Healthier Muskegon Lake moving toward
By Jeff Alexander
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
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
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
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,"
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