Once a hub of industrial activity, Muskegon Lake has gone from being lined with foundries and factories to playing a starring role in growing the city’s blue economy—and the story of the area’s resurgence isn’t complete without shining a light on the extensive efforts to restore the expansive waterway.
The event begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 15 at the Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon and opens with a short film, “Back from the Brink,” which was created to highlight and celebrate the lake as an environmental success story.
The evening includes a panel discussion, community conversation, and networking opportunities to get involved in local water and habitat restoration efforts. Organizers invite residents to come out and learn about the positive progress to this point and the next steps for the future of the lake.
The Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership, a dedicated and active group of volunteers, along with federal and state agencies, have spent decades cleaning up contaminated sediment, restoring native habitat, and improving the watershed and the lake’s water quality.
By 2020 or early 2021, Muskegon Lake will be removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Great Lakes Areas of Concern list. Now is the time for residents to get involved, keep the momentum going, and have a say in how the shoreline takes shape as Muskegon reinvents itself.
“It’s almost a kick-off to the next era after we get delisted,” said Kathy Evans, the environmental program manager for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission. “Hopefully, this will be inspiring to people who come to the event so that we can continue to be good stewards of Muskegon Lake’s natural resources into the future.”
In her role, Evans works with various agencies, including the EPA, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership to provide staff support for area-wide water quality management planning, grant project management, and serve as liaison to the region’s watershed.
Federal and state agencies invested millions to restore Muskegon Lake as an AOC, which included the creation of the community-based Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership, presently chaired by Dennis Kirksey.
The partnership began meeting in 1992 to engage various stakeholders and provide a public forum to discuss issues, concerns, and ongoing projects that support revitalization of the watershed and ecosystem. The group also partners with and advises agencies at the local, state, and federal levels and works on smaller, local projects.
The restoration efforts on Muskegon Lake and the Muskegon River watershed include site remediation, fish and wildlife habitat restoration, planting native grasses and shoreline restoration, removing invasive species, green infrastructure, and more.
“Over the next two years, the final work will be underway,” Evans said. “We want to make sure people know the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership is still going to plan to meet.”
In fact, the group has developed the partnership’s action plan, which is available on muskegonlake.org. The group hosts monthly, public meetings and is organized exclusively for charitable, educational, and scientific purposes.
Participants come from all walks of life and occupations. Some represent their day job, while others have a personal interest in the region’s watershed and environmental issues.
The group uses volunteers to do everything from weeding plants along the shoreline to helping with educational outreach and social media. Students, businesses, and adult volunteers are all welcome.
“It’s been a great group,” Evans said. “We want this ‘Back from the Brink’ to continue the momentum. We have ways for people to be involved now and continue to be involved.”
Thanks to various grant funding, the partnership hired Great Lakes Outreach Media and filmmaker David Ruck to create the “Back from the Brink” film. The film is a good way to help raise awareness for the work that has been done and make sure the same mistakes don’t happen again, Ruck said. In addition, the partnership is a good example of a local grassroots organization stepping up to help with the cleanup and guiding the efforts into the future.
“They (the federal government) don’t want to throw money at a community that doesn’t have an active, engaged citizenry that is helping guide those activities,” Ruck said. “They point to Muskegon as an example of how to do it right. Hopefully, the video serves as an example and can be an example for other Areas of Concern.”
Ruck, a native of Whitehall who recently bought a house in Muskegon, said the partnership is one of the best groups to be involved in as a property owner or for people interested in water quality and recreational use of the lake.
“They are just good people,” he said “They are smart people. They are engaged people. They debate important issues and they try to solve complex problems, and that’s exciting.”
The goal is to continue to put out short films that share stories of different ways people engage with Muskegon Lake and ongoing restoration projects, along with being an educational resource.
“This film is a gift to the community, and we hope that it inspires both older and younger citizens,” Ruck said. “If it’s used in the classroom to augment conversations about stewardship and water science and sustainable community development, that would be fantastic.”
The larger story is not just about transforming the lake’s water quality, but the whole attitude of the community, said Alan Steinman, the director of the Annis Water Resources Institute in downtown Muskegon.
Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute offers education and outreach programs on Muskegon Lake, including trips on a working scientific research vessel. The AWRI’s Muskegon Lake Buoy Observatory also collects and monitors important data about water quality, food web structure, algal blooms, and the lake’s overall ecosystem.
Muskegon Lake was once viewed as a dumping ground for industrial waste, and is now appreciated as a natural resource and community asset. The success of downtown development is predicated by having a healthy lake, Steinman said.
Steinman is in the film and also on the panel, along with a K-12 teacher, a fisheries biologist, and the mayor.
“Muskegon’s involvement and sense of ownership and the change of attitude toward this lake, it’s really phenomenal,” Steinman said. “It’s a great story.”
Following the discussion, there will be chances to network and visit different tables in the Frauenthal lobby.
“People can mill around and network and talk,” Evans said. “We want to keep it casual and fun and light.”
As Muskegon looks to the future, this is the time for residents to get involved and make sure the lake remains accessible for both residents and visitors, Ruck added. The story is not only about how to clean up a lake, but how to live around it and keep the community engaged.
“This is an invitation to start being part of that process,” he said. “We need more voices at the table; we need more people speaking out and being protective of this lake, not just from an environmental standpoint, but for the future as a community.”