Great Lakes Glow-Up: After 30 Years, Lower Menominee River Cleanup a Success

Photo of Allison Voglesong Zejnati
Allison Voglesong Zejnati
IJC
December 15, 2020
lower menominee cac

Just before it spills out into northwestern Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, the Lower Menominee River defines the boundary between the port cities of Menominee, Michigan, and Marinette, Wisconsin. What used to be a heavily polluted river that divided the two communities is now a cleaner waterway that binds the two cities as a shared point of pride.

As of this fall, and after more than 30 years of effort, the Lower Menominee River is no longer on a binational list of pollution hotspots around the Great Lakes.

“It’s something we can be really proud of, that we’ve made the river part of the community again,” said Keith West, co-chair of the Lower Menominee River Area of Concern Citizens Advisory Committee and associate professor of geoscience at University of Wisconsin’s  Green Bay-Marinette campus.

From Ruined to Revitalized

In the late 1980s, the International Joint Commission (IJC) included the Lower Menominee River on a list of 42 pollution hotspots, or Areas of Concern (AOCs) in the Great Lakes basin. For decades, development and industrialization at the slow-flowing river mouth meant contaminants dumped in the waters -- like arsenic and coal tar -- settled nearby, coating the bottom of the river. Other industries discharged flotsam and jetsam like paint sludge and fibers that littered the shoreline.

“I used to take my students out to Menekaunee Harbor on the river because it provided a great example of how to ruin an aquatic ecosystem,” said West.

When the AOC was first listed, the Michigan and Wisconsin departments of natural resources began to cooperate with a Citizen’s Advisory Committee. The committee assists state and federal agencies with different aspects of Remedial Action Plans for AOCs.

“I got involved from Day One. I’ve worked on this for more than half of my life,” said Trygve Rhude, a resident of the Menominee region who serves alongside West as committee co-chair.

To remove an Area of Concern from the IJC’s list of hotspots, state agencies—with local and federal partners like the Lower Menominee River Citizen’s Advisory Committee—first identify the causes of specific ecological problems. They then take actions to address the impairments, and finally use monitoring and data to demonstrate that the ecosystem is no longer impaired so that people and critters can once again enjoy the benefits of clean water.

Of 14 possible problems, the Remedial Action Plan for the Lower Menominee River listed six, called “beneficial use impairments.”
 

BUIs of the Menominee River

Year removed

Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption

2018

Degradation of benthos

2017

Loss of fish and wildlife habitat

2019

Restrictions on dredging activities

2017

Beach closings (recreational contact)

2011

Degradation of fish and wildlife populations

2019


Six of a total 14 possible categories of environmental degradation, called Beneficial Use Impairments, in the Menominee River. Table adapted from EPA 


“The main focus of the AOC was eliminating the arsenic, and just accomplishing that one feat is a huge success story,” said Rhude.

“But we also had issues like loss of habitat and degraded fish populations on our list, and because of that we were able to do more than just scoop out the polluted sediment in the river.”

While the action plan for the Menominee identified several remediation goals, for many years there was slow progress due to a lack of funding, waiting on legal processes to unfold. Proposed in 2009, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative began to provide an infusion of US funding that the Lower Menominee River was able to leverage to put their plans into action.

A Blessing in Disguise

“Being an AOC was a blessing in disguise in that we were able to leverage that money to restore habitat and do really visible projects that benefit our community and the environment, like the Menekaunee Harbor. That would have never happened if we weren’t an AOC,” said Rhude. “We had a shared goal … it was even fun."

harbor before after
On the left, Menekaunee Harbor just after contaminated sediment was dredged and removed. On the right, the same area in the harbor after native vegetation planting. Credit: Trygve Rhude

Stephanie Swart, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy AOC coordinator for the Lower Menominee River, added: “The amount of sturgeon habitat we were able to restore in the Lower Menominee River is truly remarkable.”

Brianna Kupsky, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Office of Great Waters AOC coordinator for the Lower Menominee River, says she believes the most important success story is how much work was accomplished from 2014 to 2019 because of funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Menominee was “shovel ready” with complete remedial action plans agreed upon. Since 1985, US$71.1 million in public funding has gone to clean up the AOC; US$41.1 came from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

menominee timeline
Timeline of remediation activities in the Lower Menominee River. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and University of Wisconsin Extension

Out of more than 40 AOCs around the Great Lakes, the Lower Menominee River is the eighth to delist. It is the fifth in the US, the first in Wisconsin and the third in Michigan.

In October 2020, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that the Ashtabula River in Ohio is the next AOC expected to start the delisting process.

Canada also supports many domestic and binational AOC cleanup projects. According to Raj Bejankiwar, IJC Great Lakes Regional Office staff scientist, Nipigon Bay, Niagara River, the Bay of Quinte, St. Lawrence River and Peninsula Harbour Areas of Concern have completed almost all of their remedial action projects. Two Canadian AOCs, Spanish Harbour and Jackfish Bay, are designated as Areas of Concern “in recovery.”

In addition, one of the largest contaminated sediment sites in the Great Lakes basin, Randal Reef in the Hamilton Harbour Area of Concern on Lake Ontario, is expected to complete a CDN$140 million cleanup project by 2022. Significant progress also has been made on binational AOCs including the Detroit River and St. Clair River. In the St. Marys River AOC, funding from the Canadian Great Lakes Sustainability Fund will be used by Batchewana First Nation to remediate fish habitat.

Life After Delisting

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with plans to hold a public celebration of the delisting milestone for the Lower Menominee River; organizers are hoping to hold one in the spring.

Although it is delisted, the need remains for community members to be involved with protecting the river. “If you can get people to value the water, they’ll protect it, and I think the cleanup of the river through the AOC succeeded in that,” said West.

To receive notifications about future plans to celebrate the Lower Menominee River AOC delisting, or to find out ways to get involved in stewardship opportunities, subscribe to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ distribution list or send an email to Michigan AOC Coordinator Stephanie Swart.

You can follow the Menominee River committee on Facebook and learn more about Wisconsin’s Area of Concern program at the Department of Natural Resources’ website and about Michigan’s Area of Concern program at the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy website.

Photo of Allison Voglesong Zejnati
Allison Voglesong Zejnati
IJC

Allison Voglesong Zejnati is public affairs specialist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.