Community input sought for cleaned-up lakes, shorelines


A view of the shore of Muskegon Lake. Image: Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy

By Theo Scheer

It’s taken over 30 years and $80 million to restore Muskegon Lake and a few nearby smaller bodies of water.

Decades of pollution and rapid urbanization created ecological problems so severe that the lake was designated a “Great Lakes Area of Concern” by the U.S. and Canada in 1987.

“For generations, people in nearby neighborhoods were told by their parents and their grandparents not to go to the lake,” said Kathy Evans, a member of the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership.

In addition to Muskegon Lake, the Area of Concern includes Ruddiman, Ryerson and Four Mile Creeks, Bear Lake, parts of the north and south branches of the Muskegon River and Bear Creek.

The problems came from industrial discharges of pollutants, shoreline development, sawmill debris, foundry sand and slag filling the water and coastal wetlands, and groundwater contamination moving toward the lake and its tributaries, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Through expansive cleaning efforts, Muskegon Lake has gone through every step required to remove that designation. The Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership is waiting for the EPA to officially delist the site, meaning it will no longer be a designated Area of Concern.

But as residents return to use restored shorelines in Muskegon and across the state, new concerns arise.

A recent study in the Journal of Great Lakes Research found that residents of lower socioeconomic communities in Muskegon feared the cleaned-up shoreline would be taken over by private interests.

Giving local residents a say in what happens to restored areas is something environmentalists across the state are now turning their focus on.

“It’s been quite an interesting thing because I’ve spent most of my career on cleaning up the lake, restoring fish and wildlife habitat and working with agencies on cleaning up contaminated sediments,” Evans said. “And for the last four or five years, the focus has shifted to how we can ensure we maintain public access to the lake.”

The study found that many Muskegon residents were excited about the revitalized lakes, but others were concerned that the restored areas would attract high-end development and raise nearby housing prices. They feared that would lead to gentrification and less public access.

Lake restoration efforts “take shorelines that were so heavily industrialized that nobody wanted to put any money into them and make them places that people want to place their businesses in,” said Amanda Buday, a rural sociology researcher from Grand Valley State University who worked on the study.

Buday said that as new businesses come to Muskegon, there needs to be a plan in place to prevent gentrification.

“If there’s not some conscientious development occurring, if it’s all just high-end condominiums, then the price and the value of those houses can put a pinch on lower-income residents,” Buday said.

Evans said the Muskegon Lake revitalization efforts have already attracted developers. She stressed that community residents need to be involved in the process to ensure developments don’t block public access.

“It’s critical that the city of Muskegon address the equity of having access to the shoreline and not just having condos everywhere,” she said.

Ellen Vial, a Detroit program manager for the Michigan Environmental Council, is working on a project that examines how restoration efforts for Areas of Concern use community feedback.

“Right now, there’s a very limited requirement for community engagement around Areas of Concern,” Vial said.

She’ll be releasing a survey asking how Michigan residents would like to be involved in restoration processes sometime this year.

Vial plans to survey residents near the Rouge River, Clinton River, Kalamazoo River and the Upper Peninsula’s Torch Lake, all of which are Areas of Concern that are undergoing restoration efforts.

Other Areas of Concern in Michigan are the Detroit, St. Marys, St. Clair and Manistique rivers, River Raisin and Saginaw Bay and River.

She said she expects that residents invited to participate in the process from the beginning will be more receptive to the end result.

“How do you trust a process that you haven’t been invited to participate in?” Vial said. “They want to feel ownership over these spaces that might be in their backyard or down the street.”

Theo Scheer reports for Capital News Service

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