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Great Lakes Article:

Healthier Muskegon Lake moving toward new status
By Jeff Alexander
Muskegon Chronicle
Published January 26th, 2005

Muskegon Lake has turned the corner in its tortured environmental history and may be clean enough within a decade to be removed from a list of 42 Great Lakes toxic "hot spots."

Twenty years after the 4,149-acre waterway was named a Great Lakes area of concern, scientists and community activists are exploring the possibility that the vastly improved lake no longer deserves that dubious distinction.

"This is a turning point. We've made significant progress in cleaning up the lake," said Rick Rediske, a professor of water resources at Grand Valley State University's Water Resources Institute. "The public perception is that the lake is a lot cleaner now. Now we need to use science to back that up."

The International Joint Commission -- a U.S.-Canadian agency that oversees Great Lakes issues -- declared Muskegon Lake an area of concern in 1985. The agency concluded that loss of fish and wildlife habitat and severe contamination of bottom sediments, which poisoned fish and waterfowl, impaired public use of the lake, harmed water quality and posed health threats to humans who ate tainted fish. White Lake was also named an area of concern for similar reasons.

Lumber mills that ringed Muskegon Lake in the 1800s, followed by foundries and other factories built along the lake in the 1900s, dumped countless tons of wood, foundry slag and toxic wastewater into the lake. The lake was an open sewer for industry until 1973, when construction of Muskegon County's massive wastewater management system in Egelston Township began treating industry's sewage.

Over the past three decades, Muskegon Lake has been transformed from a cesspool into a recreational haven dominated by marinas, parks and residences. It is considered one of Michigan's best inland fishing lakes and regularly hosts fishing tournaments and sailing competitions.

The transformation has scientists at GVSU's Water Resources Institute working with the Muskegon Lake Public Advisory Council to develop scientifically based cleanup targets for the lake. When the lake meets those cleanup targets -- in terms of improved water quality, reduce contaminant concentrations in fish and wildlife, fewer beach closures and enhanced wildlife habitat -- local officials will petition federal officials to "de-list" Muskegon Lake as a Great Lakes area of concern.

The process could take several years. Still, the fact that scientists are even exploring the possibility highlights the progress that has been made since the 1960s, when the lake was routinely fouled by raw sewage and industrial discharges that clouded the water and made most fish in the lake reek of chemicals.

"I never thought I'd see the day that we'd be talking about de-listing the lake," said Gale Nobes, a Muskegon native who chairs the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly. "I think de-listing is still a ways away, but the lake certainly has improved over the years."

Water in Muskegon Lake already meets state standards for limits on phosphorous concentrations, Rediske said. But the state still warns people to limit consumption of certain species of fish due to lingering chemical contaminants, and there are still pollution hot spots in lake bottom sediments.

Rediske said there is still much work to be done to restore the lake, such as restoring fish and wildlife habitat and cleaning up toxic mud in the bottom of Ruddiman and Ryerson creeks, which flow into the lake, and toxic sediment in a bay between Heritage Landing and Hartshorn Marina.

"Once those creeks are cleaned up, we'll be in a good position to get the lake de-listed," said Rediske, who chairs the Muskegon Lake Public Advisory Council. "Some people are concerned that we are going to de-list the lake tomorrow. That's not going to happen -- it's probably going to take five to 10 years."

Rediske said people need to be realistic about the extent of cleanup that can be accomplished in the lake. "We shouldn't try to return things to pre-settlement conditions," he said.

Although the lake will never again be the pristine waterway that Ottawa Indians discovered more than 2,000 years ago, veteran environmental activist Kathy Evans said she feels there is a light at the end of the lake's cleanup tunnel.

"We're going to set these targets and hopefully the data will show that the work we've done over the past 10 years was headed in the right direction," Evans said.



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