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Restoring White Lake: A Brief History

An industrial manufacturing era, along with increased residential development and municipal discharges, took an ecological toll on White Lake, beginning in the 1950s. In 1985, due to White Lake’s history of pollution, state and federal environmental authorities placed White Lake on a list of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern—waterways where pollution and other problems were serious enough to endanger aquatic life.

About Great Lakes Areas of Concern

The 1972 U.S. - Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (updated in 1978 and 1987), called for the two federal governments to work with the states and provinces to develop Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) for each of the Areas of Concern. The agreement also called for public involvement in the development of the plans. Each RAP would define the problems in the Area of Concern, describe how they would be resolved, and provide a timetable, including a plan for documenting that the problems had been resolved.

The state of Michigan made quick progress at addressing its 14 Areas of Concern and a number of Remedial Action Plans, including White Lake’s, were completed in 1987. Some White Lake area residents, however, felt that more opportunities for public input were needed, the RAP needed a more comprehensive approach, and that the cleanup of White Lake should be a higher priority.

Formation of the White Lake Public Advisory Council

Assisted by Great Lakes United and the Lake Michigan Federation (now the Alliance for the Great Lakes), a group of local citizens pushed to restart the cleanup process for White Lake. In 1992, the Federation’s Michigan office, located in Muskegon, applied for and received grant funds from the Michigan Statewide Public Advisory Council to work with local residents to establish public advisory groups for both White and Muskegon Lakes. The newly formed White Lake Public Advisory Council (PAC) provided a foundation for community consensus, action, and solutions.

Identifying Impairments

The existence of the PAC spurred the state to write a new Remedial Action Plan in 1995, completed with extensive involvement from the local community. The International Joint Commission, a binational body charged with overseeing progress of the U.S. and Canada at carrying out the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, had provided a framework of 14 problems, termed, Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs), that could be identified in Great Lakes Areas of Concern. The PAC formally identified eight impairments they believed to be present in the White Lake Area of Concern:

Several important new priorities came out of this effort, in addition to issues already identified in the 1987 RAP

  1. An urgent focus on cleanup of pollution created by the former Whitehall Leather (Genesco) tannery
  2. Awareness of fish and wildlife habitat loss and degraded populations around White Lake.

Addressing fish and wildlife habitat problems began immediately with a study of aquatic plants in 1995, an evaluation of the quality and types of lakeshore habitat in 1996, and a more specific assessment of fish and waterfowl aquatic habitat in 2000. In 2005, information from these studies was used to develop a “blueprint” for restoring shoreline habitat.

Because of the habitat studies done and completion of a process for removing impairments, White Lake was perfectly positioned to compete for a newly available source of federal funds, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). In 2010, the Muskegon Conservation District, in partnership with the White Lake Public Advisory Council, won a $2.1 million award from the GLRI to assist with restoration of shoreline habitat around White Lake. The $2.1 million project restored fish and wildlife habitat at 11 public and private sites around White Lake. Its successful completion aids in the removal of two Beneficial Use Impairments, identified for White Lake – Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat, and Degraded Fish and Wildlife Populations.

Advancing Contaminated Site Cleanups

Attention to the cleanup of contaminated sites in the White Lake area has been a continuous focus. Important milestones include

Other important actions include monitoring and advancing cleanups at Muskegon Chemical (Koch Chemical), Hooker Chemical/OxyChem, and E.I. DuPont de Nemours.

For more specific dates and milestones associated with the White Lake Area of Concern, download the Environmental History Project Timeline.

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Coordinating on Watershed Issues

The White Lake Public Advisory Council has worked with the White Lake Association and the Grand Valley State University-Annis Water Resources Institute on a nutrient study of the lake and lower river, and has also coordinated on watershed issues with the White River Watershed Partnership.

Developing a Process for Removing Beneficial Use Impairments

Beginning in 2003, state and federal agencies began to require more specific processes for delisting Areas of Concern; focusing more on removing individual Beneficial Use Impairments.  The PAC, the Muskegon Conservation District and the state worked from 2006 through 2010 to establish processes for deciding when and how White Lake’s Beneficial Use Impairments could be removed.  Grand Valley State University-Annis Water Resources Institute, which has provided assistance through scientific research and assistance, was an essential partner.

Goals set for removing the eight Beneficial Use Impairments have been met, beginning in 2011 and ending in 2014: 

Community Involvement

Ensuring meaningful community involvement in restoring White Lake has been a constant priority. The Muskegon Conservation District, on behalf of the PAC, applies for and receives funds to support technical assistance, facilitate PAC meetings, and sponsor regular public forums and educational events.

The PAC E-Newsletter

The White Lake Public Advisory Council publishes a monthly e-newsletter which includes updates on the cleanup of White Lake, information on upcoming meetings and events, the status of the restoration in the Great Lakes, how you can be an environmentally-friendly community member, and more. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, use this website to Contact Tanya Cabala. Be sure to:

    1. Select "Subscribe to the White Lake PAC E-Newsletter" from the drop-down list
    2. And include your name and email address

Navigating the White Lake PAC Pages

Use this table of contents to navigate the various PAC pages. You will find this at the bottom of each PAC page.

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