Water Quality

A Framework for Watershed Restoration

Areas of Concern are polluted locations on the Great Lakes.

The Area of Concern (AOC) program was created through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, between the United States and Canada. In 1987, a Protocol amended the existing Agreement to hold both countries accountable to stop pollution entering specific locations around the Great Lakes. Through this Agreement, both countries agreed to develop Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) for each Area of Concern. A detailed summary of the principal treaties, organizations and programs involved in Great Lakes management and restoration is available in a conference handout prepared for the 2012 Saginaw Watershed Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Conference, co-sponsored by the Partnership for the Saginaw Bay Watershed.

When the AOC program was first developed, 43 AOCs were originally identified, some of which have been formally delisted. The Saginaw River and Bay is one of 14 AOCs remaining in Michigan.

Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) are documents that prescribe actions that must be taken to restore water quality and remove Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs). A beneficial use can be thought of as the ability of any living organism, including people, to use the Saginaw River/Bay without negative consequences. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement identifies 14 Beneficial Use Impairments that all Areas of Concern must restore in order to be considered environmentally healthy and no longer an Area of Concern.

Of the 14 Beneficial Use Impairments, the Saginaw River and Bay was originally listed as an AOC. The Environmental Protection Agency identifies these 12 BUIs as follows:

  1. Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption - When contaminant levels in fish or wildlife populations exceed current standards, objectives or guidelines, or public health advisories are in effect for human consumption of fish and wildlife.
  2. Tainting of fish and wildlife flavor – When ambient water quality standards, objectives, or guidelines for the anthropogenic substance(s) known to cause tainting are being exceeded or survey results have identified tainting of fish and wildlife flavor.
  3. Degraded fish and wildlife populations – When fish or wildlife management programs have identified degraded fish or wildlife populations. In addition, this use will be considered impaired when relevant, field-validated, fish and wildlife bioassays with appropriate quality assurance/quality controls confirm significant toxicity from water column or sediment contaminants.
  4. Bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems – When wildlife survey data confirm the presence of deformities (e.g. cross-bill syndrome) or other reproductive problems (e.g. egg-shell thinning) in sentinel wildlife species.
  5. Degradation of benthos – When the benthic macroinvertebrate community structure significantly diverges from unimpacted control sites of comparable physical and chemical characteristics. In addition, this use will be considered impaired when toxicity (as defined by relevant, field-validated bioassays with appropriate quality assurance/quality controls) of sediment associated contaminants at a site is significantly higher than controls.
  6. Restrictions on dredging activities – When contaminants in sediments exceed standards, criteria, or guidelines such that there are restrictions on dredging or disposal activities.
  7. Eutrophication or undesirable algae – When there are persistent water quality problems (e.g. dissolved oxygen depletion of bottom waters, nuisance algal blooms or accumulation, decreased water clarity, etc.) attributed to cultural eutrophication.
  8. Restrictions on drinking water consumption or taste and odor problems – When treated drinking water supplies are impacted to the extent that: 1) densities of disease- causing organisms or concentrations of hazardous or toxic chemicals or radioactive substances exceed human health standards, objectives or guidelines; 2) taste and odor problems are present; or 3) treatment needed to make raw water suitable for drinking is beyond the standard treatment used in comparable portions of the Great Lakes which are not degraded (i.e. settling, coagulation, disinfection).
  9. Beach closings – When waters, which are commonly used for total-body contact (swimming) or partial-body contact (boating or fishing) recreation, exceed standards, objectives, or guidelines for such use.
  10. Degradation of aesthetics – When any substance in water produces a persistent objectionable deposit, unnatural color or turbidity, or unnatural odor (e.g. oil slick, surface scum).
  11. Degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton – When phytoplankton or zooplankton community structure significantly diverges from unimpacted control sites of comparable physical and chemical characteristics. In addition, this use will be considered impaired when relevant, field-validated, phytoplankton or zooplankton bioassays (e.g. Ceriodaphnia; algal fractionation bioassays) with appropriate quality assurance/quality controls confirm toxicity in ambient waters.
  12. Loss of fish and wildlife habitat- When fish or wildlife management goals have not been met as a result of loss of fish or wildlife habitat due to changes in the physical, chemical or biological integrity of the Area of Concern, including wetlands.

Causes of Beneficial Use Impairments in the Saginaw River and Bay Area of Concern

While many of the beneficial uses of Saginaw Bay Watershed resources became impaired because of a few causes that can be generalized into these categories, a number of other factors influence the quality of the environment and affect the ways that resources can be used. Many reports have been issued by federal and state agencies, local governments, and non-governmental organizations that provide region-specific details about natural resource concerns in the Saginaw Bay Watershed and AOC. One key report is the 1988 Remedial Action Plan (RAP) for the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay Area of Concern. The report was jointly prepared by a number of groups including the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the East Central Michigan Planning & Development Regional Commission, the National Wildlife Federation, the Saginaw Basin Natural Resource Committee, and a technical work group. This first RAP goes into specific detail about the causes of the use impairments and is updated periodically by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Causes of BUIs

Causes of BUIs

Watershed Management

Watershed restoration will not be complete after the Area of Concern is delisted, continued restoration of the Saginaw Bay Watershed, River and Bay will occur by changing our collective behaviors to protect water quality. The Partnership’s role will be to highlight priority water quality concerns and focus stakeholder discussion around solutions.