its free-flowing state. The rowing clubs that use the pond sprang to its defense, and "it became a shouting match," she recalls. Faced with a state ultimatum to remove the dam or fix its failing millrace, City Council voted in 2010 to turn the millrace into the Cascades.
"The city's the ultimate decision maker," says Rubin, who was recently named a "River Hero" by the national River Network. "Uses of the river change over time, and it's about the values of the community."
Former councilmember Leigh Greden says that philosophical attitude is typical of Rubin's "passionate but pragmatic" approach. A fit forty-eight-year-old with freckles and auburn-colored hair, she heads a staff of eleven ecologists, planners, and educators. Their task is to provide the science and data local governments need to protect a 910-square-mile watershed that touches seven counties.
HRWC staff developed the first phosphorous-reduction plan in the state, lowering the pollutant's level in the Huron. They're helping to facilitate the ongoing cleanup of the old MichCon/DTE site below Argo Dam. And they've also been involved in a more popular dam removal project, on Dexter's Mill Creek. The free-flowing water and new parkland it created at the edge of the village now draw paddlers from all over Michigan and Ohio.
More than 1,200 members and volunteers help spread the council's message. Supporters haul junk out of the river on
cleanup days, "adopt" streams or storm drains, and help preserve natural areas.
"Identify your creekshed," Rubin urges residents. "You might live four miles from the river, but what you do affects it ... and affects water quality." She says that with more frequent flooding and droughts, people are starting to realize that "our relationship with rain is changing. It doesn't just rain and go away."
Rubin grew up a couple blocks from Lake Michigan in Glencoe, Illinois, the third of four children of two U-M grads who "used to go to Washtenaw Dairy together." Her mom was a homemaker who later owned a bookstore, and her father worked at the Chicago Stock Exchange and also "turned around failing companies." After graduating with a business and economics major and theater minor from Colorado College, she worked for Greenpeace's national headquarters in D.C. for four years--including a stint as interim director of the group's ocean ecology campaign.
Not known for timidity, she climbed a DuPont water tower in Delaware with a Greenpeace group and hung a giant blue ribbon on the tower awarding the company "First Place in Ozone Destruction." She camped on the tower for three days. "I got some community service for that, but I have no arrest record," she says. Does she look a bit askance at her younger, radical self? She insists she's still "fundamentally the same ... the way I see the world" but diplomatically follows up: "It's important to think differently about reframing issues for people. There are very effective ways--creative ways--to use nonviolent, direct action."
She met her future husband, John Lofy, when she hired him for a six-month boat tour she was leading for Greenpeace. She, Lofy, and a crew sailed to ports in the Gulf of Mexico to highlight problems with toxics, threats to marine animals, and coral reef destruction. After a period of hiking out west, the couple made their way to Ann Arbor, where Rubin enrolled in a new joint graduate program between the U-M's schools of business and natural resources. In 1995, she became its first graduate, earning an MS and an MBA; she and Lofy married the same year.
"I was the crazy liberal" in the business school, Rubin laughs. But she enjoyed straddling the worlds of business and environment. "I love a good budget," she says. After working for a couple of years helping manufacturers reduce pollution, she was hired to run HRWC. There, she made a "big effort to diversify funding--decreasing our reliance on government grants," including recruiting individual and business donors, private funding, and taking on fee-for-service work. HRWC's annual budget is now $1.2 million--three times what it was when she arrived.
Lofy and Rubin live in the Water Hill neighborhood with their two sons, Abe, sixteen, and Leo, thirteen. A runner, Rubin often runs the Argo-to-Barton loop near her office. She also swims at the city pools, bikes, and kayaks and canoes whenever she can. She enjoys singing and says it helps her to stay lighthearted considering how "serious people can get" about environmental issues.
She agrees there's plenty to get serious about. The continued spread of 1,4 dioxane in the groundwater under the city's west side--which originated at the former Pall/Gelman plant on Wagner in the 1970s--is a "debacle," she says; HRWC supports the city's and county's efforts to enforce stricter cleanup measures. Just a day after her visit to Argo Dam, the city reported that a clogged sewer pipe near the Arb had leaked untreated wastewater into the river. She says the HRWC is satisfied with the city's response, but adds the leak is a reminder of the need to update the city's aging infrastructure--which is why residents are seeing their water and sewer bills increase (see "The Sweet Smell of Success").
But the group doesn't just want people to protect the Huron. It also, Rubin says, wants them "to get out and enjoy the river."
Two years ago, HRWC launched RiverUp!, a million-dollar public-private partnership that aims to make the river a destination for residents and tourists. Along with improved access, Rubin envisions things like restaurants with views of the river, regular concerts or festivals, and paddle-sports and bike outfitters in river towns from Milford to Ann Arbor to Flat Rock.
"The more people you get to the river," she says, "the greater the conservation effort."
[Originally published in October, 2013.]