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A retrospective on the AOC program after spending 30+ years in the program

Heritage Landing on Muskegon Lake in Muskegon, Mich. a few years after habitat restoration. Photo courtesy of West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.Today’s MI Environment Areas of Concern story by Kathy Evans, program manager, West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, is from the State of the Great Lakes Report. AOCs are the topic of the annual Areas of Concern Conference in Muskegon on May 24 to 26. The deadline for registering for the conference is May 13.

Michigan’s Areas of Concern (AOC) program was established with a “remedial” approach for the restoration of its Great Lakes toxic hot spots or “Areas of Concern.” Remedial Action Plans were developed to identify the status of environmental problems and related Beneficial Use Impairments in each of Michigan’s 14 AOCs.

Over the years, Michigan’s program has evolved as a shining example of how large-scale, regional, ecosystem restoration can be accomplished through community-based planning, contaminated sediment cleanups, and habitat restoration in some of the Great Lakes most severely degraded, environmentally complex water bodies.

During the 1990s, the AOC program was fragmented and there was a need to establish stronger local, state and federal partnerships to advance progress. During the early 2000s, Michigan’s Public Advisory Councils (PAC) began establishing science-based targets and criteria for the removal of Beneficial Use Impairments (BUI).

As this work evolved, the State of Michigan developed statewide guidance for several BUIs, greatly speeding up the process. The program is now well-coordinated by EGLE, in collaboration with a strong coalition of local, state and federal partners. The people involved in Michigan’s AOC program are among those who are the most dedicated to Great Lakes restoration.

In Muskegon, and other AOC communities, the AOC program has brought together diverse stakeholders to implement ecosystem-based plans that address contaminated sediments, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, degraded water quality, beach closings, and many other BUIs.

The Great Lakes communities involved in the AOC program are fortunate, in that they can tackle a wide variety of environmental concerns, all under the umbrella of a single Remedial Action Plan (RAP). This ecosystem approach allows communities to be involved in an efficient, holistic planning process to address the most severe impairments in their AOC. It’s a process that makes sense to local people.

The Great Lakes Legacy Act and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have provided the support needed to tackle these complex environmental problems. In addition to the cleanup and restoration of AOCs, long-term ecosystem health for AOC communities also depends on regulatory programs, voluntary grant programs, and continued public involvement.

The Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership took full advantage of the RAP process, met monthly since 1993, developed strong partnerships and, on September 30, 2021, celebrated the completion of all management actions needed to remove Muskegon Lake from the list of Great Lakes AOCs. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will officially recognize the completion of the management actions at the AOC conference.) We are getting things done because everyone is on the same page.

The role of many PACs has been to advance the cleanup needed to bring a water body to a state that is “no more degraded than other water bodies not designated AOCs.” Ultimately, Michigan’s AOC program will delist all 14 of its original AOCs, with three already delisted. During the past few decades, many PACs have evolved to become part of established watershed groups or have become closely affiliated with an organization whose mission includes the improvement of water resources.

The Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership will continue to meet monthly, provide a place for partnership development, and be good stewards of Muskegon Lake’s natural resources into the future, beyond the major milestone achievement of AOC delisting.

Caption: Heritage Landing on Muskegon Lake in Muskegon, Mich. a few years after habitat restoration. (Photo courtesy of West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission)

Kathy Evans is the environmental program manager for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, based in Muskegon, Mich. She has spent more than 30 years working with the Michigan AOC program, with a particular focus on restoration of the Muskegon Lake AOC.