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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Radio, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource.

Two generations and $70 million later, Muskegon Lake is restored

  • In West Michigan, Muskegon Lake will soon be removed from the list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern.
  • The completion of restoration efforts comes after over 30 years and 470 million invested in cleanup.
  • Along with the progress and promise of economic revitalization, there is still work to be done to protect water resources in this Lake Michigan Shoreline community.  

Before the United States and Canada formally declared Muskegon Lake an “area of concern” the 4,149-acre expanse of polluted, sediment-choked, debris-congested water at the mouth of the Muskegon River was so repulsive that only rats and hungry gulls plied its shores.
More than a century of abuse by sawmills, chemical plants, energy installations, and raw sewage produced conditions so vile that by the early 1980s the lake was all but ecologically dead. In 1987, under the provisions of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a joint U.S.-Canada pact to clear pollution from the waters of the Great Lakes, Muskegon Lake and its tributaries were designated as one of 43 similarly polluted areas of concern; 26 are located in the U.S.,12 are located in Canada, and five are shared by both countries.

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Environment Canada
43 Areas of Concern were identified by the United States and Canada in the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Of these 43, nine have been delisted.

The history of toxic cleanups in the U.S. includes ample evidence that the work is expensive and success is achieved over decades. That is certainly the case with Muskegon Lake. Last May, local, state and federal officials gathered at Heritage Landing, a former industrial-scrapyard-turned-waterfront park on Muskegon Lake’s south shore to declare that the $70 million project to cleanup, remediate and restore Muskegon Lake was complete.

“There is no law, there's no private cause of action, there's no ability to sue within the water quality agreement,” said Jon Allan, senior advisor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, and U.S. co-chair of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board. “All it says is the two governments see a common problem, and they say ‘we'll work on this together.’”

“When [AOCs] were designated, they were designated as the most contaminated places. Shouldn't the most contaminated places get additional attention because the people who live there have suffered from that for a very long time,” Allan added. “We know enough to act, so let's use those dollars to act.”

In Muskegon, life after delisting holds the promise of economic revitalization. With the conclusion of cleanup efforts on Muskegon Lake, the area has seen an increase in property values and tourism, illustrating the intrinsic connection between the community and its shoreline.

This has spurred enthusiasm in the community, which has struggled to overcome economic depression throughout its history and to establish itself as a tourist destination on the Lake Michigan shoreline.

While this enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment is important, after delisting, community leaders must grapple with the perception that their work is done.

The indicators of water health identified in the 1980s do not address issues such as climate change or invasive species, all of which amplified after the GLWQA was signed 50 years ago.

While the EPA recognizes these issues and their effect on the Great Lakes region, they are not part of the AOC program, said Al Steinman, director of the Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon, Michigan.

“Every AOC, I don't care where you are, that's already been delisted or will be delisted in the future still has ecological problems that need to be addressed,” Steinman said. “The key, then, is how do you communicate that to a community after it's been delisted and you've had this huge celebration to get off the list?”

In Muskegon, PFAS contamination remains a major detriment to the health of the lake, along with the presence of harmful algal blooms.

Eric Kuhn,executive director of the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, said that maintaining a relationship with local stakeholders and creating a long-term management plan is key to maintaining the restoration work and to future stewardship.

Muskegon has been fortunate, given the close proximity of the Commission, Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership and NOAA’s Lake Michigan field station. There are natural opportunities for partnerships in the area, Kuhn said.

“Having those strong partnerships really made us be able to accomplish [restoration efforts] faster,” Kuhn said.

“It's their community’s future, and it's ultimately their responsibility when the state and federal funding is shifted to other areas,” said Collin Knauss, who serves as the project development manager for the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

“At this point, a number of AOCs are getting to a transition point where they've received levels of federal and state funding over the years to support a lot of community efforts,” Knauss said. “It's sort of like a kid going off to college.”

As other AOCs throughout the Great Lakes near the delisting stage, Knauss said communities must shift their focus from simply meeting benchmarks to being stewards of the long-term health of the water.

In AOC communities like Muskegon, progress towards a less polluted, more natural environment is undoubtedly worth celebrating. While a pat on the back is warranted, communities mustn't miss the opportunity to continue progress towards a cleaner, more sustainable use of beloved water resources.

“It's the restoration of place that allows people to see a future that is different from their past,” Allan said. “The restoration of the environment is the restoration of the human soul.”

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