Thirty-five years of restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern has a hopeful future


Map of Great Lakes Areas of Concern: Image: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Editor’s note: This is the final part of a 5-part series by Kalah Harris, Audrey Porter, Yue Jiang and Claire Moore that focuses on trans-border U.S. and Canadian environmental research projects.

By Audrey Porter

During 35 years of restoration in the Great Lakes Areas of Concern, there has been gradual progress and a hopeful future ahead, according to a new study.

Development of a remedial action plan began in 1985 to restore heavily contaminated sites in 42 Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs).

AOC restoration has not been easy as U.S. and Canadian researchers said in the study, and it requires focusing on gathering stakeholders, coordinating efforts and ensuring use restoration.

As of 2019, seven AOCs were delisted, two were designated as “in recovery” and 79 of 137 known use impairments in Canadian AOCs and 90 of 255 known use impairments in the U.S. AOCs were eliminated.

Dedicated funding, funding in the state treasury, for remedial and restorative actions was not provided in the U.S. until the Great Lakes Legacy Act in 2002 and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2010.

In Canada, dedicated funding wasn’t provided until the Great Lakes Cleanup Fund was established in the late 1980. It was replaced by the Great Lakes Sustainability Fund in 2000 and subsequently replaced by the Great Lakes Protection Initiative in 2017.

Between 1985 and 2019, a total $17.55 billion U.S. and $6.50 billion Canadian was spent to clean and restore the AOCs. That’s a total of $22.78 billion U.S.

“I think it’s a kind of a jaw-dropping number to see $22.78 billion being spent. It’s encouraging when you take that information in the context of the economic benefits that come from investing in cleanup and restoration,” said Peter Alsip, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Great

Lakes Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

“My take is that it is encouraging for the rest of the program,” Alsip said.

He said he was primarily involved in the study to see how much money has been spent in restoring and remediating AOCs.

John H. Hartig, an award-winning Great Lakes scientist and study co-author, said communities should be involved in restoration efforts.

“We need to inform people about these programs and need to encourage them to get involved, whether it’s citizen science or stewardship programs like river cleanups in the Detroit River or tree planting or invasive species management,” Hartig said.

“There’s so many ways of getting involved in citizen science and stewardship. And the key to that is we’ve got to educate people, and then we have to provide them with opportunities,” Hartig said.

Hartig said a unique thing about the AOC remediation programs is that they call for an ecosystem approach, and an ecosystem approach was a game changer because it led to the creation of organizations like Friends of the Rouge and Friends of the Detroit River.

Co-author Gail Krantzberg, a professor of engineering and public policy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said that communities have come together over the past 32 years to bring back the ecosystems, to reinvigorate habitat and to clean up the sediment so that the fish and wildlife populations can survive.

“So this is not just about cleaning up the environment for the environment. It’s really an economic revival of the waterfront, which was a really important finding,” Krantzberg said.

“Prevention is worth a pound of cure. Of course, if you can stop something from injuring something else and you don’t have to treat an injury, it’s way, way more cost-effective prevention,” she said.

“So if people understand that when you pour your oil from your car down a sewer, it’s actually going into a river poisoning fish, you don’t even know where it goes. It’s just ‘get it out of my mind. Get it out of my way,’” Krantzberg said.

“People understand individual connections, which is a really important path forward to truly preventing degradation because it’s not just big industry anymore.”

The study published in the” Journal of Great Lakes Research” said lessons learned from the remediation programs included the importance of meaningful public participation, establishing a compelling vision and clear goals in the early phases of the project, and finally establishing measurable targets for cleanups and focusing on AOC life after delisting.

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