On summer mornings with coffee in hand I walk down to the beach and gaze out over that the vast expanse of water between Port Austin and Tawas. It’s thought of as an idyllic ecosystem full of tasty Perch and Walleye. It’s playground for swimming, sailing and boating. The sugar sand beaches are where many baby’s experience their first Great Lakes dunking and children play and make sand castles at the water’s edge.
However, back in the era of Big Hair, Members Only jackets and Yuppies, the EPA and the State of Michigan designated the entire region as a potential environmental disaster. The deterioration and pollution was so bad that the label of “Area of Concern” was slapped on the Saginaw Bay in 1987 and has not been lifted for 30 years.
While researching another topic, I stumbled on to the DEQs website outlining the problems identified with the Saginaw River and Bay. There are twelve extremely significant Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs) identified. To achieve de-listing as an Area of Concern, each of the BUIs must be identified as solved. In the past 30 years, only three BUIs have been remedied. I had no clue that this serious set of conditions existed. I don’t recall it ever being publicized.
Three Long Decades of Little Progress
The Saginaw River/Bay Area Of Concern was listed due to contaminated sediments, fish consumption advisories, high bacteria, nutrient enrichment (e.g., phosphorus), sedimentation, degraded fisheries, and loss of significant recreational values. Part of the region near the Tittabawassee River was listed as a Superfund site and flows right into the Bay and out to Lake Huron. This listing was in 1988 when the entire Great Lakes watershed was experiencing the same high water levels as we are now in 2017.
Here are the problems identified in the 1980’s, all but 3 continue today.
- Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption – Dioxin contamination from Tittabawassee River sediments are a current and active source of dioxin contamination to the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.
- Tainting of fish and wildlife flavor – Chemical odors and tastes associated with fish caught in the Tittabawassee River and the Saginaw River/Bay AOC were frequently reported from the 1940s through the 1970s. This issue has been deem solved in 2008.
- Bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems – Terns, herons, and eagles that were injured due to contaminants and linked to death (Caspian terns), malfunctions in reproduction (Caspian terns, common terns, bald eagles), and physical deformations (black-crowned night herons, Caspian terns, common terns)
- Degradation of benthos – Degradation of the benthos of Saginaw Bay as an impaired use because the benthic community structure in the bay is significantly degraded from that which occurs in unpolluted sites elsewhere in the Great Lakes. Specifically, the mayfly, once abundant in Saginaw Bay and an important component of the fish forage base, is currently only rarely found in the bay. Researchers believe that high oxygen demand created by increased decomposition of organic debris in the sediments has decreased dissolved oxygen levels below that needed to support mayflies and other pollution in-tolerant species
- Restrictions on dredging activities – Historically, sediments dredged from parts of the navigation channel in the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay require confined disposal because of elevated levels of pollutants, including PCBs, several metals (e.g., mercury), nutrients, and oil and grease.
- Eutrophication (aka High Fertilizer and Poop Levels) or undesirable algae – Nuisance organic “muck” debris, composed mainly of Cladophora (a benthic algae), continues to wash ashore along Saginaw Bay (Saginaw Bay Science Committee Pathogen Work Group, 2007). These conditions are thought to be caused, in part, by the cultural eutrophication of Saginaw Bay. In 2012 Thumbwind posted an article that testing of this “muck” showed it contained bovine and human fecal material. “Poop”! We were swimming with poop.
- Restrictions on drinking water consumption or taste and odor problems – The drinking water use impairment was originally identified primarily due to significant taste and odor problems during the 1970s that were linked to excessive blue-green algal (i.e., cyanobacteria) blooms, which had caused some of the drinking water intakes in the bay to exceed federal threshold odor standards. Deemed solved in 2008.
- Beach closings – Public advisories are periodically issued following storm events by local health departments warning against body contact with the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay because of elevated levels of pathogens (E. coli) resulting from combined sewer overflows. Just about every beach in the Upper Thumb has been closed at one time or another due to high E. coli levels.
- Degradation of aesthetics – Like the Eutrophication (aka High Fertilizer and Poop Levels) or Undesirable Algae use impairment, increased biological productivity in Saginaw Bay resulted in an increase in the organic debris or “muck” washing up on the shoreline of Saginaw Bay. The debris consists of decomposing algae, aquatic plants, and small invertebrate animals. The smell and unsightliness of this beach debris prompted citizen complaints and concern about pollution entering the bay. Because of these complaints, aesthetics was listed as a use impairment for Saginaw Bay
- Degradation of phyto- or zooplankton populations – The lack of zooplankton grazing in Saginaw Bay was believed to be due, in part, to a greater abundance of large, unpalatable filamentous blue-green and green algae in Saginaw Bay. Believed to be caused by the cultural eutrophication of Saginaw Bay, which was brought about by excessive nutrient loading. Phosphorus appeared to be the key factor responsible for excessive growth.
- Degradation of fish and wildlife populations & 12. Loss of fish and wildlife habitat – Habitat degradation includes the loss of coastal marsh areas, the sedimentation of fish spawning reefs in Saginaw Bay, and numerous impacts from exotic species (e.g. goby, ruffe, and zebra mussels). This habitat loss and degradation has impaired the reproductive success and growth of numerous aquatic and wildlife species. Deemed solved in 2014
We have reached out to the Michigan DEQ with the hopes of getting an update on the progress of Saginaw River/Bay’s AOC. If there is a response, we will update.
Featured Photo provided by Saginaw Future via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Map provided by EPA. All other photos (c) ThumbWind