MUSKEGON — Ten million dollars in economic stimulus funding through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to create about 125 jobs when the heavy lifting starts a few months from now on the natural restoration of Muskegon Lake.
“We have projected (the federal grant) to generate almost 40,000 labor hours,” equivalent to about 125 jobs, mainly in engineering and construction, according to Sandeep Dey, executive director of the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.
The WMSRDC, in partnership with the Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor, arrived at those estimates and included them in a joint application in April for $13.8 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine and Coastal Habitat Restoration division. NOAA had announced that it had been provided $830 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and that $167 million would be spent on Marine and Coastal Habitat Restoration, with the funds “expected to be awarded in 60 days.”
Dey said NOAA officials were impressed with the proposed Muskegon Lake project but asked West Michigan and Great Lakes commissions to reduce their grant request to about $10 million, which they did.
The $10 million grant, which was announced around the first of July, will improve the aquatic habitat for fish and other species by removing over 180,000 tons of degraded lake bottom sediment and restoring 10,000 feet of Muskegon Lake shoreline now characterized by deposits of foundry slag, broken concrete and rusting sheet metal.
“We estimate one and a half years” to complete the restoration project, said Dey.
Dey said the stimulus funding has a dual role in that it will be “restoring a valuable piece of the Great Lakes ecosystem and bringing jobs to the West Michigan economy.”
He said the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission is now drafting specifications to include with requests-for-proposals that will be sent out to engineering and contracting companies with experience in marine work.
It will be a few months before the removal of contaminated sediment and debris along the shore actually starts, because the engineering has to be done first, he said.
“I don’t think there will be just one (contract),” he said. “There will be a number of contractors working on different properties.”
Owners of the segments of shoreline that are targeted for restoration, which includes both public entities and private businesses, previously made commitments to accept the loss of some of their shoreline and to grant public access rights, according to Dey. The owners include the cities of Muskegon and North Muskegon, Muskegon County, some nonprofit organizations, and the Mart Dock, among other private owners. Dey said the total estimated value of donated land, in-kind services and conservation easements amounts to more than $20 million.
Industrial activity around the shore of Muskegon Lake, starting with the sawmills in the 1800s and then the manufacturing industry, caused more than 25 percent of the lake’s original open water and wetlands to be filled in, according to Kathy Evans, program manager in the WMSRDC environmental planning department.
Dey said the idea is to restore as much as possible the original beauty of the lake and the natural conditions that support fish and wildlife in the lake.
“Once the project is completed, there will be substantial indirect benefits for tourism and recreation,” he said.
Dey said he believes the grant may be the only one of its type allocated to the Great Lakes states, and one of a few nationally. The long-term industrial damage to Muskegon Lake had been previously identified as a concern among naturalists. The lake is identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as one of 43 “areas of concern” in the Great Lakes for its legacy of toxic contaminants.
The WMSRDC will manage the project. Evans said in April it might also include construction of some amenities on the shore of the lake, such as fishing piers and boardwalks.
Research scientists from the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University will help in the Muskegon Lake Restoration Project, according to a GVSU announcement.
“We are excited to actually see federal stimulus money coming into our local community — a significant amount of federal stimulus money,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Anything we can do to improve Muskegon’s waterfront will be of benefit to the entire lakeshore,” she added.
Larsen said she has heard there may be “a lot more jobs created than some people originally anticipated,” noting that the marine contractors employ a variety of skills and equipment, with marine work of this type requiring “a major capital investment.”
Redevelopment of the Muskegon Lake waterfront has been “kind of patchwork,” said Larsen. The restoration project “will really bring continuity” to the lake and further support the tourism economy that is growing around it.
Muskegon is enjoying a good tourism season this summer, Larsen said, although she knows all that happy activity may be masking other areas of the economy that aren’t doing so well.
“I think this summer, people will start to get a better understanding of how much our tourism economy has grown, because it really is carrying us through a difficult time right now,” she said.
According to a recent statement issued by the WMSRDC, Muskegon Lake is part of the Great Lakes coastal wetlands ecosystem and provides more food and habitat for wildlife than just about any other Great Lakes ecosystem. Due to filling, development and pollution, Great Lakes wetlands are one of two ecosystems listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest Region as “imperiled ecosystems.” The restoration project builds on more than a decade of research, assessments, planning and design work, as well as large-scale remediation and pollution control efforts on Muskegon Lake.
“The West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission and the city of Muskegon are very excited about receiving this grant,” said Dey. “We hope to accomplish quite a bit of the work that property owners on Muskegon Lake have wanted to do for years. We look forward to working with them, the Great Lakes Commission and NOAA on this project.”
Design and engineering work for the project is about to begin, said Day, with on-the-ground work on some of the shoreline sites beginning in September. The remaining work will be completed in 2010.