ON THE ST. LOUIS RIVER – The fish are back in Radio Tower Bay, a wide grassy stretch of water upstream from the Duluth harbor. Rob Maas pulled in a load of crappies this spring for the first time in decades, and the walleye fishing has never been better.
In fact, some anglers are describing the St. Louis River as the next Lake Mille Lacs — only it also comes with hiking and biking trails, white-water kayaking, and the great blue expanse of Lake Superior at its mouth.
“People are using it more and more,” said Maas, who’s lived along the river in the Morgan Park neighborhood of West Duluth for 50 years. “It looks really good for the future.”
Unless President Donald Trump and Congress pull the plug on an extraordinary comeback for a river that not too long ago was considered irredeemably polluted.
For a century, this 30-mile section of the St. Louis, which tumbles down from Cloquet and through Jay Cooke State Park before widening out in a broad estuary at the southwest corner of Lake Superior, was the dumping ground for wastewater plants, paper mills, lumber companies and steel furnaces.
They left a legacy of destroyed habitat, trash and toxins that local, state and federal governments are spending tens of millions a year to repair. It’s one of the largest environmental projects Minnesota has ever tackled — and one that could boost Duluth out of its Rust Belt doldrums and into its future as a vibrant city full of outdoors activities.
“The foundation of our vision for the revitalization of our riverfront neighborhoods is the restoration of the river,” said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s administrator.
And it’s not finished. The most critical phase, removal and capping of sediment contaminated by toxins, is just about to begin.
But last week, in the budget blueprint he sent to Congress, Trump proposed putting a halt to the cleanup by eliminating money for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a sprawling, seven-year-old project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. That $250 million to $300 million in annual federal funding is critical to the St. Louis estuary cleanup — as well as similar projects from Detroit to Muskegon and Thunder Bay — designed to rejuvenate Great Lakes towns bogged down by legacies of pollution.
Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature have agreed to $25.4 million in bonding funds for the project — one-third of what’s needed — though as of late Thursday the total package had not been signed. And even though a bipartisan group of Great Lakes lawmakers, including at least four from Minnesota, support continued funding in the 2018 federal budget, environmentalists fear the Great Lakes Restoration may be in jeopardy.
“Zeroing it out will stop the work in its tracks,” said Nelson French, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency supervisor who heads the restoration project.
A start-up distillery
The budget threats couldn’t come at a worse time for Duluth. In 2014 the city instituted a half-percent entertainment sales tax to raise $18 million in bonds to build parks, trails and other amenities that connect people to the river, and the river to the rest of Duluth.
“That extraordinary investment” Williams said, “requires … that the state and federal governments will follow through on their long-standing commitment.”
It’s also what some young Duluth business owners like Emily Vikre are counting on. She grew up in Duluth in the 1980s and remembers a billboard asking the last person leaving town to please turn off the lights.
Three years ago she and her husband launched Vikre Distillery in the newly vibrant entertainment area of Canal Park, where they make and sell gin, aquavit and whiskey from Lake Superior water.
“It’s not just about extracting the natural resources, it’s about living in a different way here,” she said. “It would be a shame to waste that.”
The river and its estuary were for many years Duluth’s backyard. This is where lumber mills made the boards that built the region’s cities until Minnesota’s forests were denuded. They were followed by paper mills and wastewater plants, which flushed effluent and other unmentionables into the river, and U.S. Steel, which built ships and made barbed wire for the nation’s wars.
It was, for decades, Duluth’s beating heart, supplying jobs and a solid middle-class living for thousands until, one by one, the industries faded away.
While the city’s affluent citizens face the wide open lake along the north side of town, those middle-class neighborhoods in west Duluth were dealt a double whammy of lost jobs and a polluted river, Williams said.
People were afraid to swim in it, and the fish were inedible.
“You’d cook them and they stunk terrible,” said Maas. “Like sewer water.”
In the 1970s, the river began to turn around, thanks to the federal Clean Water Act, which restricted industrial pollution. In the early 1980s, Duluth rebuilt its wastewater plant, and three years later Maas brought his boat down from a northern lake and started fishing on the river again.
“Been fishing there ever since,” he said.
But much of the damage remains, including toxins buried in the sediment and destruction of the shallow, grassy bays that make the estuary the incubator for aquatic life in western Lake Superior.
Duluth is not alone. It is just one of the 43 most contaminated hot spots around the Great Lakes called “areas of concern” that get special funding for remediation. To date, only four have been restored.
In 2013, Minnesota and the EPA agreed on a St. Louis River restoration plan that is supposed to be completed by 2025.
“Duluth cannot do this on its own, and neither can Minnesota,” said Kris Eilers, executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance.
On an unexpectedly beautiful day in early May, John Lindgren piloted a group of state and federal environmental officials on a tour of the estuary. Lindgren, a biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, pulled up to a fish net half submerged in Radio Tower Bay, part of an ongoing count to measure population levels.
It was here that regulators came up with a novel idea to remove the wood waste left by the lumber mill that burned in the 1920s. It was sucked up into a floating shredder, mixed with water and pumped up the hill, where it will be used to cap contaminated soil at the U.S. Steel Superfund site.
The DNR plans to do the same at Grassy Point close to the Bong Bridge, where 500,000 cubic yards of waste wood left by another mill covers the estuary bottom. The plan calls for the shredded wood to be used to build up the near shore island, which will be planted with trees.
Once finished, the area will be much more accessible to recreational boats.
GLRI money has helped restore habitat for piping plover and other nesting birds near Superior, wild rice beds, and sturgeon spawning grounds just under the Fond du Lac dam in Jay Cook State Park.
But the most critical part of the cleanup, and the primary reason why the St. Louis River and estuary are viewed as a hot spot, is poised to begin. The MPCA is waiting for state and federal funds to cap and remove contaminated sediment in multiple locations around the estuary. If the money comes through, the work will be completed by 2020.
Over time, the walleye will no longer be contaminated with the toxins, which now makes the fish unsafe to eat for pregnant women and children.
And then it really could be the new Mille Lacs.