Time to Clean up the St. Mary’s River

Time to Clean up the St. Mary’s River

By Joanie McGuffin, Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council

The St. Mary’s River is the only natural outflow of water from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes. Four hundred years ago the First Nations people knew it for a rich summer harvest of whitefish and pure waters. Now the facts are quite different. The River became the international border with the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. One of the large islands situated in the river, sugar Island, is on the US side of the border, and is located downstream of Sault Ste. Marie,Ontario’s east end sewage plant. The river current flows by the sewage plant, on down to the First Nations community of Garden River at Bell Point, and then across to the tip of Sugar Island.

Both Tony McLain and Wayne Welch, residents on the south end of Sugar Island, are keen boaters who love the Great lakes. Their backyards stretch down to the river’s edge where each of them has located a boat slip. The water, most of the time, is clear and swimable. Indeed when Wayne’s children and grandchildren arrive for a summer’s family gathering, swimming and boating are a big part of the fun. But a lifelong enjoyment of the river has been tainted on the days when the boat slip is filled with a thick “chocolate shake-like” substance (as shown in the photograph). A fecal coliform count reveals numbers in parts per million, far surpassing Michigan’s beach closure law. (These rod-shaped bacteria, normally found in the colons of humans and animals, pose a serious health hazard in a water supply.) When the bacteria count is this high, the water is no longer safe or appealing for recreational activities, not to mention the health and welfare of all the creatures that are sustained by the river from aquatic insects, to birds, fish and mammals.

Wayne Welch, now in his 60’s, lives in a house next to the one he was born in. His great grandfather and his grandfather farmed the land on Sugar Island. Over fifty years ago when the sewage plant was built, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario’s east end, it was a primary treatment plant (separation of solids). Up until recently,it was operating this way. Half a century of accumulated waste on the St. Mary’s river bottom re-surfaces regularly as large, dark cruddy chunks known as “pop-up”. Due to the direction of the river current, the boat slips of Tony and Wayne catch whatever the current is carrying. Sometimes it is graphically obvious human waste like condoms and oil slicks, or the less source-specific thick brown substance resembling the sludge in the sewage treatment plant material, and the pop-up from the river bottom.

Photographs and water samples of the pollution have been taken to verify the extent of the problem. Being an international situation, follow-through with the appropriate persons and agencies needs to take place to insure that the riparian rights of those living in the affected area are fulfilled.

The Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council’s (LSCWC) Executive Director, Brian Christi, is meeting with the Ontario Environmental Commissioner to review the status of the River and the clean up work that needs to be done. The St. Mary’s River is still listed as a hot spot in the Remedial Action Plan (RAP) as established by the Binational Committee for the Great Lakes. Brian will also meet with Mike Ripley, Chairman of the Binational Public Advisory Council of the St. Mary’s River, who also represents the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority. These meetings will emphasize the need for Federal, Provincial, and State funds to continue work that was started but never finished. The St. Mary’s River is one of 29 rivers in Canada designated as a Heritage River. Brian is meeting with the Friends of the St. Mary’s to check out the Heritage status and see if the LSCWC can be of assistance in their reporting requirements and to review what Heritage status means. LSCWC’s goal for these meetings is to put into motion action to clean up the River. It has been polluted way to long.

For more information:
Ruth O’Gawa, Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council
319 Lincoln Place, Petoskey, MI 49770
PH: (231) 347-9387 • E-mail: rgogawa@freeway.net



Stay Informed

Connect With us


© 2022 Freshwater Future. All Rights Reserved.

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