In the early 1970s, economically depressed Muskegon was losing its lakes and its industry, its two most valuable resources.
The lakes were being killed by pollution. The industries, many of which produced a heavily contaminated effluent, were following cheaper labor markets and less costly environmental controls.
In an attempt to save both its industry and its lakes, Muskegon turned to a unusual system of sewage handling called land treatment, which promised to clean up the dirtiest industrial discharges.
Theoretically, no longer would a still dirty effluent be dumped into the creeks and rivers that formed Muskegon Lake and other bodies of water that were once the city's pride but now its bane.
Four years after land treatment came, Muskegon and surrounding county appear to have halted the flight of industry and are actually claiming new employers.
Keeping the biggest industry - the 1,600-employe S. D. Warren paper mill - may have been land treatment's biggest triumph. But the price has left a noticeable blemish on the sewage systems that Muskogen likes to show off to frequent visiting delegations from the U.S. and abroad.
While land treatment has indeed been able to clean up most of the mill's sewage - few discharges are as horremdously foul as a paper mill's - there are sometimes noxious odors associated with the process. The odors affect two townships on either side of the 11,000-acre treatment site.
"Our engineers didn't calculate the problem we would have with odors." said one city official. Various techniques have been tried to eliminate the odors, but there are still complaints from nearby residents.
How effective has land treatment been in cleaning up the lake? A good place to go to find out is the Muskegon Yacht Club on the edge of the Muskegon Lake.
Paul Franklin, who rigs sloops for weekend sailors, said the hulls of the boats anchored at dockside tell the story. "You don't see scum on them anymore," said Franklin.
While raising the bulky mast of the 30-foot Sequel he said. "In the spring it used to be you couldn't see a foot down in the water. Now you can see six, seven feet down."
Inside the club, Arnold Price, the brawny, tough-spoken bartender, described it this way: "Ive known this lake for 45 years. It used to be so dirty I wouldn't stick your foot in it. Now it's clean because we don't have waste water being dumped into it."