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Great Lakes Resurgence Cleanup efforts bring life to local waterfronts

The Great Lakes are having a moment. Ask local environmental leaders how the Great Lakes are doing, and they will rely heavily on two letters: RE. It’s a prefix that indicates “back to,” and words like revitalize, restore, revive, and renew are integral to understanding just what is happening in this water-rich region.
For decades, whether manufacturing oil, steel, cars, heavy machinery, or more, communities along the lakes and nearby waterways thrived economically, helping to build the region and the country. When much of the industry moved to other parts of the world, waterways were left with a legacy of pollution. And the communities that sit on their shores had to cope with environmental, health, and economic setbacks.

In 1987, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement designated 31 Areas of Concern (AOC) in the United States. AOCs are Great Lakes tributaries with significant pollution and habitat problems.

With funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, AOCs are getting cleaned up and habitat is being restored.

An ecological investment is bringing life back to the aquatic environment. Tourism, recreation, and development are returning to the basin’s rivers, harbors, and lakes.

Revitalization breaks through in this photo essay from National Geographic photographer Peter Essick, in collaboration with the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network, demonstrating the renewed majesty of the Great Lakes and focused energy of AOC communities to bring people back to the water.

Every Great Lakes state has at least one ongoing or completed AOC cleanup or habitat project. While these communities have much in common—a history of legacy pollution and new challenges going forward—each has a unique story to tell.

Cuyahoga River Area of Concern

Northeast Ohio

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland. Fifty years ago, decades of industrial pollution flowing directly into the river led to the now-famous fire that sparked the creation of the Clean Water Act.

Since then, the Cuyahoga River AOC committee, which includes Ohio Sea Grant, has worked with the U.S. EPA and other partners to not only prevent more contaminants from entering the water, but also to remove legacy contamination from the sediments at the bottom of the river. These efforts are essential to addressing impairments along the river and restoring the Cuyahoga to its natural state.

The AOC committee has already registered successes. Public access to the water and aesthetics have improved, and the fish are safer to eat. The Flats, a former industrial area in downtown Cleveland, has become a thriving neighborhood that includes residential buildings as well as shops and restaurants. The Cleveland Metroparks also recently opened public slips near the Merwin’s Wharf restaurant, giving people direct access to the Cuyahoga with their own rowboats and kayaks, making the neighborhood a great example of balancing business development and recreation with the ecological integrity of the river and its inhabitants.

The work of restoring the Cuyahoga River continues. The EPA Great Lakes National Program Office is collaborating with the AOC committee and other partners on the potential removal of the Gorge Dam near Cuyahoga Falls, about 30 miles upriver from Lake Erie. That removal would have a huge impact on the river, including restoring its natural flow, enhancing fish habitat, and improving the health of wildlife that depend on the river.

Detroit River Area of Concern

Southeast Michigan

The city of Detroit sat at the heart of the industrial revolution, putting Americans in cars and World War II fighters in planes and tanks. Today, the bustling Detroit River bears the weight of the area’s industrial legacy.

The river’s shorelines have been hardened and reshaped to make room for massive industrial complexes. The riverbed has been carved up for shipping traffic. Environmental regulations like those outlined in the Clean Water Act have substantially reduced point-source pollution, but decades of chemical and heavy metal contamination hide in river sediments, slowly leaching out to degrade river quality and fish health. These factors, among others, led to the Detroit River being declared an Area of Concern.

This waterway is an important recreation opportunity for hundreds of thousands of Detroit residents. Belle Isle State Park, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, and Lake Erie Metropark all offer places for residents and visitors to access the riverfront. However, Belle Isle Beach is the only public beach on the 32-mile-long river. Combined sewer overflows, overcrowding, and other challenges sometimes shut the beach down.
In a city where public access to natural areas can be hard to come by, it’s more important than ever to work toward a future where the Detroit River is a clean, safe, and accessible place for Detroit residents and visitors to fish, paddle, swim, and play.

Grand Calumet River Area of Concern

Northwest Indiana

The Grand Calumet River, less than a mile from Lake Michigan, was once known as the most polluted waterway in America. In this heavily populated area just east of Chicago, years of steel and other industries helped physically and economically build up the larger region, while pouring heavy metals, PCBs, PAHs, and other contaminants into the air and water.

Globally important remnants of very diverse natural areas, like dune and swale habitats, have endured alongside all this activity.

Since 2009, more than 2 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment—60% of the Grand Calumet River's total contamination—have been dredged or capped in this 13-mile Area of Concern. Half of the sediment remediated through the Great Lakes Legacy Act so far has taken place here.
Throughout this process, efforts have gone beyond meeting water quality standards and preserving biodiverse remnants as museum pieces. The priority has been to restore function in natural areas to provide food and habitat for fish and other wildlife—to make the ecosystem healthy and sustainable. Another focus has been to provide people access to nature in this underserved region, to foster ways for residents to feel more connected to the river.
“People are now more aware of the impacts of industry on human health and the environment,” said Paul Labus of The Nature Conservancy. “We are still working through what a healthy balance will be in terms of decisions about the landscape.”
This project is big, and after 10 years—with more work to go—it is challenging to maintain funding as the work moves from one step to the next. It has also been a struggle to keep everyone at the table, especially municipalities and the public, although progress can help bring people onboard. While most of the industry that drove land use choices in the past is gone, economic development is critical to the region.

Niagara River Area of Concern

Western New York

On the Niagara River, a 37-mile binational strait connecting lakes Erie and Ontario, local agencies and advocacy groups have devoted over $100 million each year for habitat projects such as eel grass restoration. These efforts are shadowed by structures like the Huntley Power Plant, an example of the type of industry that still lines the river and has contributed to its legacy contamination.

Development and industry in the past several hundred years have severely altered the habitat and water quality in the Niagara River AOC. This long history of development, contaminated discharge and sediments as well as proximity to hazardous and Superfund sites has led to habitat degradation and challenges to the survival of aquatic life.

On the plus side, Waterkeeper monitors water quality at 10 locations along the Niagara River and organizes shoreline cleanups along the river several times each year.
In addition to the Niagara River, four other AOCs are located along Lake Ontario: Buffalo River, Rochester Embayment, Eighteen Mile Creek, and St. Lawrence River, where the St. Regis Mohawk tribe plays a pivotal role in local stewardship. The Oswego River, which was once named an AOC, reached its delisting targets in 2006. However, monitoring continues to this day.

Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern

Southeast Wisconsin

Milwaukee is known for many things—beer, music festivals, and gemütlichkeit, a German word reflecting the city’s traditional dominant ethnicity and meaning goodwill. Historically, it has also been known for its skilled manufacturing industry with factories turning out massive products like turbines, cranes, rail cars, and farm machinery. In the early part of last century, it earned the moniker “machine shop to the world.”

Today, Milwaukee’s manufacturing base has declined but it still boasts the iconic Harley Davidson motorcycle factory—to the appreciation of “hog” fans—that has been a part of the industrial landscape since 1903.
With Milwaukee AOC cleanup underway and progress charted, the area has seen a shift in land use. A diversified economy is driving the change. A booming urban lifestyle has taken over, with Milwaukee’s Department of City Development noting housing expansion of nearly 2,500 units from 2000 to 2007. In that same time, more than 2 million square feet of new and relocated office space attracted businesses. Cultural enhancements since the AOC designation include construction of the Milwaukee Public Market and the science and technology center known as Discovery World, plus expansion of the Milwaukee Art Museum and RiverWalk.

Another revitalization success story is Lincoln Park in the northern section of the AOC, which has undergone sweeping habitat restoration as well as remediation. Beloved by area residents, this park spawned a friends group that conducts numerous community gatherings, including a Weed-Out event tackling nonnative species.

Remediation creates a welcome spot for prolific species like garlic mustard or burdock, which can outcompete native flora and reduce diverse, sustainable habitats. A Friends of Lincoln Park newsletter advertising the spring 2019 Weed-Out exhorted volunteers with a call to action that could, in fact, apply to every AOC: “We need to care for our watershed.”

St. Louis River Area of Concern

Eastern Minnesota

The St. Louis River Estuary can be described as wilderness in the heart of a concrete jungle. Slicing Duluth, Minnesota, from Superior, Wisconsin, at the western tip of Lake Superior, its water defines the border between cities and states. This 12,000-acre freshwater complex of wetlands, streams, and bays encompasses the nation’s busiest bulk inland port, the cultural history and current practices of the Anishinaabe, sport fish habitats, and an AOC.

Correcting the environmental damage of an earlier era takes time, money, planning, know-how, and the combined efforts of many people. For the St. Louis River, these people include resource managers, engineers, and habitat restoration experts.

Biologists and volunteers have worked to restore the sturgeon population. Municipalities, businesses, and residents have reduced the amount of nutrients and sediment that reach the estuary after storms. Scientists have confirmed that fish are no longer developing tumors at troublesome rates, and agency staff members are involved in lifting the related beneficial use impairment for the Area of Concern. Alongside those dedicated to restoring the health of the AOC, residents, taxpayers, and non-profit organizations are also playing a role.

Aspirations for removing the AOC designation by 2025 seem to be coming true. Wild cards lurk in this scenario, however. Extreme storms are becoming more common. The runoff from one gully washer can deliver staggering amounts of sediment, nutrients, pollutants and damage in less than 24 hours, which could undo habitat restoration projects, improved water quality and other remediation progress. Changes in Earth's climate could undo much more over the next decade. Warmer and wetter conditions could lead to murkier water, more beach advisories due to higher bacteria counts, toxic blue-green algae blooms and shifts in the aquatic food web.

Waukegan Harbor Area of Concern

Northeast Illinois

The cleanup of Waukegan Harbor was officially completed in 2013. This AOC about 40 miles north of Chicago had come a long way—at one point, the harbor had the highest concentration of PCBs anywhere in the world after a boat manufacturer leaked the pollutant into the harbor water for years. Pollution from industry diminished fish and other wildlife populations and their habitats, and led to beach closings.
Qualifying as a Superfund site, EPA led many partners in the decades-long cleanup effort in the harbor—over 124,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment were dredged and any remaining PCBs were capped. Federal and state support through funding and expertise has been helping to restore wildlife habitat and to monitor fish in the harbor.

The Waukegan community has finally been able to turn the page on the legacy of industrial pollution along its shores that is such a familiar story in the Great Lakes region and the nation. Revitalization has begun to take shape in the harbor.

At a site that was once viewed as a health risk, the city now hosts 15 waterfront festivals every year that attract more than 250,000 people and give local businesses a boost. On the beach, more than 130 public activities take place—from morning yoga to evening concerts. Beach parking permits often sell out on the weekends.

The Bay Marine Chicago Yachting Center opened in 2018, providing more boating resources and amenities. With a renewed interest in sport fishing, boat slip occupancy rates have increased every year since 2014.

Moving forward, with input from the community, the city has developed a master plan for the harbor and its connection to nearby downtown. The plan focuses on enhancing land use, environmental stewardship, and economic development of Waukegan Harbor.

Presque Isle Bay Area of Concern

Northwest Pennsylvania

Presque Island Bay is a small but vital body of water that lies between the Lake Erie shoreline and a 7-mile curved island, Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania. The story of this AOC began over 200 years ago when the city of Erie found promise and prosperity as a major shipping port and manufacturing hub. Industrial and domestic wastewater was discharged directly into the bay and local streams, often located in close proximity to drinking water intakes, resulting in serious health issues for residents. The bay was polluted with excessive nutrients, organic compounds, and heavy metals in the sediment.

By the early 1980s, public concern over contamination in the bay was at an all-time high. Anglers regularly caught catfish with tumors or other deformities, and dredging activity led to suspended contaminants in the water. The Erie County Environmental Coalition, a citizen group dedicated to restoring and protecting a swimmable Presque Isle Bay, traveled to other Great Lakes, held public meetings and workshops, and met with state and federal decision makers, leading to its designation as an Area of Concern in 1991.

In 2013—after decades of research, wastewater treatment system upgrades, increased environmental regulations to protect clean water, and continued community engagement—Presque Isle Bay was removed from the AOC list.

The picturesque bay is now a bustling scene of sailboats and fishing boats, migrating birds, and endless opportunities for water recreation. It sustains a diverse fishery—the water is cleaner than in past years, and the public has greater access to it. The bay supports an ecologically diverse community of plants and animals, including the endangered piping plover. A long-term plan to monitor contaminants in the bay’s sediment is still in action.
The Great Lakes are having a moment.

The ecological investment of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has restored thousands of acres of habitat and cleaned up millions of cubic yards of contaminated sediment in Areas of Concern. As evidenced across the eight states that call the Great Lakes home, the region is experiencing a natural resource revival. And the benefits of GLRI extend past the water’s edge to revitalize AOC communities. These restoration projects produce significant economic and social benefits in AOCs, yielding $3.35 in economic activity for every $1 spent through increased property values, tourism, recreation, and quality of life. AOC communities are hard at work to make this moment last.

Credits

Photography

Peter Essick

Photos for this project were made possible in part by a grant from National Geographic Society. © Peter Essick. These images are protected by copyright law and may not be copied or reproduced without prior permission.

Production

Hope Charters, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

Writing

Hope Charters, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

Irene Miles, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

Caitie Nigrelli, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

Christina Dierkes, Ohio Sea Grant

Jill Jentes, Ohio Sea Grant

Geneva Langeland, Michigan Sea Grant

Paul Focazio, New York Sea Grant

Moira Harrington, Wisconsin Sea Grant

Sharon Moen, Minnesota Sea Grant

Kelly Donaldson, Pennsylvania Sea Grant