The St. Louis River Estuary: Working Hard for Lake Superior

The St. Louis River Estuary: Working Hard for Lake Superior

By Jane Anklam, member of Wisconsin Wetlands Association

It has been a cold slap in the face for the residents of Duluth-Superior, the south shore of the lake, as well as the entire Great Lakes region to accept last summer’s pollution warnings and beach closures along the south shore of Lake Superior. Could this be happening to the deepest, coldest, least developed, and cleanest of our Great Lakes? Fortunately, many partners including Duluth, Superior, adjoining communities, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) are working under regulatory authority to find a solution. All levels of government, citizen groups, universities and agencies are offering their expertise and energy.

How are the wetlands being acknowledged and protected in light of this new found pressure to keep Lake Superior clean? One natural system in particular that is working overtime is the St. Louis River Estuary, which lies at the geographic epicenter of concern. During the past 6 months I have been lucky enough to be living on, kayaking in, skating across, skiing over and exploring the St. Louis River Estuary. This water body drains over 3,600 square miles of Wisconsin and Minnesota, making the estuary regionally significant. What makes it of global importance are its diversity of habitat, natural history, and its service as the largest fresh water estuary in the western Great Lakes system.

The estuary itself is defined by 12,000 acres of wetland complex and 260,000 acres of adjacent upland. The lower 21 miles of the St. Louis River flow through the estuary. As in all wetland systems, diversity abounds. Northern sedge meadow, boreal forest, and emergent aquatic communities listed as rare are all found here. The Forster’s Tern, Merlin, Forcipate Emerald dragonfly, Vasey rush, and Showy Lady Slipper are some of the rare species noted in the estuary. The St. Louis River Bay is considered the fish nursery of western Lake Superior, hosting over 45 native species of fishes and mussels. There is much concern in understanding how development affects the estuary and its natural processes. The remaining wetlands, which dot the basin above the estuary, are being looked at as valuable storage of surface water runoff. Completion of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil survey and increasing demand for wetland determinations will give the decision makers and planners the essential tools and support they have been lacking to protect these wetland resources.

Efforts to reduce pollution in the estuary are advancing at local, state and federal levels. Both the cities of Superior and Duluth are implementing storm water management plans. Unique local conditions complicate the work of city engineers and planners. Superior’s challenge is that its aging infrastructure is built on a clay till lake bed. In contrast, Duluth must deal with steep, bedrock hillside landscapes. The US Environmental Protection Agency Super Fund has been enlisted to clean up coking coal tar by-products at 2 sites within the estuary. Though this problem may be point source by definition, wetland creation and restoration are being used to aid in project success for the long term. At the state level, MPCA and WDNR are addressing and delineating other sites of concern via their Remedial Action Plan.

All of this planning, clean-up and monitoring work is going on within a stones throw of Gyrfalcons swooping through bridge expansions and snowy owls perching on harbor pilings. The St. Louis River Estuary is as hard working for Lake Superior as it is in need of care and protection in its own right. Many Great Lakes conservation organizations have a role to play as technical advisors and as advocates in this busy Great Lake Basin.



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.