Correcting the environmental damage of an earlier era takes time, money, planning, know-how, and the combined efforts of many people.
The estuary can be seen through two lenses
The importance of the 12,000-acre freshwater complex of wetlands, tributary streams, and bays that makes up the St. Louis River estuary is best understood by looking at the system through two different lenses. On the one hand, the SLRE is a large, productive and ecologically valuable freshwater ecosystem. Looked at through another lens, the same estuary can be seen as a primary driver for the economic health and vitality of the region. As a result the ecosystem has been altered through time, leading to the significant restoration challenges we face today.
Early History and the Rise of Industry
Well before the arrival of European explorers, the St. Louis River Estuary's location at the head of Lake Superior along with its wild rice beds and fishery made it an important place of Native American trade and settlement. The St. Louis River itself was part of a major transportation route, connecting Lake Superior with the Mississippi drainage via the Savanna Portage, and north via the Vermilion trade route.
The advent of the fur trade in 1793 heralded the beginning of European influence. Rock quarries of the late 1800s provided the brownstone that helped build the towns of Duluth and Superior, first opened to settlement in 1854. With the introduction of the railroad in 1869, Duluth and Superior began a period of rapid growth that saw the development of the coal, iron, grain, lumber, petroleum, meat packing, and shipping industries, many still very much in evidence today. Each of these industries used the river both as a source of water for industrial operations and a convenient means of disposing of waste products, bringing economic prosperity and environmental damage with it. Communities relied on the estuary as a convenient means of waste disposal.
While written records of pre-European settlement are relatively sparse, the St. Louis River Estuary's location at the head of Lake Superior made it an important place of Native American trade and settlement. The extensive wild rice beds and fishery allowed for establishment of villages in the current sites of Duluth Superior and upriver into the present-day Fond du Lac area. The St. Louis River itself was important to the Lake Superior Chippewa as a major transportation route, connecting Lake Superior with the Mississippi drainage via the Savanna Portage, and north via the Vermilion trade route. The region therefore became a major center of trade, first among tribes and later between tribes and European settlers.
The North West Company, with trade primarily to the north, was established in Duluth in 1793; 80 years later John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company established an outpost in Fond du Lac. The late 1800s also saw the development of numerous rock quarries to mine for brownstone – these built the famed building of early downtown Duluth: the Costello Building, the American Exchange, Duluth National Bank, and the still-standing Hunter Block. Remnants of these quarries, such as Chamber's Grove , are still evident in the hills around Duluth today.
The towns of Duluth and Superior were opened to settlement in 1854, under the La Pointe Treaty with the Chippewa Indians. With the introduction of the railroad in 1869, Duluth and Superior began a period of rapid growth that saw the development of coal, iron, grain, mills and shipyard industries; by 1910 the cities had a population of 120,000 and shipments of over $20,000,000 per year (Lusignan 1983).
The mid-to-late 1800's also saw the unprecedented harvest of white pine, sweeping through Michigan, Wisconsin, central Minnesota and ultimately northeast and north central Minnesota. This massive harvest resulted in the establishment of numerous lumber mills in the estuary and along the shores of Lake Superior:
"In the 1880s area mills produced an average of 10 million board feet a year; in 1890 they produced 150 million feet. By 1894 thirty-two mills employed 7,700 in Duluth and Superior — and more mills operated along the western Lake Superior shores. Twin Ports milling peaked in 1902, when 443 million board feet were produced."
From Lost Duluth: Landmarks, Industries, Buildings, Homes, and the Neighborhoods in Which They Stood, copyright © 2011, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota.
One of the persistent legacies of the sawmill era was the tremendous amount of wood waste discarded into the estuary. Grassy Point, for example, was mapped as an extensive emergent wetland in 1961, now has submerged layers of scrap wood material up to 16 feet in depth, with little decomposition. The site has been the focus of several restoration efforts, including excavating a channel to connect Keane Creek to the river, and, in 1995-1996, removing over 11,000 cubic yards of wood waste.
from Duluth Public Library. Click to zoom.
The Estuary becomes an Area of Concern
The mid 1900's brought about extensive development of industry in the lower estuary – the river provided both a source of water for industrial operations and a convenient means of disposing of industrial waste products. Petroleum refineries, tar product manufactures, paper mills, paint factories and meat packing plants were among the many industries that lined the estuary and prior to regulation, discharged waste directly into the river (SLRAC 1992). Among the toxic compounds were polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, dioxins and furans (Schubauer-Berigan and Crane 1997, Crane et al. 2002).
Image courtesy of WLSSD. Click to zoom.
In response to the high levels of nutrients and organic matter that were being discharged into the river and degrading water quality and habitat, the Western Lake Superior Sanitation District (WLSSD) was formed. The wastewater treatment plant began operation in 1978 (SLRAC 1992). WLSSD treats wastewater for Duluth, as well as most of the other small cities, towns and industrial customers in the area. Although treatment dramatically improved water quality, in 1987 the lower 63 km of the river, including the estuary, were listed as one of the 43 Areas of Concern on the Great Lakes by the International Joint Commission (IJC; (SLRAC 1992).
An Area of Concern (AOC) is a site that has experienced significant environmental degradation, particularly to a river or lake's ability to support aquatic life. Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, designation as an AOC requires the development of a Remedial Action Plan (RAP). The RAP consists of three stages: 1) identification of specific problems, 2) development of goals and recommended actions, and 3) implementation of those actions. Successful completion of Stage 3 leads to 'delisting' or removal of the AOC designation from the site.
The SLR RAP began in 1989, under the auspices of the St. Louis River Citizens Advisory Committee (now the St. Louis River Alliance), with the Stage 1 document published in 1992. The RAP process identified nine of 14 possible Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs) related primarily to fish and wildlife health and habitat, sediment and nutrient loadings, beach closures and aesthetics. (See Sidebar) A 1995 update to the report outlined 43 specific recommendations to address environmental issues, including land acquisition, connecting the Fond du Lac community to WLSSD to address failing septic systems, and reducing sewage overflows by disconnecting linkages between stormwater and sanitary sewer systems.
The SLR AOC focuses on the lower 39 river miles of the St. Louis as well as the 260 sq mi Nemadji River watershed.Click to zoom.
Restoration Timelines: The Roadmap to Delisting
In 2010, restoring the Great Lakes became a national priority. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, created by the President Barack Obama and Congress, is a collaboration among the US EPA and 15 other federal agencies, with goals of addressing the most significant environmental problems facing the Great Lakes:
- Toxic substances and Areas of Concern
- Invasive Species
- Nearshore Health and Nonpoint Source Pollution
- Habitat and Wildlife Protection and Restoration
- Accountability, Education, Monitoring, Communication and Partnerships
The GLRI Action Plan released in 2010 identified goals, objectives, measureable ecological targets and specific actions for each of these five focal areas, for the period 2010-2014. Finally, in July 2013, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, under a grant from the GLRI, created the "St. Louis River Area of Concern Implementation Framework: A Roadmap To Delisting". This comprehensive multiagency plan is an aggressive and targeted list of recommendations with the goal of delisting the AOC by 2025. The outcomes include remediation of 13 contaminated sites, restoration of 1700 ac of aquatic habitat, creation of piping plover habitat, and the removal of fish consumption advisories.