May–June 2021


Revival of a River

A Decades-Long Restoration is Bringing the St. Louis River Estuary Back to Good Health.

Alyssa Schauer

On a misty autumn morning, a paddler in a red kayak glides along wooded shores of the expansive St. Louis River Estuary near Duluth. Golden aspens tussle in the breeze and southbound geese call overhead. Last October, this scenic route became part of the newly designated St. Louis River Estuary National Water Trail—an official federal designation and a celebrated milestone in the decades-long cleanup efforts on the river.

The water trail is a multi-use waterway that consists of 11 looped routes over 73 miles for various watercraft and paddlers of all skill levels and abilities. The project, led by the city of Duluth and involving some 50 partners, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, was “a means to reconnect people to the river,” says Lisa Luokkala, former senior parks planner for the city of Duluth. “Recreation is a great way to reintroduce people to the unique wild spaces of the estuary.”

Winding between Minnesota and Wisconsin on its way to Lake Superior, the lower portion of the St. Louis River forms a 12,000-acre estuary. Once one of the most impaired waterways in Minnesota as a result of unregulated industrial pollution, the lower river is part of a water system that was designated as an Area of Concern by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s. After decades of challenging work and collaboration among city, state, federal, and tribal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and local communities, it is slowly returning to good health.

The water trail designation is a “celebration of the river,” says Kris Eilers, executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance, a nonprofit environmental group. “It lifts the river up in the public’s eyes and gives people the opportunity to build a relationship with the river.”
Many collaborative successes have emerged in the rehabilitation of the river. Late last summer, the alliance, in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, planted 500 pounds of wild rice. The restoration of manoomin, as it is known in Ojibwe, is a multi-agency effort to protect and restore 275 acres of wild rice by 2025.

Another milestone in the cleanup process is the remediation of contaminated sites in the St. Louis River Area of Concern. These efforts have improved water quality, restored lost habitat, and helped plant and animal populations rebound. The goal is to delist the river as an Area of Concern by 2025.

“These efforts are so successful because of the unique collaboration among so many partners, and the community involvement is staggering,” says Eilers. “The river holds a high place of value for people and they want to take care of it. When we reconnect with the water, we become whole.”