Case Study

Water Quality

Phytoremediation with Poplar Trees


Poplar trees planted to remediate pollution trapped in soil. Project led and photo courtesy of Delta Institute.

Muskegon’s history of contaminated water and soil is being corrected, beginning a healthier future for both humans and the environment as hybrid popular trees are planted for remediation of the soil and water in the city.

Muskegon, Michigan

Warm summers, cold and snowy winters, mild spring and fall. Greatly impacted by the lake effect from Lake Michigan.


White: 57% Black: 34% Hispanic: 8% Asian: >1% Native American: >1%

Muskegon, MI was heavily polluted with industry waste from chemical and petrochemical companies and paper mills. In 1985, Muskegon Lake was designated an Area of Concern because the discharge from the industry was beginning to have an adverse effect on the environment with the lake and surrounding streams experiencing unprecedented algae blooms, fish were found to be laden with contaminants and native habitat was destroyed. However, promise was seen since 2013 as the Delta Institute has planted over 5,000 hybrid poplar trees for soil and water remediation on brownfields in a partnership with the US Forest Service’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The goal of the project is to restore the brownfield back to its natural state and remove the lake from the Area of Concern list by 2019. Hybrid poplar trees were specially chosen to remove pollutants because of their deep root structure and fast growth rate, which allows phytoremediation to occur at a more efficient rate than plants and grasses. The physical characteristics of deep roots allow the uptake of heavy metals, chlorinated solvents and other harmful chemicals from the ground into the trunk where it is safely contained and dispersed. In addition to remediating the soil and water the trees will reduce stormwater runoff, keeping soil in place and preventing the spread of contaminants in the ground.

Economic Growth

The project has been economically stimulating for the city as well. General laborers, equipment operators and tree farmers have been employed for the project. There are also plans to harvest some of the timber from the popular trees in the future for reuse, guaranteeing economic growth while practicing smart forest management in an urban environment.

  • $400,000 from the Great Lakes Restoration Initative

Delta Institute Webpage and Video Link for the Clean-up Initiative

  • Delta Institute
  • Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
  • US Forest Service
  • West Michigan Shore Regional Development Commission
  • City of Muskegon
  • State of Michigan
Lessons Learned
  • Trees are more efficient at phytoremediation than plants because of their deep root structures and daily water uptake
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