Bayfront Stormwater (Rain) Garden in Duluth

Bayfront Stormwater (Rain) Garden in Duluth

By Jill Jacoby, Sweetwater Alliance

Duluth, Minnesota is a city on a hill. At the bottom of the hill is the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior. When the snow melts, or the rains come, stormwater flows down the hill and brings with it a host of pollutants including road salt, bacteria, heavy metals and sediment. Sweetwater Alliance has been working on a project that brings together ecological restoration, art, and water education. The project is called the Bayfront Stormwater Garden, and its goal is to educate the public about the value of wetlands in holding and cleansing stormwater.

In 1995 I had the opportunity to participate in a project that brought an international group of artists and scientists together in Chengdu, China. From these collaborations came the development of a seven-acre park that cleanses polluted water from the Fu Nan River. The City of Chengdu had made the restoration of the Fu Nan River a priority and understood an ecologically designed park that improved water quality and educated the public worked hand-in-hand with their restoration goals.

In spite of the fact that we have the largest freshwater lake in the world at our doorstep, residents and tourists alike need to be educated about water quality concerns. In 1996 I attended a public meeting in Duluth that focused on stormwater and a proposed stormwater utility fee. I was surprised to hear citizens arguing against this fee; it was then that I thought about replicating Chengdu’s Living Water Garden in Duluth. The project would provide a visible way to teach residents about the problems of stormwater and the values and functions of wetlands in stormwater management. The land I had in mind was a vacant lot and Brownfield on Duluth’s waterfront, between downtown and Canal Park. Today the land sits next to the Great Lakes Aquarium and along side the Bayfront Festival Park – in the heart of our tourist district.

However, being waterfront property, there are other land and water uses being considered for the area. The property is owned by the Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA), and is mandated by Minnesota State statute, that the land be used for economic development. The definition of economic development varies depending on whom you talk with! The City Attorney’s office has taken a narrow view, whereas some City Councilors (who make up the DEDA Commission) have taken a broader view.

Sweetwater Alliance has partnered with Patricia Johanson ( and Barr Engineering to create the design for the project. Patricia has designed many fantastic projects including Fair Park Lagoon in Dallas and the San Francisco Endangered Garden. Her works restore habitat for flora, fauna, and humans. Our design process has included an all day design charette with artists and environmentalists as well as discussions with many interested groups and individuals.We are creating two designs, one for a half-acre that has been approved by the Duluth City Council, and one for a two-acre parcel – both at the same location on the Bayfront (see map).

This fall we will bring the designs to the Duluth City Council and ask them to provide more land for the project and to approve the design. The two-acre site is ideal, providing a way to draw stormwater directly from a stormwater pipe, as well as a way to return clean water back to the St. Louis River. When we return to the Council Chambers, it will be nearly ten years since I first had the idea to create a Stormwater Garden in Duluth. Provided the Council approves the project, we will then begin fundraising for the construction of the project.

To learn more please visit
To participate in the City Council meeting please e-mail



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