Skip to main content

Sheboygan River Area of Concern


About the Sheboygan River AOC

In 1987, the Sheboygan River was designated 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 Area of Concern for a number of reasons, but 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 organisms that live in the river bottom, to aquatic insects, to microscopic plankton that fish rely upon for food. Impacts may also include impacts to fish and wildlife reproduction, decreased fish and wildlife populations, and fish tumors and other deformities. Because PCBs are known to bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain, they present a carcinogenic risk to human health if they are present in fish or wildlife that is eaten. For that reason, the DNR in conjunction with the Wisconsin Division of Health 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. Other impairments identified for the Sheboygan River Area of Concern include eutrophication and undesirable algae and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.

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 headed 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 EPA Legacy Act Program to further restore Great Lakes Areas of Concern and remove additional contamination. A variety of local groups and municipal officials have been active in the Sheboygan River Area of Concerns for years. 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 pursued a betterment project under the EPA Legacy Act to remove additional contamination that would not be addressed by Superfund to speed up recovery of the river ecosystem. As a side benefit, the betterment action would also address impacts to future uses of the river caused by restrictions on dredging.

In order to address the fish and wildlife habitat, population and related issues, a technical advisory committee was formed to identify data needs, pursue funding for assessment work and identify habitat improvement projects.

Community Engagement

Community Advisory Committee (CAC)

In the Sheboygan River AOC there are two advisory groups established to provide input on AOC issues and planning: the Fish and Wildlife Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) and the Community Advisory Committee (CAC).

Technical Advisory Committee

The Sheboygan River AOC Fish and Wildlife Technical Advisory Committee (F&W TAC) is made up of representatives from DNR, the Sheboygan River Basin Partnership, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), city of Sheboygan, Sheboygan County and University of Wisconsin – Extension (UWEX). The F&W TAC provides technical input on our 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 worked together to prepare a fish and wildlife assessment project that was funded in 2010 through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and is now in progress. The group was also instrumental in developing and prioritizing fish and wildlife habitat conservation and restoration projects. As we work on these projects throughout the next year the F&W TAC will also provide input on plans requested by EPA, such as the Stage II RAP and Fish and Wildlife Habitat Restoration and Management Plan.

Community Advisory Committee

The current Sheboygan River AOC Community Advisory Committee (CAC) met for their inaugural meeting on August 4, 2011. In the past, CAC groups convened only during times of activity in the Sheboygan River AOC. The current CAC is intended to be a larger and more diverse representation of the community, including stakeholder groups, citizens, adjacent landowners, businesses and local government representatives. The purpose of the group is to provide feedback on projects, proposals, plans and educational materials. CAC members also have opportunities to learn about the Sheboygan River AOC and the work being done to restore the beneficial uses of the river. CAC members also serve 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

Areas were listed as Areas of Concern because beneficial uses of the river were believed to be 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 Area of Concern.

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

  • restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • eutrophication or undesirable algae
  • degradation of fish and wildlife populations
  • fish tumors or other deformities
  • bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems
  • degradation of benthos
  • degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton populations
  • restrictions on dredging activities
  • loss of fish and wildlife habitat

Timeline for removing impairments

Final BUI removal packages with cover letters




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.



There have been a lot of efforts to clean up the river and remove the nine Beneficial Use Impairments identified for the river. There is more work planned for the future. Some of the projects include:

  • Sediments contaminated by PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls were removed from the lower portions of the river and floodplains in the upper river in 2011 and 2012. Areas in the upper river that were contaminated were cleaned up in 2006. The responsible party, Techumseh, funded this dredging work, which was carried out by Pollution Risk Services.
  • Campmarina Superfund alternative (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 located in the city of Sheboygan near Boat Island. Clean-up 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 Legacy Act dredging project – As a betterment to the two Superfund dredging projects, a Legacy Act Dredging Project was implementation in 2012. This project cleaned up contaminated sediment that was left after the two Superfund projects completed contaminated sediments they are responsible for under the Superfund program. The majority of this work occured 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, WPS and the Superfund dredging projects.
  • Sheboygan Harbor Navigational Dredging – Sediments in the lower portion of the river between the 8th Street Bridge and the outer harbor were dredged in 2012. This project improved the navigation of this area of the river, which has very low levels of contamination. This work was funded through the 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 BUIs. These projects were carried out in 2010, 2011 and 2012. These projects include Kiwanis Park Shoreline Restoration, Taylor Drive & Indiana Avenue Riparian Area and Wetland Restoration, Wildwood Island Area Restoration, Shoreline Stabilization in Problem Areas, In-Stream Habitat Improvements, Targeted Invasive Species Control and Schuchardt Property Conservation Planning. These projects were funded through a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant to the DNR.
  • Sheboygan River AOC Evaluation and Monitoring projects – Several evaluation and monitoring projects are underway to measure whether BUIs can be removed in the Sheboygan River AOC. Ongoing projects include contaminant monitoring in fish, waterfowl and animals, and fish tumor incidence rate monitoring. Assessments of plankton and benthic communities and various other fish and wildlife species were recently completed throughout the AOC and in some tributary streams. These projects are funded through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants to the DNR.
  • UW-Extension: Sheboygan River Education & Outreach Archive