Since 1985, governments and stakeholders have been developing and implementing remedial action plans to restore beneficial use impairments in polluted areas of the Great Lakes called Areas of Concern. Initially, progress was slow because of severity and geographic extent of the problems, lack of clarity on use of an ecosystem approach, time commitments for effective involvement of stakeholders, evolution of management programs, and need to secure restoration funding. Over time, many of these constraints have been overcome. Presently, as of 2017, seven Areas of Concern have been delisted, two have been designated as Areas of Concern in Recovery, and 18 have implemented all remedial actions deemed necessary for use restoration. Although progress has been made, much remains to be done to restore all impaired uses and delist all Areas of Concern. Notable achievements include: use of an ecosystem approach and requisite governance frameworks, contaminated sediment remediation, habitat rehabilitation, and control of eutrophication. Lessons learned are presented to help complete the cleanup of Areas of concern and help others restore degraded aquatic ecosystems worldwide.

Introduction

Historically, the Great Lakes Basin has been a center of activity for the development of international initiatives to improve the harmony between people and nature (Vallentyne and Beeton, 1988). Examples include:

  • The U.S.-Canada 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty has often been described as the world’s first environmental agreement because it states that waters shall not be polluted on either side of the boundary to the injury of health or property on the other side (U.S. and Canada, 1909);

  • The 1972 Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that committed the governments to a basin-wide program of reducing phosphorus inputs to control cultural eutrophication (U.S. and Canada, 1972); and

  • The 1985 commitment by the federal, state, and provincial governments, codified in the 1987 Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Canada and United States, 1987), to use an ecosystem approach to develop and implement remedial action plans (RAPs) to restore impaired beneficial uses in Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs).

The development of RAPs to restore impaired beneficial uses in AOCs represented, at that time, a challenging departure from historical pollution control efforts, where separate programs like regulation of municipal and industrial discharge, urban runoff, agricultural runoff, and others were implemented without consideration of overlapping responsibilities or ecosystem consequences (Hartig and Thomas, 1988; Hartig and Vallentyne, 1989, Hartig and Zarull, 1992). The new RAP process, at that time, called upon a pool of talent far beyond those individuals traditionally associated with water pollution control. Canada and U.S., (1987) committed in the 1987 Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to use an ecosystem approach that accounts for the interrelationships among air, water, land, and all living things, including humans, and involves all user groups in management for use restoration.

In 2017, on the 32nd anniversary of the commitments to RAPs to cleanup AOCs and the 30th anniversary of inclusion in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a two-day symposium titled “Restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern” was convened at the 60th annual conference of the International Association for Great Lakes Research. Sponsors of this symposium included: Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society, International Association for Great Lakes Research, Great Lakes Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the International Joint Commission. The purpose of this paper is to summarize what has been achieved and learned in this 32-year effort to restore impaired beneficial uses in AOCs.

Achievements

Achievement: Progress in restoring impaired beneficial uses and delisting Areas of Concern

In 1985, the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board (1985) reported that despite progress in pollution control programs, further progress had been stalled in 42 Areas of Concern where beneficial uses were impaired. A 43rd AOC was identified in 1991 (i.e. Presque Isle Bay, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA). The Parties (i.e. governments of Canada and the U.S.), in cooperation with the jurisdictions (i.e. eight Great Lakes states and the Province of Ontario), identified 12 AOCs in Canada, 26 in the U.S., and five binational AOCs that are shared by both countries (Figure 1). The Parties and jurisdictions have maintained their commitment to restoring Great Lakes AOCs and reaffirmed it in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (U.S. and Canada, 2012).

Figure 1.

AOCs identified in the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem by the United States and Canada.

Figure 1.

AOCs identified in the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem by the United States and Canada.

Initially, progress was slow because of severity and geographic extent of the problems identified in 1985, commitment to use of an ecosystem approach and involvement of stakeholders, evolution of management programs, and the need to secure restoration funding. In total, as of 2017, seven AOCs have been delisted, two have been designated as AOCs in Recovery, 18 have implemented all remedial actions deemed necessary for use restoration, 67 of 146 known use impairments identified in Canadian AOCs, and 73 of 255 known use impairments in U.S. AOCs have been eliminated (Table 1). Although much progress has been made, much remains to be done to restore all impaired uses and delist all AOCs, and to fulfill the spirit and intent of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Presented below are notable achievements and key lessons learned.

Table 1.

A summary of achievements and progress in cleaning up and restoring Great Lakes AOCs as identified by Canada and the U.S. (2016).

IndicatorAchievements and Progress
Delisted AOCs Collingwood Harbour, Ontario in 1994; Severn Sound, Ontario in 2003; Oswego River, New York in 2006; Wheatley Harbour, Ontario in 2010; Presque Isle Bay, Pennsylvania in 2013; Deer Lake, Michigan in 2014; White Lake, Michigan in 2014 
Designated Areas of Recovery Spanish Harbour in1999; Jackfish Bay in 2011 
All remedial actions implemented and monitoring underway to confirm use restoration Nipigon Bay, Ontario; Sheboygan River, Wisconsin; Waukegan Harbor, Illinois; Ashtabula River, Ohio; St. Clair River, Michigan 
All remedial actions projected to be completed by 2019 Bay of Quinte, Ontario; Peninsula Harbour, Ontario; Niagara River, Ontario; St. Lawrence River – Cornwall, Ontario; Menominee River, Wisconsin and Michigan; River Raisin, Michigan; Rochester Embayment, New York; St. Marys River, Michigan; Black River, Ohio; Buffalo River, New York; Clinton River, Michigan; Manistique River, Michigan; Muskegon Lake, Michigan 
Restored impaired beneficial uses 
  • As of 2017, 67 of 146 known use impairments have been eliminated in Canadian AOCs

  • As of 2017, 73 of 255 known use impairments have been eliminated in U.S. AOCs

 
IndicatorAchievements and Progress
Delisted AOCs Collingwood Harbour, Ontario in 1994; Severn Sound, Ontario in 2003; Oswego River, New York in 2006; Wheatley Harbour, Ontario in 2010; Presque Isle Bay, Pennsylvania in 2013; Deer Lake, Michigan in 2014; White Lake, Michigan in 2014 
Designated Areas of Recovery Spanish Harbour in1999; Jackfish Bay in 2011 
All remedial actions implemented and monitoring underway to confirm use restoration Nipigon Bay, Ontario; Sheboygan River, Wisconsin; Waukegan Harbor, Illinois; Ashtabula River, Ohio; St. Clair River, Michigan 
All remedial actions projected to be completed by 2019 Bay of Quinte, Ontario; Peninsula Harbour, Ontario; Niagara River, Ontario; St. Lawrence River – Cornwall, Ontario; Menominee River, Wisconsin and Michigan; River Raisin, Michigan; Rochester Embayment, New York; St. Marys River, Michigan; Black River, Ohio; Buffalo River, New York; Clinton River, Michigan; Manistique River, Michigan; Muskegon Lake, Michigan 
Restored impaired beneficial uses 
  • As of 2017, 67 of 146 known use impairments have been eliminated in Canadian AOCs

  • As of 2017, 73 of 255 known use impairments have been eliminated in U.S. AOCs

 

Achievement: Use of an ecosystem approach

The commitment to use of an ecosystem approach in RAPs was significant for several reasons. An ecosystem approach, by accounting for the interrelationships among water, air, land, and all living things, including humans (Hartig and Vallentyne, 1989), helped focus on integrated resource assessment and management, and helped transcend jurisdictional boundaries and focus more on source areas and watersheds. Commitment to involving all user groups in management led to establishment of public advisory councils (PACs), stakeholder groups, basin committees, and other RAP institutional structures broadly representative of the environmental, economic, and social interests in the AOC. Essential characteristics of these RAP institutional structures included: broad-based participation to achieve implementation, clear responsibility and authority, financial and human support, watershed planning, flexibility and continuity to achieve use restoration, adaptive management, and effective education and outreach (Hartig and Law, 1994).

There was no single best approach to implementing an ecosystem approach in RAP development and implementation. It is fair to say that there were 43 locally-designed ecosystem approaches that helped involve stakeholders in a meaningful way, foster cooperative learning, share decision-making, and ensure local ownership. Indeed, Beeker et al., (1991) identified that structuring the process to create a sense of ownership of the RAP by participants, who were the very businesses, state and local agencies, and citizens who would have to carry out the recommendations, was a critical factor in RAP acceptance by all involved. Essential elements that characterize successful initiatives include true participatory decision making, a clearly articulated and shared vision, and focused and deliberate leadership (Krantzberg, 2003). Finally, use of an ecosystem approach, by nature, is adaptive, where assessments are made, priorities established, and actions taken in an iterative fashion for continuous improvement. Adaptive planning and management is an iterative learning process that integrates the environment with economic and social understanding, and helps reduce uncertainty in management decisions by using information gained from past experiences to reassess priorities for future actions (Holling, 1978).

A key concept in RAP processes has been accountability for action. This is established through open sharing of information, clear definition of problems and causes, agreement on remedial and preventive actions needed, and identification of who is responsible for taking actions. From this foundation, the responsible institutions and individuals can be held accountable for progress. Indeed, increasing accountability was one RAP tenets identified in the 1987 Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Canada and the U.S., 1987).

RAPs have required cooperative learning that involves stakeholders working in teams to accomplish a common goal under conditions that involve positive interdependence (i.e. all stakeholders cooperate to complete a task) and individual and group accountability (i.e. each stakeholder is accountable for the final outcome) (Hartig et al., 1998). Successful RAPs have: been cleanup- and prevention-driven; made existing programs and statutes work; cut through bureaucracy; established priorities on a local basis and worked to elevate those priorities within state, provincial, and federal governments; ensured strong community-based planning processes; streamlined the critical path to use restoration; and been affirming processes (Hartig, 1997).

Achievement: Remediation of contaminated sediment

Contaminated sediment has long been recognized as a major problem in restoring many Great Lakes AOCs. Contaminated sediment posed a challenge to restoring 11 of the 14 beneficial use impairments in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Prior to the onset of RAPs in 1985 and their codification in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1987, there were no comprehensive federal, state, or provincial programs to address contaminated sediment. Dredging for navigational purposes was the primary tool for addressing this problem. Governments and RAP groups quickly discovered that: the severity and geographic extent of the contaminated sediment problem was not well understood; contaminated sediment problems were not quantitatively coupled to use impairments; and stakeholders lacked a basis for determining how much sediment to clean up and what environmental/ecological improvements to expect over time. Indeed, in many respects, both the Canadian and U.S. contaminated sediment assessment and remediation programs came out of the RAP program.

In order to effectively address contaminated sediment at Canadian AOCs, the Canada Ontario Agreement (COA) Sediment Assessment Decision Making Framework was created. This was a step-by-step guidance for an ecosystem approach to assessing the risk of contaminated sediment. In Canada, there have been nine AOCs where active remediation has been completed and the sites restored, and 4AOCs where the remediation is currently on-going or in the planning stages. One of those sites is the remediation of contaminated sediment at Randle Reef in the Hamilton Harbour AOC at a cost of approximately $140 million – the largest Canadian contaminated sediment site in the Great Lakes. When completed, it is expected that water quality will improve, current restrictions on navigation will be removed, and economic returns will be generated through the creation of valuable port lands. Peninsula Harbour, a mercury- and PCB-contaminated site in Canadian waters of Lake Superior, was remediated in 2012 with the placement of the first thin layer cap. Four additional AOCs will likely continue with Monitored Natural Recovery as their path forward. In the U.S., Great Lakes Legacy Act and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have clearly accelerated contaminated sediment remediation since their inception in 2002 and 2010, respectively. In total, between 2004 and 2017, U.S. federal, state, and other partners have completed 46 contaminated sediment remediation projects in U.S. AOCs, resulting in the remediation of over 6.6 million m3 of contaminated sediment at a cost of $1 billion (Tuchman et al, 2018).

Achievement: Rehabilitation and enhancement of habitat

Loss of fish and wildlife habitat is common problem in most AOCs. Prior to the onset of RAPs in 1985 and their codification in the Agreement in 1987, it was often said that habitat had no home – that responsibility for habitat was fragmented among many stakeholders. RAPs made habitat a priority and challenged management agencies to address it explicitly. Restoration of fish and wildlife habitat had to be addressed in a systematic and comprehensive fashion and this was particularly challenging in urban AOCs. In many cases, RAPs helped make sure that habitat was an integral part of community master plans. Effective communication and partnerships were essential.

As a result of RAPs making habitat a priority, considerable habitat rehabilitation has been undertaken in AOCs. For example, early efforts in the late-1980s and 1990s focused on the scientific assessment of “loss of fish and wildlife habitat” and its causes through RAP development. Later efforts focused on restoration options and determining how much habitat was enough to remove it as a use impairment. In general, limited habitat restoration occurred in U.S. AOCs until the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provided significant resources. Between 2011 and 2017, $283 million from Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was spent on habitat restoration in U.S. AOCs, with many projects in the design phase. These substantial financial resources clearly accelerated habitat restoration in U.S. AOCs.

In Canada, restoration of fish and wildlife habitat in AOCs has been a priority since the onset of RAPs. The development and implementation of Natural Heritage strategies and fish and wildlife management plans were pioneered in AOCs. The RAP program also developed, demonstrated, and evaluated habitat restoration techniques/methodologies. Since 1989, more than $500 million has been spent on habitat restoration in Canadian AOCs. Between 2013 and 2016 notable accomplishments included restoring close to 4 km of shoreline habitat and enhancing almost 180 ha of coastal wetlands and fish spawning grounds.

Achievement: Eutrophication

Cultural eutrophication has been a major stressor long affecting the health of the Great Lakes and AOCs. Identification of “eutrophication or undesirable algae” as a BUI helped elevate the priority of further controlling phosphorus inputs from point and nonpoint sources to achieve desired trophic status targets. As of 2016, “eutrophication or undesirable algae” has been removed as a BUI in four Canadian AOCs (i.e. Nipigon Bay, Severn Sound, Collingwood Harbour, Wheatley Harbour) and five U.S. AOCs (i.e. Deer Lake, River Raisin, White Lake, Oswego River, Sheboygan River). Despite this progress, many areas continue to receive elevated phosphorus loadings that cause a variety of problems. Strong coupling of science, monitoring, and management is needed to resolve these remaining problems. Good examples of AOCs with long-term databases on phosphorus loading and trophic status, and a strong coupling of science, monitoring, and management, include: Bay of Quinte, Hamilton Harbour, Toronto Harbour, Fox River/Green Bay, Saginaw River/Bay, and Maumee River.

Lessons learned

Lesson 1: Ensure meaningful public participation and dialogue toward a viable future state

To enable “consultation with local citizenry”, as required under the RAP Annex of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, governments established advisory councils/committees made up of community stakeholders representing, for example, aboriginal government, agriculture, business and industry, citizens-at-large, environment groups, educators, outdoor clubs, the health sector, municipal officials, and tourism and recreation. Samy et al., (2003) purport that engaging stakeholder groups in the design of an action plan minimizes the risk of future polarization. These RAPs included a central understanding that local partners possess local information and knowledge, and that local partners can provide an informed perspective on the social impacts of pending decisions (Harris et al., 2003). The importance of involving communities in the management of water resources was one of the strongest and most consistent messages coming forward from an international conference on interjurisdictional water resource programs (Pollution Probe, 2002). Experience has shown that responsibility for specific tasks should be given to actors that possess or can develop the resources needed to perform these tasks well (Mostert, 2015). Gurtner-Zimmermann (1995) notes that the commitment of individuals who participate in the RAP process, local support for the RAP goals, and the scientific basis and sound analysis of environmental issues all contribute to the positive outcomes.

Lesson 2: Engage local leaders and recruit a high-profile champion

The selection of candidates for the PACs or other stakeholder groups should be based predominantly (but not exclusively) on identifying decision-makers who could affect change within the sector or stakeholder group they represented. This is in keeping with the observation that plan effectiveness will be, in part, a function of the inclusiveness of stakeholder and user representation, and goal setting. Inclusivity lends legitimacy, stimulates funding, and can galvanize potentially marginalized, but important stakeholders, through peer pressure. In some RAPs a high-profile champion emerged from the planning process or was recruited to help recruit other key partners, overcome institutional obstacles, open doors, build capacity, and increase visibility and awareness. As noted by Mostert (2015), those with an interest in a management task should be (financially) responsible for this task. This means finding participants that can lead and bring their sector to the table to help lead.

Lesson 3: Establish a compelling vision and clear goals

In successful RAPs, leaders constituted the PAC or other RAP institutional structure with consultation with the community at large, and then the PAC reached consensus on the vision for the future of their waterway. To gain support for a restoration and rehabilitation strategy, the common vision for the future of the AOC and its watershed was of paramount importance. To reach this vision, “blue sky” thinking opened the process with an array of options. Then a priority-setting session was needed to ensure pragmatic realism, rather than unachievable targets.

It is often said that the initial phase of project planning is “fuzzy” because it lacks a clear and compelling vision, and common expectations. It is not uncommon in such projects for some stakeholders to have one vision and one set of expectations, while others have completely different ones. It is important to have a clear vision – a picture so clear and strong that it will help make the desired outcome real. For that reason, Senge (1990) has described vision as “hope with a blueprint.” Defining a clear and compelling vision, and common expectations, in the early phases of project planning often prevents wasting effort and avoids possible disappointment at the end of a project.

When conflicting opinions arose in Collingwood Harbour on the RAP that threatened progress, returning to the fundamental RAP purpose enabled the group to reestablish consensus-based decision-making. Professional facilitation was sometimes required; however, consensus should be the norm.

Lesson 4: Establish measurable targets for removing use impairments and delisting Areas of Concern

In the beginning, RAPs had to focus, as a requirement of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, on problem definition, including severity and geographic extent of the problem, and causes. It was understood that if stakeholders cannot agree to the problems, they will never fix them.

The process of involving stakeholders in reaching agreement on problems and causes, and remedial and preventive actions, was often tedious. Indeed, Gurtner-Zimmerman (1995) demonstrated that RAP stakeholders in many AOCs struggled in their efforts to translate comprehensive planning into comprehensive management action. Transactional costs (i.e. time, number of meetings, etc.) were high. Further, there were limited funds available initially to implement remedial and preventive actions.

Soon the Parties, jurisdictions, and RAPs began to focus on “How clean is clean?” and under what conditions a use impairment could be deemed restored and an AOC delisted. Early on, the IJC developed initial listing/delisting guidelines that were general (Hartig et al., 1997). More specific guidelines were then developed to help RAPs follow a path to delisting (Environment Canada et al., 2012; Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 2008). At first, these guidelines were more aspirational in nature. Later, they evolved to become more specific, relevant, measurable, feasible, and achievable.

Considerable effort has gone into trying to develop a consistent approach for delisting AOCs that is informed by science. In many AOCs, delisting criteria have been revised and updated to reflect current scientific knowledge, and to ensure that they are measurable and achievable based on the remedial actions implemented at that time. These criteria are ecosystem responses to management actions, not a listing of those management actions alone. Common issues that are currently being addressed relative to assessing restoration of impaired beneficial uses include: sufficient long-term monitoring to measure restoration (with acceptable uncertainty); how to achieve consistency and effective communication across the border in binational AOCs; how to define “persistent” (as in persistent algal blooms); understanding what healthy fish and wildlife populations are in the face of aquatic invasive species; and how to determine when an AOC in Recovery achieves delisting.

Lesson 5: Practice adaptive management and involve research scientists

Adaptive management is a rigorous approach to learning, even across large-scale regional systems, through the deliberate treatment of policies as hypotheses and the subsequent design of management activities as experiments. As described by McLaughlin and Krantzberg (2012), managers specifically observe how systems respond to managerial manipulations and use what is learned about such behavior to decrease the uncertainty involved in future decisions regarding how to best understand and realize desired policy outcomes. Despite the intuitive appeal of “learning by doing”, scientists often fail to appreciate the broader array of management priorities and fail to fully appreciate the need for effective science-transfer to decision makers. Clearly, RAPs face a number of challenges in incorporating adaptive management, including the need for adequate policy guidance and leadership support, sufficient analytical skills, ensuring clear roles and responsibilities among overlapping management agencies, building and sustaining trust and understanding among diverse stakeholders, properly addressing uncertainties, and resolving trade-offs (Gregory et al., 2006).

Despite these challenges, most AOCs practice a form of adaptive management. This approach has helped pursue continuous improvement over the three decades that RAPs have been in existence. A strength of the RAP/AOC process has been a close coupling of science and management. For example, the Bay of Quinte RAP benefited from 40 years of monitoring phosphorus concentrations and loadings, ecosystem response, and modeling for decision-making (Munawar et al., 2018). Another example is contaminated sediment remediation where proper scientific assessment helped define the problem, prioritize and select remedial actions, and sometimes even save money. Clearly, active involvement of researchers, who were considered credible and unbiased, benefited these RAP processes.

Lesson 6: Build partnerships

Cleanup of AOCs has not been easy and required networks focused on gathering stakeholders, coordinating efforts, and ensuring desired results are achieved. Partnerships are critical because of the number of people and stakeholders involved and impacted, and the complexity of problems and solutions. Emerson et al., (2011) define collaborative governance as the processes and structures of public policy decision-making and management that engage people constructively across the boundaries of public agencies, levels of government, and/or the public, private and civic spheres in order to carry out a public purpose that could not otherwise be accomplished. While the participants in collaborative governance processes designed to address water management challenges can be extremely diverse, and often have vastly different interests and motives (de Loe et al., 2016), broad-based partnerships among diverse stakeholders, as described by Hartig and Zarull, (1992) are a step towards “grassroots ecological democracy” in the Great Lakes Basin. In their analysis, Child et al., (2018) describe how the establishment of informal networks stemming from formal agreements resulted in individuals and groups completing partnership projects appropriate to their capacities and roles. Key factors for successful partnerships include: effective working relationships, trust among partners, clarity of roles and responsibilities, well recognized benefits to all partners, and effective facilitation.

Lesson 7: Pursue creative financing

It is fair to say that funding for most RAP/AOC projects did not come from a single source. Stakeholders had to be gathered and organized into partnerships to coordinate remedial and preventive actions, and then to pursue creative financing. There are many examples of where seed money from federal, provincial, or state governments leveraged local government, private sector, foundation sector, and non-governmental organization sector funding. Indeed, Tuchman et al., (2018) have shown the importance of public-private partnerships in achieving sediment remediation in AOCs and Hartig et al., (this issue) have demonstrated the importance of partnerships in achieving habitat rehabilitation and restoration in AOCs. French et al., (2018) and Ridgway et al., (2018) both demonstrated the necessity of partnerships to raise necessary funds, achieve local ownership and pride in projects, and build a record of success to help sustain momentum for this restoration work over several decades.

Lesson 8: Build a record of success and celebrate it frequently

Environmental cleanup is a long and challenging process. Therefore, it is important to build a record of environmental success and celebrate it frequently in a very public fashion (Hartig, 2014). In the spirit of adaptive management, each assessment, whether performed every two years or 10, should compile all successes and communicate their benefits to the community. It is useful to make sure that the environmental accomplishments and social and economic benefits get recorded in a fashion that is meaningful to the public and resonates with them. People always like to hear how an environmental or community action affects them directly. People and organizations also like to align themselves with successful endeavors. Priority should be placed on cultivating the media and involving politicians, prominent community and business leaders, and school systems in celebrating these accomplishments (Hartig, 2014). With the great competition for getting stories out in the news media, the AOC community must routinely be out in front of the citizenry with stories of relentless, positive, environmental actions.

Lesson 9: Quantify benefits

By any measure, the value of the Great Lakes is impressive and their restoration is imperative. Austin et al., (2007) have estimated that a $26 billion investment in cleanup of the Great Lakes through the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration would result in $50 billion in long-term economic benefits. Table 2 presents selected examples of considerable economic benefits of the cleanup and restoration of AOCs. Such economic benefits studies can help sustain funding from federal, state, and provincial governments, and can help attract funding partners. Further, greater emphasis needs to be placed on quantifying the value of ecosystem goods and services, how to properly value the natural capital of ecosystems, and place this in the larger context of the “Blue Economy” in the Great Lakes region.

Table 2.

Selected examples of the economic benefits of the cleanup and restoration of Areas of Concern.

AOCExample of Economic Benefits Environmental CleanupReference
Detroit River, Michigan Recovery of the river has laid the foundation for the revitalization of the riverfront with the building of the Detroit RiverWalk that is currently one of the largest, by scale (8.8 km in downtown Detroit), urban waterfront redevelopment projects in the U.S., resulting in over $1 billion in economic benefits in the first ten years. CSL International, (2013
Hamilton Harbour, Ontario Contaminated sediment remediation is now underway in Randle Reef, a nearly 60-ha contaminated sediment hotspot in Hamilton Harbour. The cost of this sediment remediation is projected at $138.9-million. Local businesses are projected to realize about $600 million in gross accumulated benefits with full sediment remediation. Likewise, recreational users are projected to realize about $500 million in gross accumulated benefits with full remediation. Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability and Shulich School of Business, York University, (2006
Muskegon Lake, Michigan A considerable portion of the lake shoreline that was once natural wetlands was filled in with foundry materials. A $10 million shoreline restoration project was implemented to soften the shoreline and restore wetlands. An economic benefits study found that this $10 million shoreline restoration project will generate more than $66 million in economic benefits, resulting in a 6-to-1 return on investment Isley et al., (2011
AOCExample of Economic Benefits Environmental CleanupReference
Detroit River, Michigan Recovery of the river has laid the foundation for the revitalization of the riverfront with the building of the Detroit RiverWalk that is currently one of the largest, by scale (8.8 km in downtown Detroit), urban waterfront redevelopment projects in the U.S., resulting in over $1 billion in economic benefits in the first ten years. CSL International, (2013
Hamilton Harbour, Ontario Contaminated sediment remediation is now underway in Randle Reef, a nearly 60-ha contaminated sediment hotspot in Hamilton Harbour. The cost of this sediment remediation is projected at $138.9-million. Local businesses are projected to realize about $600 million in gross accumulated benefits with full sediment remediation. Likewise, recreational users are projected to realize about $500 million in gross accumulated benefits with full remediation. Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability and Shulich School of Business, York University, (2006
Muskegon Lake, Michigan A considerable portion of the lake shoreline that was once natural wetlands was filled in with foundry materials. A $10 million shoreline restoration project was implemented to soften the shoreline and restore wetlands. An economic benefits study found that this $10 million shoreline restoration project will generate more than $66 million in economic benefits, resulting in a 6-to-1 return on investment Isley et al., (2011

Lesson 10: Focus on life after delisting

AOC delisting can result in several challenges, including loss of momentum due to lack of a tangible reason to organize, loss of important sources of funding, and less frequent environmental monitoring than existed prior to delisting which makes it difficult to detect backsliding of ecosystem state (Mandelia, 2016). Additionally, as cleanup work nears completion, many AOCs are considering “life after delisting” and exploring how to leverage remedial and preventive actions to advance broader social and economic revitalization in waterfront areas (Mandelia, 2016). This is part of a broader trend across the Great Lakes region to reclaim and redevelop degraded or underutilized waterfronts with new commercial or residential developments, recreational amenities, restored fish and wildlife habitats, and other beneficial uses.

In the U.S., a three-step process known as “R2R2R” – remediation to restoration to revitalization – is being promoted (Williams et al., 2017). In its simplest form this means making sure that the steps taken to remediate contaminated sediment sites take into account opportunities for aquatic habitat restoration, while also reconnecting people to their surroundings in ways that enhance community well-being. Completed sediment cleanups have been a springboard for local communities to convert areas that were once a detriment to economic growth into valuable waterfront economic assets (Williams et al., 2017). These communities are literally transforming former toxic “hot spots” into socio-economic amenities and are building a foundation for future growth. Table 3 presents selected examples.

Table 3.

Selected Areas of Concern examples of where remediation has led to community revitalization.

Area of ConcernHow Remediation Led to Community Revitalization
Milwaukee Estuary, Wisconsin Sediment remediation of the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee contributed directly to creation of a waterfront destination for businesses, recreation, and tourism 
Toronto Harbour, Ontario Cleanup of the harbor helped lay the foundation for the creation of a linked waterfront trail and considerable economic development 
Buffalo River, New York Contaminated sediment in the Buffalo River helped revitalize Buffalo’s waterfront 
Collingwood Harbour, Ontario Cleanup of Collingwood Harbour from a historical center of ship building with legacy pollution helped revitalize and strengthen the community 
Cuyahoga River, Ohio The cleanup of the river helped lay the foundation for the transformation of the Cleveland Flats from a manufacturing and warehouse district to a restaurant, entertainment, and tourism district 
Area of ConcernHow Remediation Led to Community Revitalization
Milwaukee Estuary, Wisconsin Sediment remediation of the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee contributed directly to creation of a waterfront destination for businesses, recreation, and tourism 
Toronto Harbour, Ontario Cleanup of the harbor helped lay the foundation for the creation of a linked waterfront trail and considerable economic development 
Buffalo River, New York Contaminated sediment in the Buffalo River helped revitalize Buffalo’s waterfront 
Collingwood Harbour, Ontario Cleanup of Collingwood Harbour from a historical center of ship building with legacy pollution helped revitalize and strengthen the community 
Cuyahoga River, Ohio The cleanup of the river helped lay the foundation for the transformation of the Cleveland Flats from a manufacturing and warehouse district to a restaurant, entertainment, and tourism district 

Lesson 11: Build leadership capacity and recruit and train facilitators

Investment must continue to be made in building leadership capacity in AOCs, including the recruitment and training of facilitators. Such people need to be good promotors of partnerships across the full spectrum of diversity and should have experience in establishing and sustaining public-private-nonprofit partnerships. In essence, these individuals need to be change agents that act as a catalyst and champion for change, and then play a key role in planning and managing its implementation (Hartig, 2014). They are individuals whose presence and/or thought processes cause a change from a traditional way of thinking about or handling a management issue or problem (Hartig, 2014). They must have the professional acumen, the people skills, and the ability to earn the respect of urban residents and all stakeholder groups. Ideally, these facilitators need to be exceptional communicators, adaptable, innovative, transparent, calculated risk-takers, partnership-builders, and clearly passionate about meeting the sustainability challenge. Clearly, such individuals need to be recruited and trained specifically for becoming the next leaders.

Scientific advancements

Environmental science is dynamic and ever-changing. Through the RAP process of reaching agreement on quantitative BUIs and their causes, based on the best available science, identifying remedial options and selecting remedial actions, and confirming use restoration and delisting of AOCs, there have been a number of scientific advancements (Table 4). Further, RAPs, by nature of being updated periodically, are adaptive where assessments are made, priorities set, and actions taken in an iterative fashion for continuous improvement until delisting criteria are met. This commitment to continuous improvement, based on scientific assessment, and priority setting, has resulted in scientific advancements. These advancements have clearly helped achieve cooperative learning among AOCs through science transfer and helped advance restoration, and will be useful in similar efforts to restore degraded ecosystems throughout the world.

Table 4.

Examples of scientific advancements in Great Lakes Areas of Concern, 1985–2017.

IssueDescription of Scientific AdvancementExample References
Cultural eutrophication Establishment of phosphorus target loadings; quantification of phytoplankton response to phosphorus loadings via long-term monitoring Munawar et al., (2018); Scavia et al., 2014  
Point source pollution Advances in pre-treatment to control contaminants at their source; advances in water pollution control Environment Canada, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Ontario Ministry of the Environment (1999
Nonpoint source pollution Quantification of nonpoint source loadings (e.g. combined sewer overflows, urban runoff, agricultural runoff); prioritization of control practices Sherman et al., 2018; Ridgway et al., 2018; Ridgway and McCormack, 1994  
Contaminated sediment Assessment of biological impacts of contaminated sediment and estimation of risk, application of burden of evidence approach to multiple endpoints Krantzberg et al., 2000; Zarull et al., 1999  
Invasive species Understanding food web dynamics associated with invasive species Hecky et al., 2004  
Loss and degradation of habitat Quantifying habitat loss and degradation, and establishing priorities for habitat rehabilitation and enhancement Manny, 2002, 2003  
Mass balance framework for addressing toxic substances Quantifying relative contribution of toxic substances from all sources in order to set management priorities Landis and Keeler, 2002  
Indicators and quantitative target setting Compiling and interpreting long-term trend data for key indicators and establishment of quantitative targets to help focus management Hartig et al., 2009; Hall et al., 2006  
“How clean is clean?” and delisting criteria Determination of how much remediation and prevention is necessary to restore BUIs; establishment of guidelines that are specific, relevant, measurable, feasible, and achievable for delisting AOCs, recognizing limits to restoration Canadian RAP Implementation Delisting Subcommittee, 2012; Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 2008  
IssueDescription of Scientific AdvancementExample References
Cultural eutrophication Establishment of phosphorus target loadings; quantification of phytoplankton response to phosphorus loadings via long-term monitoring Munawar et al., (2018); Scavia et al., 2014  
Point source pollution Advances in pre-treatment to control contaminants at their source; advances in water pollution control Environment Canada, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Ontario Ministry of the Environment (1999
Nonpoint source pollution Quantification of nonpoint source loadings (e.g. combined sewer overflows, urban runoff, agricultural runoff); prioritization of control practices Sherman et al., 2018; Ridgway et al., 2018; Ridgway and McCormack, 1994  
Contaminated sediment Assessment of biological impacts of contaminated sediment and estimation of risk, application of burden of evidence approach to multiple endpoints Krantzberg et al., 2000; Zarull et al., 1999  
Invasive species Understanding food web dynamics associated with invasive species Hecky et al., 2004  
Loss and degradation of habitat Quantifying habitat loss and degradation, and establishing priorities for habitat rehabilitation and enhancement Manny, 2002, 2003  
Mass balance framework for addressing toxic substances Quantifying relative contribution of toxic substances from all sources in order to set management priorities Landis and Keeler, 2002  
Indicators and quantitative target setting Compiling and interpreting long-term trend data for key indicators and establishment of quantitative targets to help focus management Hartig et al., 2009; Hall et al., 2006  
“How clean is clean?” and delisting criteria Determination of how much remediation and prevention is necessary to restore BUIs; establishment of guidelines that are specific, relevant, measurable, feasible, and achievable for delisting AOCs, recognizing limits to restoration Canadian RAP Implementation Delisting Subcommittee, 2012; Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 2008  

Concluding remarks

The cleanup of AOCs has proven difficult and spanned many decades. During 1985–2009, only one U.S. and two Canadian AOCs were delisted. During 2010–2017, an additional one Canadian and three U.S. AOCs were delisted. In addition, as of 2017, 18 other AOCs have implemented all remedial actions deemed necessary for use restoration. This pace of restoration should not be surprising because of the nature and extent of the problems, and the fact that it took over a century to create these problems.

In the U.S., the pace of AOC restoration has accelerated since 2010 under Great Lakes Restoration Initiative with the provision of over $650 million for restoring AOCs. There is broad agreement on sustaining funding through programs like Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Great Lakes Legacy Act in the U.S. and the Canada-Ontario Agreement and Great Lakes Protection Initiative in Canada to pay for restoration of AOCs. Indeed, the IJC (2017) has recommended that the Canadian and U.S. governments continue to advance implementation of remedial actions in all remaining AOCs by maintaining or accelerating investments and action. Further, the IJC (2017) has recommended that the Parties establish a 15-year goal for completing all identified remedial actions in all AOCs.

An examination of these cleanups, accomplished through numerous partnerships, illustrates just how meaningful such efforts are at the local level, healing ecological damage and sparking economic and community revivals (Northland College Water Summit, 2016). Consequently, the cleanup of AOCs should continue to be a top priority. Further, with the emphasis being placed on delisting AOCs, priority must also be given to ensuring that sufficient and long-term sustainability are adequately addressed.

Many PACs and other RAP institutional structures have been created and indeed evolved over the years to address use impairments and meet community needs. Assistance must be provided in helping them to continue to grow and evolve. Indeed, the IJC (2017) has recommended enhancing public engagement through the RAP program by creating meaningful opportunities for binational dialogue among AOC stakeholders and supporting PACs as they transition to “life after delisting” in their AOC.

A major accomplishment of the 1960s’ public outcry over the pollution of the Great Lakes was the creation of Canada Water Act of 1970, the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. In more recent years, a major accomplishment has been the creation of a plethora of nongovernmental, environmental organizations, including RAP/AOC institutional structures. Priority must be placed on building the capacity of these RAP/AOC institutional structures and recruiting and training leaders/facilitators to complete the job of restoring all uses in AOCs and to meet the long-term sustainability challenge.

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