Great Lakes Cleanup Leads to Community and Economic Revitalization: Report

Cleanup and collaboration pay off. That’s the conclusion of a report released today by the International Association for Great Lakes Research, which documents how cleaning up even the most polluted areas of the Great Lakes is not only possible, but can lead to community and economic revitalization.

The Great Lakes Revival report tells the story of the most dangerously fouled waters in the Great Lakes, which resulted from the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

As citizens of the United States and Canada awoke to visible damage and invisible dangers of polluted water and toxic residues — crippling local economies and degrading the quality of life around these magnificent waters — they chose to act. The two nations made a commitment to clean water and, beginning in 1985, focused their efforts on what came to be known as the Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

The report presents case studies from 10 Areas of Concern, including Buffalo River (NY), Collingwood Harbour (ON), Cuyahoga River (OH), Detroit River (MI), Hamilton Harbour (ON), Muskegon Lake (MI), River Raisin (MI), Severn Sound (ON), St. Louis River (MN and WI), and Toronto Harbour (ON).

It shares how these communities came together, struggled, and ultimately found the paths to effectively reclaim their waters. These communities overcame challenges in defining the magnitude and scope of the problem, and how to even begin the work of unburdening the waters from years of abuse and neglect.

TRCA team members conduct water quality monitoring in Toronto harbour

Their efforts paid off in the form of preventing pollution, restoring habitat for fish and wildlife, cleaning up contaminated sediment, and, ultimately, creating vibrant waterfronts that connect people to the water.

Through their efforts, these communities have catalyzed local economic development and community rebirth to the tune of hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars of economic benefits and countless new jobs for local residents.

Just as important for long-term success, a spirit and practice of collaboration emerged in these communities.

“Thank you to the International Association for Great Lakes Research for completing this important report,” said U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. “These case studies demonstrate the critical importance of continuing to invest in the cleanup of our Great Lakes and the powerful impact these investments have on local communities. Working together, we will continue to tackle these challenges head-on, protecting our water and reviving communities across the region.”

“People in my riding of Essex care deeply about the health of the Great Lakes and our water,” said Canadian Member of Parliament Tracey Ramsey. “In Essex County we rely on them for freshwater, recreation, fishing, and tourism, but they are facing some very serious environmental threats, including climate change, degraded water quality, invasive species, and habitat loss. I want to thank the International Association for Great Lakes Research for conducting this critical research that is essential to protecting this vital resource and rebuilding the Great Lakes’ surrounding communities together.”

The story told in this report documents the tangible and often intangible benefits of Great Lakes cleanup. It provides a powerful case for sustaining the flow of cleanup funding that has quite literally revived communities (the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Great Lakes Legacy Act in the United States and the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health and the Great Lakes Protection Initiative in Canada).

The successes illustrated in the 10 case studies make a case for continued support to finish cleaning up the Areas of Concern, and demonstrate approaches that other waterfront communities can consider in shaping their own collaborative efforts. They also remind us of our place in the Great Lakes basin ecosystem, and of how our well-being and health is inextricably linked to the health of its waters.

The report is available online HERE.


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Toronto AOC Study Now Available

Harbor Cleanup Drives Toronto’s Waterfront Revitalization

ANN ARBOR, MI — After a long history of underuse and neglect, Toronto’s waterfront has emerged as a vibrant gathering space that draws people to the shores of Lake Ontario. Decades of cleanup efforts and collaborative planning are behind this turnaround, which has resulted in significant ecological and economic benefits, according to a study released today by the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR).

Designated as one of the Great Lakes’ most polluted spots, the harbor has been the target of restoration efforts under the Toronto and Region Remedial Action Plan since 1985. Pollution control efforts, including stormwater and combined sewer overflow management and habitat restoration, have been key priorities.

These efforts are making a positive difference, including improvements in water and sediment quality, as well as the amount and condition of terrestrial and aquatic habitats.

“The RAP and its partners have been working in a complementary and reinforcing fashion to restore and sustain a vibrant ecosystem that provides numerous environmental, social, and economic benefits to local communities and visitors alike,” notes Valerie Francella, RAP Project Manager for Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).

“Without the cleanup of Toronto Harbour, the revitalization of the waterfront would not have been possible.”

In 2000, when efforts began in earnest to revitalize the Toronto waterfront, those involved quickly realized the need to incorporate environmental restoration and health into development decisions. This coordinated approach has led to significant economic benefits, including $4.1 billion CAD in output to the Canadian economy, approximately $848 million CAD in tax revenues, and about 14,100 years of employment.

Such economic data, along with environmental and ecological data, demonstrate the importance of sustaining efforts to clean up Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

The Toronto & Region AOC case study is part of a larger project to evaluate achievements and lessons learned from 32 years of efforts to clean up Great Lakes AOCs. Available online HERE, this case study will become part of a user-friendly publication prepared for a broad range of stakeholders to help sustain support for cleaning up AOCs and to inspire and motivate others to restore other degraded aquatic ecosystems.

Funding was provided by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation to IAGLR. The Erb Family Foundation is a philanthropic organization that nurtures environmentally healthy and culturally vibrant communities in metro Detroit and supports initiatives to restore the Great Lakes ecosystem.


The International Association for Great Lakes Research is a scientific organization made up of researchers studying the Laurentian Great Lakes, other large lakes of the world, and their watersheds, as well as those with an interest in such research. With its mission to promote all aspects of large lakes research and communicate research findings, IAGLR is uniquely positioned to foster the connection between science and policy, a connection vital for effective management and protection of the world’s large lakes.