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.
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 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.
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:
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.
When an article appeared in the Superior Telegram in 2003 that outlined plans for a large golfing resort on Clough Island in the heart of the St. Louis River Estuary, it alarmed some people. One of them was long-time estuary advocate, Dorothy Anway. The math instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior became active in a citizen’s committee that looked into details of the development.
Plans called for 500 housing units and a 300-room hotel that would be seven stories tall, a golf course and a marina. Transportation to the island would be by ferry or gondola from Spirit Mountain Ski Area across the river on the Minnesota side.
“When you go up to Thompson Hill off the freeway in Duluth and you look out over the bay, what you see is Clough Island,” said Anway. “It’s the green area. To have a seven-story hotel on it would have changed the view. Plus the development was overbuilt with no consideration of the wetlands, geology or other geographic features.”
Using her skill with numbers, Anway collected figures for an economic analysis of the development. She found that similar developments on the fringes of other cities did not add to the tax rolls; they cost communities money for things like sewage, water, power and emergency services.
“The roads and bridges planned by the developers were not wide enough for emergency vehicles,” Anway said. “And how were the developers going to get fire insurance if the fire trucks couldn’t get to the island? Emergency services were a problem with this project unless the developers were going to have their own on the island, which they never proposed.”
Anway and the citizen’s group, called the Friends of the Superior Municipal Forest – St. Louis/Pokegama Estuary, also had environmental concerns about the project. “Building a golf course in the middle of a body of water that you’re trying to clean up is iffy also because of the pesticides used. And around the island is the biggest fish nursery in Lake Superior. To pollute that would be a tragedy, too,” Anway said.
The group brought their findings several times to the Superior City Council. They even hosted a press conference and boated reporters out to the island. The city council needed more detailed plans from the developer before zoning for the island could be changed. Anway said the council gave the developers a year to offer the plans, but none were forthcoming. “It just died a quiet death,” she said.
However, the plans spurred several conservation organizations into action to preserve the island. In 2010, the Nature Conservancy purchased the island from developers. In 2011, the property was transferred to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for management. Read more Clough Island .
"I think there was a real sense of, this is a pretty unique resource, and it's the heart of this urban area that a lot of people grew up around, and they wanted to see it come back."
Brian Fredrickson knew way back in college that he wanted to work on the Great Lakes and, more specifically, Lake Superior. In his own words, "I couldn't think of anything more important to do with my life, than to work on the St. Louis River," given its status as the biggest tributary to Lake Superior.
Brian chases ducks at Erie Pier Click to zoom.
From chasing ducks at Erie Pier (released as part of a sentinel study) to implementing the Lower St. Louis River Habitat Plan, Brian has seen it all in over 20 years at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Early on he recalls touring the coke ovens at the U.S. Steel Superfund site and watching 'hideous smelling' tar being excavated from the river at the Interlake Superfund site. In the early days there was little money. Now he sees recognition at the state and federal level of the importance of this resource to the nation as a whole.
Early in his days at the MPCA, Brian served as one of the architects of the Remedial Action Plan that helped precipitate the multi-decade recovery of the St. Louis River Estuary. He notes that he and his Wisconsin counterpart labored to choose members of the original Citizen Advisory Committee, seeking to balance insight and experience while properly representing the numerous stakeholders interested in the SLRE. As Brian says, "Many of those people are still involved in it, which is just totally amazing after all this time." He attributes their dedication to the fact that they were "engaged from the ground up."
While Brian is proud of many accomplishments during the Estuary's recovery, he specifically singles out the acquisition and preservation of the Red River Breaks (also called the Werco property), a parcel of highly erodible land located on the Wisconsin side of the St. Louis River. Collaboration among many partners made it possible to place this 5000-acre property into the Public Land Trust in perpetuity.
If you think that Brian's outlook on the importance of the St. Louis River is unique to this particular river, think again. As he says, "I'm a water person from the word go. I really can't think of a lake, river, or stream that isn't important. They're all important in their own right."
Although the endangered piping plover shorebird hasn’t nested in the estuary for several decades, organizations and individuals are putting time and money into projects in hopes they will return. At the lead is Kris Eilers, piping plover project coordinator for the St. Louis River Alliance. Eilers has been managing a five-year project to make beaches in the estuary more attractive and suitable for these little birds, which look much like a killdeer.
Eilers said the birds stopped nesting in the area in the 1980s “due to a high amount of development on the beaches and due to human and pet disturbances.” The problem is that the smooth sandy beaches where plovers like to nest are where humans like to go, too. “We haven’t learned how to share the same space yet with certain species,” she said.
Besides beach restoration at Wisconsin Point, Eilers and the Alliance have been focusing on public outreach. They’ve talked to over 5,000 people, both students and adults, and they have developed a curriculum for middle schools. Their efforts are so popular that now people are inviting the Alliance to talk to their groups.
“Outreach and education are always important components of any project,” Eilers said. “Without the community support you cannot successfully bring back an endangered species.”
Public interest in the project increased during the spring of 2015 when two piping plovers were spotted on Park Point. Unfortunately, they both turned out to be males, so no nesting occurred. But the sighting garnered widespread media interest and provided opportunities for more public education. As plover populations increase in current breeding grounds in the Great Lakes researchers anticipate more of these sightings as young adult birds disperse and look for less crowded nesting areas.
The next phase of the project involves a focus on habitat protection and enforcement of existing leash laws in plover nesting habitat. Eilers also said they will rely on a strong volunteer force.
“If we can continue to save natural habitat for them and keep working on those areas, and provide safety from loose-running dogs, we feel hopeful we will have nesting pairs here in the next five years or so,” Eilers said.
Agencies and stakeholders are working together to clean up contaminated sediments and restore aquatic habitat to the estuary in the St. Louis River Area of Concern within the Great Lakes Basin
The plan to clean up the St. Louis River Estuary has moved into action. A number of contaminated sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin are the focus of restoration activities that will remove contaminated sediments, improve water quality, and restore aquatic and wetland habitat for the fish, birds and mammals that call the estuary their home. The following sections highlight the ongoing restoration projects that will move the estuary toward delisting as an Area of Concern.
Where have all the wetlands gone? Decades of dredging and filling displaced the shallow, sheltered aquatic habitats once common in this area. With well-designed placement of clean sediment dredged from the shipping channels, natural resource managers expect wetland vegetation will return to this site off of 21st Avenue West, and with it, the bugs, fish and birds that live there.
Most of the Area of Concern related work is proposed for the southern portion of the site. Click to zoom.
The 40th Ave West Restoration Site is near Erie Pier, the Bong Bridge (Highway 2) and the M. L. Hibbard Renewable Energy Center in West Duluth. Before it became home to various industries that dredged and filled the area, this 332-acre aquatic site was more sheltered from wind and waves. This encouraged growth of aquatic plants and provided habitat that served as productive spawning, nursery and hunting areas for both prey fish (like minnows) and game fish (like walleye, muskellunge, lake sturgeon, smallmouth bass, bluegill and black crappie).
Chambers Grove is a reach of the St. Louis River near the Fond du Lac neighborhood north of the Highway 23 bridge. The section of the river between the Fond du Lac Dam and Highway 23 is designated as a critical spawning area for Lake Superior migratory fish species including lake sturgeon, walleye and longnose sucker. A city park was built adjacent to the river in the 1960s and the shoreline was stabilized with a wall of steel sheet piling and enhanced with a wooden boardwalk. The wall along the shoreline lacked habitat for lake sturgeon spawning and had eliminated the shallow, slow-moving water other fish species need.
The walkway and fishing pier were damaged by the June 2012 flood. The City of Duluth proposed repairs to the park infrastructure and asked for assistance from resource managers. Recognizing this as an opportunity to restore shoreline and improve spawning habitat for critical fish species, the St. Louis River Area of Concern (AOC) partners worked with the city to integrate habitat restoration into park improvements.
Clough Island, a 346-acre island located in Spirit Lake just west of Dwight's Point and the Superior Municipal Forest, is the largest island in the St. Louis River. The island is owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and is part of the St. Louis River Stream Bank Protection Area.
Clough Island. Image courtesy of Wisonsin DNR. Click to zoom.
The first owner of Clough Island was Solon S. Clough, who was the island's namesake. All but 10 acres of the island were purchased in 1904 by Robert B. Whiteside, a timber, mining, and oil baron, who built a large summer residence on the island. The island was likely logged to clear space for an expansive island residence that included a large eight-room house, an ice house, a creamery and blacksmith shop, a bunkhouse, a huge barn, a turkey coop, a chicken coop, a sheep shed, a pig pen, a machinery shed, and a pump house. In its heyday, the family kept 40 head of brown Swiss milking cows, about 500 sheep, wheat fields, an enormous vegetable garden, and trained race horses on a race track right on the island.
Grassy Point is an open-water, flat and sheltered bay in the mid-portion of the estuary known as St. Louis Bay. Once the site of sawmill businesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s, thick wood waste deposits have impacted aquatic habitat along with sediment deposition from the Keene Creek Watershed.
Restoration of Grassy Point includes remediating wood waste, deepening shallowed areas, and constructing beneficial habitat features to create a shallow sheltered bay. This will in turn enhance aquatic plant beds on the estuary flats near the main channel and provide spawning and rearing habitat for warm-water fish species within sheltered areas away from the channel and up into Keene Creek.
This project is closely integrated with nearby Kingsbury Bay, where excessive sediment deposits have created shallow conditions and formed a delta dominated by non-native, invasive narrowleaf cattail. Kingsbury Bay will be restored through removal of sediment and invasive exotic plants. This will enhance a shallow sheltered bay, creating a more desirable mix of open water and emergent wetland and improving recreational opportunities.
The material removed from Kingsbury Bay will be beneficially reused for habitat restoration at Grassy Point. Kingsbury Bay was selected for restoration through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) settlement process for the St. Louis River Interlake/Duluth Tar site. Kingsbury Creek is also a project selected to be funded through NRDA to reduce sedimentation from the creek into the Bay.
Formed in 1934 when the St. Louis River navigation channel was dredged, Interstate Island rests on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border and is co-owned and managed by the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The island is federally listed as critical habitat for piping plover. It is also one of only two nest sites in the Lake Superior watershed for common terns, a species listed as endangered in Wisconsin and threatened in Minnesota.
Knowlton Creek is a tributary to the St. Louis River with a 2.5 square-mile forested watershed that is near the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area (SMRA). The stream channel had been degraded by human activities within the watershed. The degradation had deposited a large amount of sediment into the St. Louis River, filling in a shallow sheltered bay behind Tallas Island. Part of the deposited sediment was dredged in an earlier project during 2010. The 2012 flood caused the deteriorating railroad grade at the upstream end of the proposed restoration area on the main stem of Knowlton Creek to fail.
Excavating sediments as part of the restoration efforts. Click to zoom.
This was one of the first Great Lakes Legacy Act sites cleaned up on the entire Great Lakes system. Over 68,000 tons of contaminated sediment were removed from Newton Creek and Hog Island Inlet, and over 20 acres of fish and wildlife habitat was restored.
Newton Creek and Hog Island Inlet is a remedial site that has been cleaned up and restored in Superior, Wisconsin. This creek and inlet was polluted due to discharge from an oil refinery as well as urban and industrial pollutants along the creek. Control measures are in place at the refinery to prevent further pollution of this area. Contamination along the creek and in Hog Island Inlet was removed from 1997-2005. Douglas County owns and manages Hog Island and much of the property surrounding the inlet. Habitat restoration was conducted after the contamination was removed. The area is naturally recovering as a beautiful place for birds, fish, wildlife and human recreation.
Pickle Pond is a shallow, sheltered bay-like site along Superior Bay near Barker's Island. With a busy highway nearby, Pickle Pond is a highly visible area with recreation and habitat value. A habitat enhancement project is being developed there to increase biological diversity and create a functional wetland.
One of the two historical sawmills as seen in 1915. Click to zoom.
Radio Tower Bay is a sheltered bay in the upper portion of the estuary on the site of two late 19th Century sawmills. Sheltered bays serve as productive spawning, nursery and foraging areas for both prey fish (minnows) and game fish including walleye, muskellunge, lake sturgeon, smallmouth bass, bluegill and black crappie. Additionally, sheltered bays are the most reduced habitat type in the estuary, and they also provide habitat for critical forage fish species such as white sucker, shorthead, redhorse and silver redhorse.
Wild Rice in the St. Louis River Estuary. Click to zoom.
The St. Louis River Estuary is the largest coastal freshwater wetland ecosystem on Lake Superior and is the most significant source of biological productivity for the western half of the lake, providing critical habitat for fish and wildlife communities. Historically, wild rice grew in abundance in shallow embayments and backwater areas of the estuary below the Fond du Lac dam.
Wisconsin Point is a three-mile-long natural sand spit in Superior, Wis., that divides Allouez Bay from Lake Superior. Together, Wisconsin Point and Minnesota Point form one of the longest freshwater bay-mouth bars in the world. Forests of white and red pines fill the interior of Wisconsin Point, with sand dunes, wetlands, and beaches lining Lake Superior.
Image Courtesy of Wisconsin Sea Grant. Click to zoom.
The sensitive dune ecosystem along the point is host to lichens, fungi, mosses, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees. Although the dune species are adapted to the harsh dune environment, including drying winds, low soil moisture and fertility, intense sunlight, and blowing sand, they are especially sensitive to human disturbance. Wetlands occur intermittently along the dune system. These interdunal wetlands are home to many uncommon plant species and provide resting and feeding habitat for migrating and resident waterbirds.