RESTORATION OF the Great Lakes began unofficially in 1969, after the notoriously polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, near where it empties into Lake Erie. Nearly two decades later, in 1987, the U.S. and Canada signed an agreement creating the Great Lakes Areas of Concern program, which identified 43 Great Lakes watersheds that were most in need of environmental restoration. It also created a process whereby an area can be delisted once its environmental quality has improved.
The Environmental Protection Agency tracks the status of various Areas of Concern. Click the map to zoom or visit the AOC website to learn more.
In 2010, the Obama administration launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which, among other things, provides funds for the Areas of Concern program so that all of the areas left in the U.S. can eventually be delisted. Last year, President Trump called for massive cuts to the GLRI, but Congress fully funded it at $300 million, in a bipartisan effort.
This bipartisan support stems from the economic benefits of environmental restoration. A study by a team of economists released last fall found that every dollar invested in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative brings more than $3 in additional economic benefits across the region. “It is no longer the economy versus the environment,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, a Western New York nonprofit focused on protecting and restoring the Niagara River watershed. “You cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy environment.”
The Areas of Concern program is a large-scale environmental project carried out largely by local communities — which may account for its longevity and effectiveness. State and local officials, as well as environmental organizations and community groups, work to restore native vegetation, clean up rivers and streams, and enjoy nature in the process. There is still much work to be done, they say, but water quality in the Great Lakes region has improved significantly since the Cuyahoga River fire shocked the region into action.
These photographs were supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society.
Recovering the Wetlands
There are more than half a million acres of coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes Basin, with roughly 70 percent located in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This is less than half of the region’s historical wetlands expanse.
Only about 5 percent of Lake Erie’s coastal marshes remain along its western shores. One sits beside the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station. Each year, Lake Erie wetlands provide an estimated $10,500 per acre in total economic value.
Friends Richard Darval (left) and Damarcus Walters enjoy a summer evening in a restored wetland that was once the site of an abandoned railroad track. GLRI funding contributed to this restoration in Michigan’s St. Clair River Area of Concern.
Rachael Fuller, 11, participates in an event for young duck hunters at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio. Ducks Unlimited has received more than $35 million from the GLRI to conserve thousands of acres, including wetlands in the refuge.
Nurturing Native Species
Close to 200 invasive and non-native species have threatened the historic ecosystem of the Great Lakes region. According to a 2018 progress report, some 135,000 aquatic and terrestrial acres have been brought under control, but far more work remains.
Forestry technician Angelo Johnson is part of a GLRI-funded initiative to plant 1,200 trees in Akwesasne, a Native community located along New York’s border with Canada, where about 70 percent of the trees are being impacted by the emerald ash borer. Johnson learned to make these everyday black ash baskets from his uncle.
Sierra Taliaferro removes invasive garlic mustard along the banks of the Milwaukee River. Taliaferro volunteers with a community group that aims to bring neighbors and neighborhoods together to celebrate the park.
Tim DePriest, of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, reestablishes native submerged aquatic vegetation by planting shoots by hand. The Niagara River was impacted by past mining and dredge spoil disposal.
Balancing Power Needs
While the immense water resources of the region have been a boon for power-production infrastructure, dams and electricity generating facilities have taken their toll on the Great Lakes, robbing marshlands of nourishing flows, impacting fish stocks, and occupying shoreline ripe for recreation. Bit by bit, balance is being restored.
As water was diverted for power plants, this marsh near Niagara Falls became drier and overgrown with cattail. As part of a restoration effort, channels were dug to create open water for migratory waterfowl.
The Gorge Dam on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Several tons of contaminated sediment have accumulated behind the dam for more than a century, but it is slated for removal — at a cost of about $70 million.
Eric Sunday, Jr. (left) and Aaron Adams fish for sturgeon on the St. Lawrence River. Sturgeon face a number of threats, including dams, but the local Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe has received GLRI grants to explore restoration of viable spawning habitat.
Boaters enjoy a fall evening in Milwaukee’s historic Third Ward. Within the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern, obsolete dams and toxic sediments were removed and a river walk was built, stretching more than 20 blocks.
Poisoned soil, polluted water, and other fallout from decades of inadequately regulated industrial activity had left vast swaths of the Great Lakes basin a veritable wasteland. But 30 years after the Areas of Concern program launched, signs of recovery are easy to spot — even along the northern Ohio river that became the poster child for Great Lakes blight a half-century ago.
This section of Wisconsin’s Sheboygan River was dredged to remove hazardous chemicals. New development arrived and now Sheboygan has a thriving “blue economy.” Some locals are starting to complain about gentrification and the high cost of new housing.
High school student Madison Kenyon at a community clean-up, removing trash along the Ottawa River in Toledo, Ohio.
Joel Perez grew up near Indiana’s Grand Calumet River, which was once heavily polluted with industrial waste. As a biologist with the Nature Conservancy, he plants native hard stem bulrushes to help restore a nearby nature preserve.
Remediation of the Buffalo River contributed to the waterfront’s economic revitalization. Several old abandoned grain elevators have been repurposed into the Buffalo RiverWorks, a waterfront entertainment complex.
This nesting box is part of a study monitoring tree swallows for signs of change following the removal of contaminated sediments from the Rouge River. These birds make good indicator species because they eat insects from the river.
The Cuyahoga River, Cleveland, Ohio.
National Geographic photographer Peter Essick is a specialist in environmental themes documenting human impacts of development on the natural landscape. He has photographed stories on climate change, freshwater, high-tech trash, nuclear waste, drought, and ecosystem restoration, and his images have been featured in Time magazine’s “Great Images of the 20th Century” and in “100 Best Photographs of National Geographic.”