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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Great Lakes are having a moment.
The ecological investment of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) 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.