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A lifetime on the water: Kathy Evans on restoring Muskegon Lake

Kathy Evans at Muskegon Lake.

Kathy Evans has spent much of her adult life fighting to restore West Michigan's environment. Her greatest triumph: bringing people together to clean up Muskegon Lake.
Kathy Evans was born and raised in Muskegon and grew up visiting the Lake Michigan shoreline.

“I could ride my bike there when I got a little older,” she says. “It was very inspiring. When you appreciate nature growing up, you care about it as you get older.

Evans often visited her grandparents, whose home was right on the water of the Bear Lake channel, where Bear Lake connects to Muskegon Lake in North Muskegon.

“It was a cool little place,” she says. “That’s what started my appreciation of the area and doing the kind of work that I do. I knew what it was like, could be like, and should be like.”

Evans attended Muskegon’s Reeths-Puffer schools before going to Muskegon Community College, where she pursued arts and sciences. In her mid-20s, Evans began raising a family, and that's when her activism began. She chaired a citizen's safety committee that tried to raise awareness of the industries around the schools and the chemicals they used.

“I got very active as a volunteer when I had young children trying to advance cleanups of some very highly polluted properties, some of them directly connected to surface waters,” she says.

Evans knew there were EPA-designated Superfund sites in the area.

“Trying to find alternatives to the kind of chemicals they used was something I did a lot of work on,” says Evans. She was part of a group at the time called the West Michigan Region Environmental Network. She says it was a committed, dedicated group that met regularly to discuss and address environmental contamination issues – not only with Superfund sites – but building early awareness of the Area of Concern (AOC) pollution issues, even before Muskegon Lake and White Lake were officially listed as AOCs.

“We were using every authority we could to do some type of positive improvement, whether it was contamination or restoration,” Evans says. “Now we talk about it as revitalization, to have a more sustainable way of managing things for our communities in the future.”

Evans says her volunteer work through the school and with the West Michigan Region Environmental Network helped her land a job as assistant director of the Michigan office of the Lake Michigan Federation (now the Alliance for the Great Lakes). From there she aspired to water quality program manager for the Muskegon Conservation District, followed by executive director for the Timberland Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Area Council, before landing in her current position as environmental program manager for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.

She is responsible for the Commission’s environmental planning program, including area-wide water quality management planning, grant project management, and liaison to the region’s watershed council.

The list of her accolades is long.

Since 1992, Evans has worked with the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership to implement the Muskegon Lake Remedial Action Plan (RAP). She is also a founding board member of the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly. She received the Great Lakes Commission Outstanding Service Award in 2005, and chaired the Statewide Public Advisory Council for Michigan Areas of Concern from 1999-2005, and from 2007-2009.  For her efforts to restore fish and wildlife habitat in the Muskegon Lake AOC, she received the NOAA Restoration Center’s “Excellence in Restoration” Award in 2010.

But she is quick to give credit to others, especially those protecting the environment.

“I’m so happy that our land conservancies and local governments are proactive about preserving land and protecting what we have out there,” she says. “That’s so important, and it’s really easier than cleaning up.”

As work in the Muskegon Lake AOC continues and beneficial use impairments like restrictions on dredging and fish consumption are removed, the area is slowly but surely coming back to life.

“We’re moving on. We’re going to be de-listed soon,” says Evans. “We’re happy about it. We accomplished a lot and we’re going to be proactive about protecting it.”

But Evans is concerned about funding. For the last several years programs like the Great Lakes Legacy Act to clean up contaminated sediments and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have provided the funds necessary to get work done.

“We live in fear of budget cuts at any level – but it affects the local level most,” she says. “Local communities have the least amount of discretionary money to spend. When it comes to getting the most bang for the buck, it’s really critical that we ensure that funding comes to local communities.”

Evans is aware of the importance of local people working with federal and state agencies to plan and implement projects.

“It works best when all partners at all levels are fully supported to be meaningfully engaged,” she says. “We’re all in it together.”

And that’s what Evans is most proud of – the role she has played in bringing diverse stakeholders together to identify what needs to be done to restore Muskegon Lake.

“It’s really critical that we hear all community perspectives,” she says. “Any chance I get to have a role in making sure that happens, I always feel good about that.”

This series about restoration in Michigan's Areas of Concern is made possible through support from the Michigan Office of Great Lakes through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
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