MUSKEGON — Local, state and federal officials gathered today to celebrate a recent environmental cleanup milestone at Muskegon Lake, clearing the way for the body of water to be removed from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Area of Concern list.
Industrial users throughout the city’s history exploited the lake during the logging era and as an industrial scrapyard and dumping ground, Muskegon Mayor Ken Johnson said during today’s event at Heritage Landing along the lake’s southern shoreline.
At least $100 million has been invested in recent years to complete remediation and restoration work at Muskegon Lake, he added.
“Now it’s incumbent on our community to continue heeding the lessons of our past, cherish the Muskegon Lake watershed, protect its ecosystems and to ensure both equitable access to and benefit from this beautiful body of water,” Johnson said.
The Muskegon Lake Area of Concern includes all of Muskegon Lake, Ruddiman Creek, Ryerson Creek, Four Mile Creek, Bear Creek, Bear Lake and branches of the Muskegon River.
The final remediation work to reach the Area of Concern milestone was completed in the fall of 2021, and included sediment remediation and habitat restoration projects that were funded by $44 million in federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding and $11 million in GLRI-driven funding provided by non-federal partners.
“The celebration and recognition that we are on the precipice of delisting will create a greater energy. We already had this building energy for what’s happening here in Muskegon, but we’ll see increasing excitement and momentum for what’s happening centering on this body of water here,” Johnson said. “That will be a focal point going forward, and one we will continue to protect instead of going backward.”
‘Real change’ in attitude
In order to be delisted as an EPA Area of Concern, researchers will study Muskegon Lake to ensure that it continues to meet all of its restoration goals, Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon, told MiBiz.
The official delisting likely will be completed in six to 10 months, Steinman said.
“From a socio-economic perspective, there has been a real change in the attitude of Muskegonites since I’ve been here for 22 years,” Steinman said. “People have been down on the town and lake for generations, but now there is a perspective that the lake is part of our future, and that economic revitalization is dependent on the lake.”
Tourism also has increased since Muskegon Lake’s southern shoreline was restored and a bike trail to Lake Michigan was built, Steinman added — and EPA officials have taken note.
“We’ve certainly seen benefits here in Muskegon,” EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore, who heads the agency’s office in Chicago, said at today’s event. “Recreational use of the rivers and Muskegon Lake has increased, tourism is up and property values are growing. It’s not just in Muskegon, though: The Great Lakes are an economic engine and an irreplaceable environmental wonder supplying drinking water for more than 40 million people and supporting more than 1.3 million jobs and sustaining life for thousands of species.”
Shore added that “unprecedented progress” will be made in restoring the Great Lakes under the federal infrastructure law signed by President Biden last year.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Habitat Conservation Director Carrie Robinson said Muskegon’s recent economic success has a direct link to the environmental remediation work at Muskegon Lake.
“Through our partners, including Grand Valley State University, we’ve studied the impact restoration has had on this community, demonstrating a six-to-one return to the local community observed through an increase in local tourism, recreation and property values,” Richardson said.
The partners’ 2020 study also documented an estimated 485,000 additional visits to the lake, representing an 11-percent annual increase, said Erika Jensen, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission.
As well, shoreline restoration work has created an estimated $7.9 million increase in home values, according to the study. Additional recreational activities following remediation work at Muskegon Lake is estimated to have a $29 million additional annual economic impact on the area, representing a 4-percent increase in Muskegon County.
“This is a clear indication that the successful restoration efforts are being felt through the local community and once again demonstrates the strong return on investment through restoration projects in the Great Lakes,” Jenson said.