Legacy funds boost effort to restore 150 years of degradation in the St. Louis River estuary

(Released December 30, 2013)

When the St. Louis River estuary was federally designated in 1987 as Great Lakes Area of Concern (AOC) by the Environmental Protection Agency, local citizens and resource agencies knew the task of restoring the estuary would be herculean. What they didn’t know was that 21 years later, Minnesota voters would give the project a boost by approving the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

As Lake Superior’s largest tributary, and home to the world’s busiest freshwater shipping port, the St. Louis River estuary is both an important waterway for commercial trade throughout the upper Midwest and a critical area of habitat. But 150 years of historical actions such as improper municipal and industrial waste disposal and unchecked land use practices, including dredging and filling of aquatic habitat and damaging logging practices, contributed to the complex set of issues at the time it was listed.

Written in 1992, and updated in 2013, a remedial action plan for the estuary identified roadmaps to removing the nine identified beneficial use impairments (BUIs) that have resulted in environmental problems from pollution to habitat loss. BUIs are designated when a body of water has undergone a change to its chemical, physical, or biological integrity to a point that the impairment significantly affects use by humans and wildlife. The plan also includes 58 priority actions to protect and restore the landscape – and, ultimately, delist the AOC.

Since 2010, federal funds have been available from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for priority work in the estuary, but projects still needed state or local sources of money to leverage those federal funds. As the largest and most complex AOC on the Great Lakes, project leaders faced the difficult task of competing for funding with smaller projects that could be completed more quickly.

Fortunately, with the passage of the Legacy Amendment in 2008, a state source of funds was readily available to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency through the Clean Water Fund to address water quality issues, and to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources through the Outdoor Heritage Fund for projects to restore wetlands and critical habitat.

The Minnesota Land Trust contributed contract management services, and a wide variety of citizen groups, tribal organizations, and others provided continuing support and advocacy.

“Each funding program has a specific set of requirements for the types of work they can perform, so it takes a carefully coordinated effort to balance available funding with complex and multi-phased projects,” said DNR AOC Coordinator John Lindgren. “The progress made to date is a functional example of government and non-government organizations working together to most efficiently apply dollars, time and resources for the best conservation outcomes.”

To date, Legacy dollars are being applied to assist with projects to remove historical logging waste at Radio Tower Bay and Grassy Point, restore trout habitat at Knowlton Creek, restore and enhance historically degraded wild rice beds, and restore critical spawning habitat at Chambers Grove, among other things. Partner agencies are on track to remove five of the BUIs by 2018, and hope to have the remaining four removed by 2025.

In 2011, four young sturgeon were sampled in the estuary; the first evidence of sturgeon reproduction in many decades and a sign of improving habitat and another step toward recovery for fish and other species.

“We have more to do, but it’s clear we wouldn’t be this far along in delisting the estuary (AOC) without the Legacy Amendment dollars. It was the right tool, at the right time,” added Lindgren.

Find more information about the DNR’s Legacy Amendment funded projects online.

View a video about the piling removal at Radio Tower Bay, part of the St. Louis River estuary, and one of the funded projects.