Report documents stories of Great Lakes 'revival'

A new report published by the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) adds to a growing body of work and discussion that takes a look at the linkages between revitalizing waterfronts, cleaning up toxic contamination, and economic and cultural benefits.

The report is titled Great Lakes Revival: How Restoring Polluted Waters Leads to the Rebirth of Great Lakes Communities. Included within the report's 10 case studies are three Michigan sites; the Detroit River, Muskegon Lake, and the River Raisin. Each case study details the history and causes of environmental degradation, the course of cleanup and restoration, and benefits achieved in terms of environmental improvements and economic impact. 

In the case of the Detroit River, the study describes a waterway beset with industrial pollution and a shoreline given over completely to warehousing, stockpiling, and underused surface parking. Cleanup began in the mid-1980s, culminating in a revitalized waterfront that generates $43.7 million in annual spending, according to a 2013 analysis referenced in the report.

“Without this early focus on cleaning up the river and improving water quality, this transformation of the river’s edge would not have been possible,” Mark Wallace, President & CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy says in the report.

Material storage piles, dilapidated and abandoned buildings, cement silos, and underused surface parking lots along Detroit's east riverfront, early 2000s (credit: Detroit Riverfront Conservancy)

A revitalized waterfront at the Detroit RiverWalk (credit: Detroit Riverfront Conservancy)

The report, released Tuesday, August 13, is the culmination of a three-year grant project funded by the Erb Family Foundation and led by Dr. John Hartig. Hartig spent a 30-year career in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the last 14 of which he spent as the refuge manager for the Detroit River International Refuge. Since retiring, he has completed a Fulbright scholarship and a writing residency, in which he wrote the bulk of his book Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit's Industrial Waterfront As a Gathering Place for All. He currently serves as Great Lakes Science-Policy Advisor at IAGLR.

“The report presents 10 case studies of how Great Lakes clean up leads to reconnecting to these waterways that leads to economic and community revitalization," notes Hartig. "Collectively, these case studies showcase the economic benefits of cleaning up of polluted areas of the Great Lakes as part of a strategy of achieving a blue economy with competitive advantage." 

The report documents achievements made through a massive investment of federal, state, and local monies over the decades. Despite this investment and the bright spots highlighted in the report, all is not pristine in the Great Lakes. Challenges related to toxic algal blooms in Western Lake Erie, Asian Carp, the collapse of fisheries due to invasive mussels, plastics pollution, and more continue to threaten the Great Lakes basin. 

In recent weeks, Gov. Whitmer and a coalition of environmentalists have called for a renewed commitment of political and financial support for Great Lakes restoration.

“Investing the Great Lakes clean up means investing in community and economic revitalization,” says Hartig.  “Sustained Great Lakes funding is not only important to restoring and protecting ecosystem health, but a key factor in revitalizing communities and economies.”