After three decades, cleanup efforts push Muskegon Lake closer to federal delisting

By: - May 31, 2022 3:29 pm

Muskegon Lake AOC | EPA map

A lake in West Michigan is set to become the state’s next high-priority area to be removed from the international Areas of Concern (AOC) list, meaning that Michigan’s environmental cleanup efforts at Muskegon Lake have brought the area’s ecological issues a long way from where they stood 35 years ago.

The United States and Canada first identified AOCs in the Great Lakes region in 1987 as part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The list initially singled out 43 areas of concern. Fourteen of those were located in Michigan, but cleanup efforts over the last three decades have shrunk that list to 11.

EGLE Director Liesl Clark (in white jacket) at EPA Area of Concern media event in Muskegon | EGLE photo

With the final stages of the Muskegon Lake cleanup, the number of AOCs in Michigan may soon be down to 10.

“I hope you all recognize that your hard, smart, and persistent work is transformative,” said Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), speaking on May 24 to participants involved in the cleanup.

“I know you measure progress through actions completed, impairments removed, and areas delisted. I hope you also take pride in all the ripple effects: the lives you improve, the community pride you restore, the opportunities you create, and the better future you help build,” she said.

Clark joined other state officials, as well as federal and local officials and stakeholders, for a gathering at Muskegon’s Heritage Landing to celebrate the completion of all management actions required to delist Muskegon Lake.

The three successfully restored and delisted Michigan areas are White Lake in Muskegon County, Lower Menominee River in the western Upper Peninsula and Deer Lake in Marquette County. Progress continues at the 11 other sites, but EGLE says Muskegon Lake is the closest to getting off the AOC list.

Muskegon Lake is a 4,149-acre drowned river mouth lake that flows into Lake Michigan. The area’s AOC includes the lake itself and portions of its tributaries, including Ruddiman Creek, Ryerson Creek, Four Mile Creek, Bear Creek and Green Creek. It also encompasses Bear Lake and portions of the Muskegon River.

Municipal and industrial pollution originally caused the contamination long ago. The pollutant discharges, in addition to shoreline development and hardening, debris filling open water and groundwater contamination, resulted in ecological issues that the state has been addressing via remediation projects over the last 20 years.

Most management actions — projects that target conditions sufficient to cause significant environmental degradation and limit beneficial uses — have been completed for Muskegon Lake since the fall.

The sediment remediation and habitat restoration work has so far cost approximately $70 million. Once environmental evaluations find that the lake is meeting applicable cleanup criteria, the process for delisting Muskegon Lake from the AOC list can begin.

Still left to be cleaned and restored before being removed from the list are the Clinton River, Detroit River, Manistique River, River Raisin, Rouge River, St. Clair River, St. Marys River, Kalamazoo River, the Upper Peninsula’s Torch Lake and the Saginaw River and Bay.

All AOCs flow into the Great Lakes and their watersheds.

The lake is one of nine AOCs in the Great Lakes region set to receive federal cleanup funds totaling around $1 billion from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law President Joe Biden signed last year.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.