If you build it they will come - restoring wildlife habitat in the St. Clair River Area of Concern

Cleaning up pollution and restoring the Great Lakes is not an easy or quick process. Progress is being made in the St. Clair River Area of Concern thanks to the hard work of many individuals, local groups and state and federal agencies.

This is the third in a series of articles highlighting Great Lakes restoration projects in Michigan’s Areas of Concern.

Article Two

Background on the St. Clair River Area of Concern:

The St. Clair River is a 40-mile international connecting channel linking Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair. Together with the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, it is one of Michigan’s three binational Areas of Concern (AOC). The southern end of the river branches out into the St. Clair Delta, the world’s largest freshwater delta. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the St. Clair River AOC includes important wetlands from St. Johns Marsh on the west (near Anchor Bay) to the north shore of Mitchell's Bay in Ontario map. Agriculture is the predominant land use within the river's watershed, but intensive development has occurred in and near the cities of Port Huron and Sarnia. The heaviest concentration of industry (including a large petrochemical complex) lies along the Ontario shore just south of Sarnia. Several communities along the St. Clair River rely on the river as their primary source of drinking water. Industries – including petroleum refineries, chemical manufacturers, paper mills, salt producers and electric power plants – need high quality water for their operations as well. Ships carrying cargo between the upper and lower Great Lakes ply the St. Clair River. 

Oversight of the AOC is handled through the Binational Public Advisory Council (BPAC), which includes government agencies and nongovernmental stakeholders from the U.S. and Canada. The council is working with local, state and federal stakeholders, including Michigan Sea Grant, on a variety of projects that will restore beneficial uses in the river and lead, ultimately, to its “delisting” – the removal from the formal list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

Recent Progress:

Funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is allowing long-needed wildlife habitat projects to be completed. The three habitat restoration projects below were funded in 2010.

Michigan Sea Grant worked with the BPAC and other partners to secure a GLRI grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Habitat Fund to create fish spawning habitat in the Middle Channel of the St. Clair River. The project consists of two years of pre-construction monitoring and assessment; construction of nine spawning reefs; and two years of post-construction monitoring. Assessments conducted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service include testing fish egg deposition and viability, sampling larval and juvenile fishes, and monitoring adult fish use of the constructed reefs during spawning season. A public event was held on May 1, 2012 to celebrate the construction of the reefs. Researchers equipped with underwater cameras visited the reef on May 9, 2012 and found adult lake sturgeon already visiting the site!

Reef construction for fish spawning.

The Community Foundation of St. Clair County received a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to naturalize and restore 300 – 500 feet of shoreline in Port Huron. The project is the first of several phases that will restore a mile of St. Clair River shoreline providing much needed habitat for fish and wildlife species and increase public access to the river. The Foundation has been working with Smith Group JJR,MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant and the Michigan Natural Features Inventory on the design and plant selection for the project. Construction will be completed by November 2012.

Ducks Unlimited, in partnership with Michigan Sea Grant and others received a three-year GLRI grant from the U.S. EPA to manage phragmites (Phragmites australis) and educate local stakeholders. The project is an integrated, strategic management approach utilizing herbicide, prescribed fire, and mowing on 1,200 acres of the St. Clair Flats, including Dickinson Island, Harsens Island and other coastal community areas surrounding Anchor Bay. The goal is to demonstrate technologies that reduce the spread of phragmites in an effective manner and restoration of Great Lakes marsh habitats through control and/or reduction of this invasive species.  Additionally, education and outreach programs are being developed to provide information to interested parties about the control and management of invasive phragmites, increasing public involvement in technologies that decrease the spread of this invasive species. To date, all 1200 acres of phragmites have received the initial herbicide treatment. Mowing or burning and follow-up herbicide treatments are scheduled to take place during 2012 and 2013.

A complete list of Great Lakes restoration projects underway in Michigan, under the GLRI, is available online as a factsheet prepared by the Great Lakes.

BUI Delisting Status:

Beneficial Use Impairment (BUI):

Current U.S. Status:

Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption

being assessed

Tainting of fish and wildlife flavor


Restrictions on drinking water consumption, or taste and odor


Beach closings

being assessed

Degradation of aesthetics

removal in process

Bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems

being assessed

Degradation of benthos


Restriction on dredging activities


Loss of fish and wildlife habitat


Added costs to agriculture or industry

removal in process

Mary Bohling serves as Chair of Michigan’s Statewide Public Advisory Council, formed in 1991 to facilitate public participation in decisions affecting Michigan's AOC program, heighten public awareness of and participation in the Remedial Action Plans being developed in the AOCs, and generate public support for implementation of restoration and protection measures. The Council is supported by the Great Lakes Commission with funding from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Future articles will detail specific progress and achievements taking place in Michigan’s AOCs.

For more info contact Mary Bohling bohling@anr.msu.edu or 313-410-9431.

This article was co-authored by Mary Bohling, Sea Grant Extension Educator and Matt Doss, Policy Director at the Great Lakes Commission.

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