Water quality in the region has improved greatly over the years and more work to continue the momentum is in the works.
Scott Ireland, special assistant to the senior adviser to the administrator on the Great Lakes for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5 Great Lakes National Program office in Chicago, touted the work being done on the Grand Calumet River during several presentations last year.
"The days of minimizing harm are over," Ireland said during a November presentation. "We need to be proactive in preventing it and we are."
In the early 1980s, the Grand Calumet River was designated by the U.S. EPA as one of the most polluted waterways in the nation. All 14 beneficial uses were listed as impaired.
Now, two impairments have been delisted in the agricultural and drinking water categories. Partnerships between the U.S. EPA, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. Steel have led to dredging millions of cubic yards of contaminated sediments.
Some 7 million pounds of contaminated sediments have been removed from the Roxanna Marsh portion of the river alone. Bird species not seen in years and turtles have returned to the area.
East Chicago recently announced plans to clean a portion of the river there in cooperation with the U.S. EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the East Chicago Waterway Management District.
Ireland has said partnerships with land management agencies and nonprofits will help keep the river and adjacent lands from falling back into an unhealthy state.
Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, said the work on the Grand Cal is impressive.
"Frankly, I'd never guess in a million years that we could bring that polluted river back to life, but it's coming back thanks to folks pushing inside bureaucracies at the state and federal level, and thanks to many nonprofits and other organizations coming together to make it happen," Barker said.
"Critical funding mechanisms like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which we advocate extensively for, are part of the complex funding pot that helps innovative, amazing things like this possible."
Barker noted scientists at Argonne National Laboratories and Purdue University Calumet's Water Institute are working on ways to keep pollution from lakefront industries out of the water and treating what is already there.
Other sources of water pollution, she said, need to be addressed as well.
"It's easy to say improving water quality is the job of industry, but what many people don't understand is that non-point source pollution, stuff that you can't pinpoint coming out of a specific pipe, has the greatest impact on water quality," Barker said.
Save the Dunes is working with its partners to evaluate septic systems to further improve water quality.
"We are planning to take some samples to test whether bacteria in some regional waterways is from human sources," she said. "If we find it, we need to step up our game as a region to protect public health and our waterways."
Barker said water quality has improved, but the work is far from over.
"On the whole, we've come a heck of a long way, but we now need to use smart, sustainable practices to make our water as clean as possible," she said.