How a Remedial Action Plan can improve Great Lakes water quality

The 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada identified 43 areas of concern in the Great Lakes Basin.

All of the AOCs in the Great Lakes basin
All of the AOCs in the Great Lakes basin

An area of concern (AOC) is defined in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement as a “geographic areas that fail to meet the general or specific objectives of the agreement where such failure has caused or is likely to cause impairment of beneficial use of the area’s ability to support aquatic life.” In other words, it is an area on the Great Lakes that is experiencing significant environmental degradation. There are a number of reasons why an area is identified as “degraded”. There may be excess nutrients in the water, contamination from chemicals or bacteria, or a loss of fish or wildlife habitat.

There are 43 AOCs in the Great Lakes basin, 26 located in the U.S., 12 located in Canada and five that border both countries so are shared AOCs. Of the 26 in the U.S., 13 are in Michigan. This makes sense since Michigan has the largest number of shoreline miles of any Great Lakes state. The goal is to delist impairments identified within the AOC. To date, according to the U.S. EPA, five AOCs have been delisted: two in the U.S. and three in Canada.

Each AOC must develop a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) specific to the impairments of the area identified. These RAPs are research-based plans that are developed and implemented through a cooperative effort between the two federal governments, state and provincial governments designed to guide restoration and protection efforts.

Each AOC works through three stages in the delisting process:

  • Stage one is to determine the causes and severity of the environmental degradation that made the area an AOC. The severity of the degradation is based on identifying one or more of the 14 beneficial use impairments (BUIs) within the AOC. A BUI is defined as “a change in the chemical, physical, biological integrity of the Great Lakes system sufficient to cause any change in the 14 use impairments defined by the law.” A BUI may be increased sediment, repeated beach closings, degraded fish or wildlife populations or drinking water consumption restrictions or taste or odor problems.
  • Stage two of the RAP is to develop goals and recommend actions that will lead to restoration and future protection of the area.
  • Stage three is the implementation stage. The actions and recommendation identified in stage two are implemented and measured for progress toward restoration and protection. When stage 3 is complete, meaning the identified goals have been met, the AOC is delisted by the EPA.

The RAPs are developed and implemented through local Public Advisory Councils (PAC). These councils will be discussed in a companion article: “Public Advisory Councils Role in the Great Lakes”

For more information, check out these Michigan State University Extension articles:

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