ModeChat: Mark Hackel on Lake St. Clair and Macomb County's blue economy

Lake St. Clair has been at the center of Mark Hackel's agenda for Macomb County since he assumed the office of County Executive in 2010. While efforts to clean up the lake are ongoing, pollution challenges remain. While Metropolitan Beach has been closed only one day this year, Memorial Beach in St. Clair Shores has been closed since July 19.

Metromode caught up with Hackel to find out how the county is working to help clean up and increase public access to the waterway.

The following interview is edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Metromode: In a nutshell, what is Macomb County's Blue Economy initiative?

Mark Hackel: What we're trying to do is create an environment where people have a recognition of what's going on within our own county. People need to realize this incredible asset that we have, for a number of reasons; quality of life, attraction, and access, as well as the issue of dealing with water quality. The whole premise behind the Blue Economy is that there is a financial advantage to having this fresh water asset.

It's the busiest freshwater lake during the summer months than anywhere in the country. It's a huge body of water that provides great opportunities for recreation. It has many different marinas in and around the area for people who like to have their boats available and accessible during the summer months.

We realize there's an opportunity to capitalize on it by giving people more access.  People then become more connected with it, and the more people become aware of it, the more connected they are. It filters into more of an economic advantage. It's what I call quality of life advantage.

Mode: Unfortunately, Lake St. Clair has a long reputation for pollution. Is that perception warranted?

Hackel: Yes, I think you're always going to have that perception. The lake is a basin. It doesn't flush completely for a seven-to-ten day period. The way the water circulates or flows out of there is problematic for many different reasons, and some of it is just environmentally natural, and it's unfortunate. There're certain things you've got to be careful of. If you start changing water flows, you're changing other issues dealing with biology and the environment.

I think it's better than what it once was, absolutely. We're always trying to figure out, "Okay, how can we do better to make sure perception and/or reality are less of an impact?"

If you think about it, it's the busiest freshwater lake during the summer months, it's got an incredible fishery for Bass and Muskie, so it can't be all that bad. Many people have their boats there, and people still have their homes out on the lakefront.  

Mode: What efforts are ongoing to improve the water quality in the lake?

Hackel: We're working to try to figure out how to change the direction of what's going on in our Public Works department. I'm trying to put some political pressure on that office to be more cognizant of the reality that what is currently permissible shouldn't be the norm or the standard, and we need to fight to change that.

You can't say that the stormwater and combined sewer coming out of the south end [of Macomb County] is acceptable. We need to figure out how we come up with grants at the federal level or the state level and start doing more sewer separation, even if it's just street by street, year by year, whatever it takes. It's very complicated issue.

Mode: One concern often expressed about Lake St. Clair is the limited public access. Can you tell me about efforts the county is undertaking to increase access to the lake?

Hackel: We're working with the local municipalities, in particular, New Baltimore, Chesterfield, and Harrison Township, which are the major municipalities that have 31.5 miles of Lake St. Clair coastline in Macomb County.  We are engaged in trying to catalog and make a determination as to who owns what, and what properties are potentially available, either private and or the public.

We are trying to see what's possible with Michigan Natural Resource Trust dollars to purchase land. For example, we now have a Paddle Park in Chesterfield. We were able to work with Mr. Wayne and Joan Webber to purchase that property and transform it into something that gives direct public access to the lake. The Schmidt Marina in New Baltimore was only accessible if you had a boat in the marina. Now it is going to be transformed into a public property so people can enjoy it and they don't necessarily have to have a boat.

We're also working with communities to highlight what already is accessible, like Lake St. Clair Metropark. So not only are we trying to draw attention to the access that currently is available and let people become more aware of that, we are trying to create more access points.

Mode: What's one thing Metro Detroiters should know about Lake St. Clair?

Hackel: That it is, without question, the busiest freshwater lake over any other during the summer months. It is our Great Lake, and it's uniquely positioned between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. Around the world, it is known for being one of the best places for Bass and Musky fishing.

The fish are so plentiful; you're going to see people out there fishing every morning and evening. People out there water skiing. People out there jet skiing. You can sail a boat out there. You can use that lake for pretty much anything and everything you could do on a small inland lake or one of the larger Great Lakes.

It's a lake that can be used for a multitude of purposes and is. You have to visit it, and you see what it is that attracts people to it. You'll be amazed.
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