Cleaner watershed showing progress
By Jeff Kart
The Bay City Times
the Saginaw News on June 27, 2007
For 20 years, the Saginaw River and Bay have stood out as the most polluted spot in the Great Lakes.
Officials, however, say the quality of the water has improved since the federal government designated the river and bay as an Area of Concern in 1987.
Experts have begun a process to remove one of 12 impairments that put the area on the black list.
It's the first time the Partnership for the Saginaw Bay Watershed and the state Department of Environmental Quality have made a bid to delist one of the impairments. They're targeting "Restrictions on drinking water or taste and odor problems."
"It shows progress," said Charlie Bauer, an analyst for the DEQ Water Bureau in Bay City.
"It also shows that we're moving off that 'worst of the worst list' to improving the quality of the Saginaw River and Bay."
There are 14 Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes. The Saginaw River and Bay has 12 of 14 possible impairments, the most of any in the region --worse than the Detroit River, with 11 impairments.
Besides drinking water, problems that led to the Saginaw River and Bay making the list include restrictions on wildlife and fish consumption, fish tumors, bird and animal deformities, restrictions on dredging, undesirable algae, beach closings and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.
Bauer, a member of the partnership, said his group has worked over the years to document improvements. But it was only recently, in January 2006, that the DEQ developed delisting criteria for Michigan Areas of Concern, clarifying that communities could delist impairments separately.
"Before, the thought was all or nothing," Bauer said.
The government originally listed the river and bay in part because of a high amount of blue-green algal blooms that created taste and odor problems with drinking water that goes to public water systems in Bay City, Saginaw, Midland, Caseville, Port Austin and East Tawas.
Since the 1970s, phosphorus concentrations in the river and bay have improved, Bauer said, because of stricter limits on wastewater treatment plants, industrial dischargers and laundry detergents.
In addition, upgrades to treatment processes at water plants in Bay City and elsewhere have improved taste and odor problems, and water plants all are meeting EPA criteria, he said.
DEQ officials hosted a meeting at the Bay City state park June 13 to take public comment on the delisting proposal. About 20 people showed up and most were in favor of the idea, Bauer and other officials said. The DEQ is taking written comments until Friday, July 13.
John DeKam, superintendent of the Bay City water treatment plant, said his office used to receive up to 40 complaints a day about moldy, musty-tasting water during algal blooms in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Now, the Bay City plant receives a few complaints a year about water taste and odor, he said.