Prepared for
Great Lakes Commission

On behalf of
The Partnership for the Saginaw Bay Watershed

Executive Summary

The Saginaw River and Bay were designated by the International Joint Commission (IJC) as one of the major pollution areas in the Great Lakes in 1973, a year after the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada was signed‑a commitment by both countries to cooperatively manage their shared water resources and recommend actions for protection. In the last 30 years major commitments have been made by local, state, and federal interests to improve the quality of Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay, resulting in significant improvement to the environment; however, additional work remains to be done.

Sources of the Problem

Contaminated sediments as a result of toxic discharges, excessive nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen runoff, soil erosion, combined and sanitary sewer overflows (CSOs and SSOs), fish consumption advisories, degraded fisheries, damage to fish and wildlife habitat, and the loss of significant recreational opportunities were the primary causes of impairment.

Restoration Activities

In 1988, a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) was developed to carry out local, state, and federal actions that would reduce these impairments in the area of concern. In 1994 an update to the 1988 RAP indicated that over two‐​thirds of the 101 initial cleanup activities, including 37 priority actions, had been implemented, at least partially. In addition, the 1994 update identified new activities needed to move forward with the cleanup effort.

This 2001 RAP update has examined the status of the existing conditions of natural resources and impairments by reviewing and summarizing data currently available. The update includes a scientific review of targets that were established in a 2000 report entitled, Measures of Success: Addressing Environmental Impairments in the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay, in which measurable targets to assess restoration progress were developed. The goal was to determine if these targets are reasonable, accurate and achievable and to establish links between ongoing impairments and the targets to ensure that they lead to restoration.

Where Are We Now?

The 2001 update concludes that the Saginaw River/​Bay RAP process has been very successful at identifying key issues to achieve ecosystem restoration and that significant remedial actions are being taken. The activities taking place within the scope of the Saginaw River/​Bay RAP indicate an enhanced interest in this area since inception of the RAP process, and a belief among stakeholders that these valuable natural resources can be significantly enhanced and maintained into the future. Recent activities include:

  • Dredging contaminated sediments in the Pine and Saginaw Rivers,
  • Protecting more than 8,000 acres of coastal wetland habitat in the Saginaw Bay watershed, and
  • Providing nearly $177 million for the Michigan Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program for agricultural conservation practices in the Saginaw Bay watershed.

These and other activities will help further restore and protect the Saginaw Bay watershed for current and future generations; however, a variety of sources continue to contribute pollutants to the river and bay, including:

  • Industrial and municipal discharges
  • Combined and sanitary sewer overflows (CSOs and SSOs)
  • Contaminated sediments in the river and bay
  • Urban and agricultural nonpoint runoff
  • Waste disposal sites
  • Atmospheric deposition of contaminants

As with most IJC‐​designated Areas of Concern, available funds are not sufficient to support desired levels of effort, especially in the area of contaminated sediment remediation. While PCB levels in sediments from large areas upstream of the Middlegrounds are low enough to meet standards, dioxin levels throughout the channel still require confinement. Although many actions are currently being implemented, few of these are being implemented fully. Pollution prevention activities, including agricultural projects to minimize nonpoint source pollution, and educational outreach activities must be continued. In addition, new issues related to urban sprawl and landuse planning require greater attention. The support of local communities, the general public, the private sector, and local, state, and federal agencies for the RAP is encouraging. Through continued cooperation, progress toward achieving restored conditions will be met and a process to delist beneficial use impairments in the Saginaw River and Bay can be initiated.

Progress of Cleanup, Restoration, and Monitoring Activities

The 2001 RAP update concludes that significant restoration progress is being made, but additional work remains. For several of the targeted restored conditions, ongoing and new monitoring requirements are needed to measure progress over time. The targeted restored conditions have an endpoint at which time de‐​listing may be possible and only periodic monitoring becomes necessary. In 2000 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency endorsed guidelines that offer various options for demonstrating progress and will be used by The Partnership for Saginaw Bay Watershed as a guidepost over the next several years to consider delisting specific impairments. Targets, progress toward meeting restored conditions, and monitoring needs are highlighted below:

Bacteria

  • Target: Three consecutive years of testing for E. coli bacteria, an indicator of the presence of harmful microorganisms, confirm that the state water quality standards for full‐​body recreation are being met in the Saginaw River.Progress: Good. Target is being met during dry weather; however, additional monitoring is needed during dry and wet weather periods.
  • Target (Saginaw Bay): Testing for E. coli bacteria confirms that state water standards have not been exceeded more than three times in any one swimming season and that when exceeded did not last more than two days.Progress: Good. Target is being met in some areas (e.g., the Kawkawlin River); however, the frequency of monitoring at swimming beaches around the bay is highly variable. Additional monitoring is needed.

Contaminated Sediments

  • Target: The level of contaminants in Saginaw River/​Bay sediments no longer imposes additional costs due to requirements for the removal, confinement, and remediation of dredge spoils.Progress:Additional assessment work needed. Identifying cost estimates on a large scale is difficult until comprehensive sediment assessment work is completed, including delineation of hot spots, identification of disposal options, and development of new remedial and treatment methods.

Fisheries

  • Target: Levels of PCBs and dioxin in walleye and other fish from the Saginaw River/​Bay indicate that the former sources of these contaminants have been effectively controlled and/​or remediated.Progress: Fair. Results of caged‐​fish studies at the mouth of the Saginaw River indicate that PCB levels have declined significantly since the mid‐​1980s; however, fish consumption warnings are likely to continue into the distant future due to the slow degradation of these chemicals in the environment.
  • Target: Taste and odor problems reported by anglers for any species taken from the Tittabawassee River downstream from Midland and the Saginaw River/​Bay are minimized.Progress: Excellent. Information indicates that the severity and number of fish tainting reports have substantially decreased since the early 1970s, and that the target is being met; however, additional surveys are needed.
  • Target: Dissolved oxygen levels in the river meet or exceed the minimum state water quality standard of 5.0 mg/​l during the critical summer months.Progress:Very Good. Targets for warm‐​water fish of 5.0 mg/​l are being met; however, additional and continuous monitoring is needed to confirm this condition.
  • Target: Walleye — Increase abundance in the bay, ultimately through natural reproduction, such that growth rates approximate more closely statewide averages and reflect improved use of available forage.Progress:Fair. Limited progress is being made. Additional stocking of fish that compete with walleye for food, as well as providing access to and restoration of habitat in order to foster natural reproduction are needed.
  • Target: Yellow Perch — A sustained annual harvest of 750,000 pounds per year with increasing abundance of larger, faster‐​growing individuals.Progress:Fair. No direct management of yellow perch will be required to achieve the target if forage species that directly compete with yellow perch for food or prey on their young are reduced by increases in predator species in the bay. However, the long‐​term impacts of harmful nonindigenous species are unknown at this time.
  • Target: Lake Sturgeon — Documented evidence of natural reproduction in the Saginaw River.Progress: Additional monitoring needed. Sturgeon spawning has not been documented.

Wildlife

  • Target: Bald Eagles — The reproductive success of bald eagles in the Saginaw Bay area is equivalent to that found in other Lake Huron costal areas in Michigan.Progress:Very Good. Bald eagle reproduction is above the goal set for recovery in the Saginaw River, yet there appear to be differences in the ability to successfully reproduce along the bay. Additional monitoring needed.
  • Target: Herring Gulls — PCB levels in herring gull eggs taken from Saginaw Bay area nest sites are not significantly higher than those found in other Lake Huron sampling locations.Progress: Poor. Target is not being met, with continued impairment at highly contaminated sites. Additional monitoring is necessary.
  • Target: At least 60 percent of the coastal marsh areas (below the 585‐​foot contour) and adequate upland buffers representing essential fish and wildlife habitat is preserved through public ownership, covered under conservation easements, or otherwise protected under agreements with landowners, and the most vulnerable portions of the remaining 40 percent of the essential coastal marsh areas have been identified so that governmental agencies, local conservation/​environmental organizations, and concerned citizens can monitor their status, enforce existing laws, and conduct public educational programs to better protect these areas.Progress:Good. Recent studies carried out by Ducks Unlimited suggest that approximately 20 – 30 percent of coastal wetlands are protected.

Bay Ecosystem

  • Target: The N:P ratio measured in Saginaw Bay is at least 29:1 for three successive years, indicating that conditions once favoring blue‐​green algal populations responsible for former taste and odor problems in drinking water withdrawn from the bay are no longer present.Progress:Very Good. Progress is being made with dramatic decreases in certain bluegreen algal species in recent years. Additional monitoring is necessary.
  • Target: The average concentration of total phosphorus for three consecutive years is 15 ug/​l or less, in accordance with the supplement to Annex 3 of the 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.Progress:Fair. Annual monitoring indicates that the target is not being met; however, considerable progress has occurred since the early 1970s. Additional nonpoint source control and monitoring activities are needed.
  • Target: Samples of mayfly nymphs collected in the open waters of Saginaw Bay exceed 30/​m2 for two consecutive years, based upon established sampling methods.Progress: Additional monitoring needed. Anecdotal evidence suggests occasional “hatches” of mayflies occurring in the bay, although such observations have not been verified by benthos sampling.

What can you do?

  • Join the Partnership for the Saginaw Bay Watershed to learn more and participate in restoration activities.
  • Support community and municipal efforts, including local drain commission efforts, to develop a watershed‐​based plan to address storm water runoff.
  • Join and support local land conservancy efforts.
  • Participate in community‐​wide collections of hazardous household supplies (e.g., cleaners, paints, etc.).
  • Participate in local recycling efforts.
  • Support state and federal programs that target cleanup efforts in the watershed.

Conclusion

There are many reasons to look favorably toward the future for Saginaw River and Bay. The local communities and industries over the years have committed millions of dollars toward wastewater treatment facilities and the results of these commitments are being realized today. The river and bay have improved considerably from what they were 30 years ago, with ever more attention being given to the watershed. The 1988 Saginaw River/​Bay RAP, the 1994 RAP update, the Measures of Success project completed in 2000, and the 2001 RAP update provide the necessary framework and bring the concept of delisting impairments one step closer to the Saginaw River/​Bay AOC. With new and ongoing restoration activities and periodic review of the progress being achieved, the Saginaw River/​Bay AOC can proceed toward delisting and ecosystem recovery.

A copy of the full report is available below.

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