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Sheboygan River Area of Concern


About the Sheboygan River AOC

In 1987, the Sheboygan River was designated as one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOC) – areas that are severely degraded and fail to support aquatic life beneficial for human use (like fish and wildlife that are healthy to eat). The lower 14 miles of the Sheboygan River and the Sheboygan Harbor are included in the Sheboygan River AOC primarily due to contamination that persists in the environment from industrial waste:

  • polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs; and
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, also called PAHs.

These contaminants are often associated with deposits of river sediment. Because these contaminants exist within a dynamic river system, they can be moved and redeposited by floods and other disturbances.

The effects of these contaminants on species vary but include impacts to every level of the food chain: from aquatic insects and other organisms that live in the river bottom — to fish, birds and mammals that consume fish. Impacts to fish and wildlife include problems with reproduction, decreased numbers and quality of fish and wildlife populations, fish tumors and other deformities.

Because PCBs become more concentrated as they move up the food chain, they present a cancer risk to people who regularly consume fish or wildlife containing PCBs. For that reason, the DNR, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, have issued fish and wildlife consumption advisories that ask that people not eat resident fish and certain waterfowl from the lower 14 miles of the river.

The worst areas of contamination in the Sheboygan River are designated as Superfund sites. The Superfund program is a complex, long–term cleanup program for uncontrolled hazardous waste. It is led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and includes:

  • removal of hazardous substances;
  • enforcement against potentially responsible parties;
  • community involvement;
  • state agency involvement; and
  • long–term protection.

The focus of the Superfund program is reducing risk to human health.

There are voluntary actions that can be sought through the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Great Lakes Legacy Act Program to further restore Great Lakes AOCs and remove additional contamination. A variety of local groups and municipal officials have been active in the Sheboygan River AOC for decades.

In 2009, as Superfund actions for the lower river and inner harbor became better known, a local dredging workgroup was formed that included city, county, state and federal elected officials and staff along with representatives from local conservation groups, and potentially responsible parties. The workgroup completed a project under the EPA Great Lakes Legacy Act to remove additional contamination that was not addressed by the Superfund program. The project also addressed impacts to future uses of the river caused by restrictions on dredging.

Seven of the nine impairments identified for the Sheboygan River AOC were due to the contamination present in the river and floodplains. Other impairments identified for the AOC include eutrophication or undesirable algae and loss of fish and wildlife habitat. The eutrophication or undesirable algae impairment was due to high concentrations of nutrients in the river. Loss of fish and wildlife habitat was partially related to contamination, but primarily due to reduced habitat availability from human development.

All management actions have been completed for the AOC, and it is currently in the monitored recovery stage.

Current Status

Current Status of the Sheboygan River AOC

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) directed the responsible parties for the Sheboygan Harbor and River Superfund Site to conduct an environmental assessment of the Tecumseh property, the primary source area for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contamination to the Sheboygan River. The environmental assessment was requested due to equipment malfunctions when the Tecumseh property was used as a dewatering facility for dredging activities.

Sampling conducted in 2016, 2018, and 2021 at the Tecumseh property and adjacent Rochester Park found high levels of PCBs in the soils more consistent with impacts from historical land use than from equipment malfunction during dredging. The high level of PCBs found at the Tecumseh property and Rochester Park require additional remediation. The EPA and DNR are working towards timely actions that ensure adequate protection to both human and environmental health at these sites.

More information about the PCB contamination found at Rochester Park is available in this DNR news release:

More information about the Sheboygan Harbor and River Superfund Site is available from the U.S. EPA:

With sediment remediation completed in 2012, the Sheboygan River AOC is now in the monitored recovery stage. Monitoring for some of the remaining AOC impairments (for example, Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive Problems) will be delayed until additional remediation at the Tecumseh property and Rochester Park is completed.

Sediment condition will continue to be monitored, as the responsible parties are required to monitor sediments in the river every five years until the remedial action objectives are met.

Fish tissue is also collected annually as part of the Superfund-required monitoring and approximately every five years by the DNR as part of the fish consumption advisory assessments. The DNR and EPA will continue to review data from these reports to ensure no further actions are required.

Community Engagement

Community Advisory Committee (CAC)

In the Sheboygan River AOC, two advisory groups were established to provide input on AOC issues and planning: the Fish and Wildlife Technical Advisory Committee and the Community Advisory Committee. After AOC projects were completed, these two groups merged into one advisory committee to review status reports on the beneficial use impairments and ensure the AOC is recovering.

The current advisory committee is made up of representatives from both the technical and community advisory committees. This group meets when monitoring reports are available to discuss how the AOC is progressing toward recovery and goals to remove the remaining beneficial use impairments. This group provides technical review along with guidance on how to share AOC progress with various community members.

Technical Advisory Committee History

The Sheboygan River AOC Fish and Wildlife Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) included of representatives from the DNR, city of Sheboygan, Sheboygan County, Sheboygan River Basin Partnership, University of Wisconsin – Extension, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The TAC provided technical input on the two fish and wildlife related beneficial use impairments in the Sheboygan AOC: degradation of fish and wildlife populations and loss of fish and wildlife habitat. The group was instrumental in developing, prioritizing, and reviewing fish and wildlife habitat conservation and restoration projects.

Community Advisory Committee History

The Sheboygan River AOC Community Advisory Committee (CAC) had many iterations as the AOC progressed through different phases. In early days of the CAC, the group convened only during times of activity in the Sheboygan River AOC. During active project planning and implementation, the CAC was expanded to be a larger and more diverse representation of the community, including stakeholder groups, citizens, adjacent landowners, businesses, and local government representatives. The group provided feedback on projects, proposals, plans and educational materials. CAC members also had many opportunities to learn about the Sheboygan River AOC and the work that was done to restore the beneficial uses of the river. CAC members also served as ambassadors to the community at large on Sheboygan River issues.

Get involved

To learn more about AOC community events, volunteer opportunities and more, check out these links.


Beneficial use impairments

The Sheboygan River was listed as an Area of Concern because beneficial uses of the river were impaired. These "beneficial use impairments" or BUIs are the issues that need to be addressed before the area can be delisted or removed from the list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

A description of each impairment is on the U.S. EPA Great Lakes AOCs website.

Of the 14 possible beneficial uses, nine are impaired for Sheboygan River.

  • restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • fish tumors or other deformities
  • bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems
  • degradation of fish and wildlife populations
  • loss of fish and wildlife habitat
  • degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton populations - BUI removed Sept. 2021
  • degradation of benthos - BUI removed Dec. 2020
  • eutrophication or undesirable algae - BUI removed Nov. 2015
  • restrictions on dredging activities - BUI removed July 2015

Final BUI removal packages with cover letters

After projects are completed, verification monitoring is typically conducted to determine if the projects have achieved the desired AOC outcomes. If monitoring data shows that BUI removal criteria were met, then DNR initiates the BUI removal process. DNR prepares a report summarizing the reason for the impairment, the removal objectives, the actions chosen to address the impairment, how the removal objectives were achieved and justification for the removal.

The process also includes consultation with stakeholders, a public document review opportunity and a technical review by designated agency experts. A BUI is formally removed when U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office concurs with the removal recommendation.

Remedial Action Plans

Remedial Action Plans

Following publication of the first Remedial Action Plan (RAP), the DNR and partners developed approaches to address the nine beneficial use impairments. Monitoring was often a first step to understand conditions and inform the selection of management actions. DNR updates the RAP as appropriate to share progress, summarize monitoring results and describe next steps. RAP updates are available for a public review and input opportunity prior to being published. To stay informed about public input opportunities for upcoming RAP updates, sign up to receive GovDelivery notifications.


The Sheboygan River. Photo credit: Deb Beyer
The Sheboygan River. Photo credit: Deb Beyer




Sheboygan's Revitalization: The Sheboygan River Area of Concern

Sheboygan has seen growth in recreation, housing and economic development, and tourism as a result of the cleanup efforts in the Sheboygan River Area of Concern. This video is part of the Great Lakes Area of Concern Revitalization Video Series that features five cities along waterways deemed Areas of Concern that are in various stages of the cleanup and restoration process. The series shares stories about waterways that have been brought back to life and are bringing people to the water. Video is courtesy of Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Great Lakes Outreach Media.

Great Lakes Now Connect: Sheboygan AOC

Sheboygan celebrates the restoration of the Sheboygan River and Lake Michigan Harbor after completing the work to transform it from an area of concern to an area of recovery. Collaboration among local, state and federal partners removed 400,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and restored fish and wildlife habitat. Sheboygan is a shining example of how environmental action can kick-start a local economy. Video is courtesy of Milwaukee PBS - Great Lakes Now.

Sheboygan River – Fast Track to Recovery

A holistic approach to cleanup and restoration has put the Sheboygan River on the road to recovery. Thanks to federal funds and the hard work of many partners, PCBs and other contaminants have been removed. More than 34 acres of wetland and stream habitat have been restored, increasing the recreational and economic value of this important area.

Sheboygan River Clean-Up: A Little Patience, a Big Payback

A 2012 video from Wisconsin Sea Grant, highlighting the crews working around the clock to dredge the river, clean up contaminated sediment,and restore wildlife habitat.



Many projects were completed to clean up pollution and restore fish and wildlife habitat in the Sheboygan River AOC. All the projects that were identified to address the nine beneficial use impairments for this AOC have been completed. The remaining work is focused on monitoring to verify that the ecosystem is recovering. Below are a few of the major milestone projects completed in the AOC.

  • Sheboygan Harbor and River Superfund Remediation (U.S. EPA site) - Sediments contaminated by PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls were removed from the lower portions of the river and floodplains in the upper river in 2011 - 2012. Areas in the upper river that were contaminated were cleaned up in 2006 - 2007. The responsible party, Techumseh, funded this dredging work, which was carried out by Pollution Risk Services.
  • Camp Marina Superfund Alternative (U.S. EPA site) - Sediments contaminated by coal tar by-products, known as PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, were cleaned up in the river in 2011. This site is in the city of Sheboygan near Boat Island. Cleanup work on the land portion of this site was completed in 2002. This work was funded and carried out by the responsible party, Wisconsin Public Service. The contamination happened while the Sheboygan Gas and Light Company operated on the site in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
  • Sheboygan River Great Lakes Legacy Act Dredging Project - A Great Lakes Legacy Act Dredging Project was completed in 2012 - 2013. This project cleaned up contaminated sediment that was left after the two Superfund projects completed remediation of contaminated sediments that they are responsible for under the Superfund program. Most of this work occurred in the lower river between Kiwanis Park and the 8th Street Bridge. This work was funded by the Great Lakes Legacy Act with cost-share from the DNR, Sheboygan County, the City of Sheboygan, Wisconsin Public Service, and the Superfund dredging projects.
  • Sheboygan Harbor Navigational Dredging (U.S. EPA site) - Sediments in the lower portion of the river between the 8th Street Bridge and the outer harbor were dredged in 2012. Approximately 170,000 cubic yards of sediment were removed to improve navigation in this area of the river. This work was funded through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
  • Sheboygan River AOC Habitat Conservation and Restoration Projects - Several habitat conservation and restoration projects were identified by the Fish and Wildlife Technical Advisory Committee as necessary to remove the fish and wildlife habitat related impairments. These projects were completed in 2010 - 2012. In total, approximately 72 acres of habitat were either enhanced or restored. The following projects were funded through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants to the DNR:
    • Kiwanis Park Shoreline Restoration
    • Taylor Drive and Indiana Avenue Riparian Area and Wetland Restoration
    • Wildwood Island Area Restoration
    • Shoreline Stabilization in Problem Areas
    • In-Stream Habitat Improvements
    • Targeted Invasive Species Control
    • Schuchardt Property Conservation Planning
  • Sheboygan River AOC Evaluation and Monitoring Projects -  Several evaluation and monitoring projects were completed, and others are currently underway to see how the environment, fish and wildlife are responding to the cleanup and restoration actions. This information will help determine if the remaining beneficial use impairments can be removed in the Sheboygan River AOC. Ongoing projects include contaminant monitoring in fish, waterfowl and other animals, and fish tumor incidence rate monitoring. Future assessments will include additional work to verify if wildlife species are recovering. These projects are funded through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants to the DNR.
  • UW-Extension Sheboygan River Education and Outreach Archive - During the active project planning and implementation phase of the AOC, UW-Extension worked with partners to produce many educational materials and outreach activities for community members to learn about Sheboygan River issues and the AOC work to restore beneficial uses of the river.