St. Louis River Estuary Makes A Comeback

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a host of partners have been working to restore the St. Louis River estuary and help local communities reap the full benefits of a clean, healthy environment.

The estuary, located at the head of Lake Superior, was designated as an “area of concern” due to a legacy of chemical contamination, degraded habitat, and non-point-source pollution. Water quality improvements provide a growing sense of hope that the estuary will once again be home to large runs of walleye, lake sturgeon, and northern pike; support bountiful stands of wild rice; and provide nesting habitat for terns, piping plovers, and other birds.

“From the start, the program goal has always been to remove the contaminants so that the ‘area of concern’ designation could be removed, allowing nearby residents to fully enjoy the suite of beneficial uses of the estuary such as fishing, boating, and beach-going” explains Joel Hoffman, Ph.D., an EPA research biologist. He is leading an effort to supply the science needed to do just that.

Significant improvements have already been made. A 2016 study found that 60-85 percent of the estuary surface now meets pollution limits set for total phosphorus, suspended sediments, and chlorophyll. Spurred by these results, EPA and local stakeholders are moving forward with the delisting of the “excessive loading of sediment and nutrients” impairment.

Over the past several years, Hoffman and his colleagues have ushered in a new wave of multidisciplinary, collaborative research. Their work builds on the growing recognition that for nearby communities to fully benefit, clean-up operations need to go beyond unleashing an army of specialists in hazmat suits to remove and haul away contaminated soils and sediments.

As part of EPA’s commitment to partnership, collaboration, and community engagement, Hoffman and colleagues recently shared their latest findings at the Seventh Annual St. Louis River Summit in mid-March on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The yearly Summit actively fosters communication, networking, and problemsolving on issues affecting the environmental health of the estuary and related community well-being. For more information visit

While much work remains to be done, there are many encouraging signs that the list of beneficial use impairments will begin to shrink, and the “area of concern” designation will be lifted by the 2020 goal. By then, the cargo vessels moving in and out of the harbor will have plenty of company in the form of people fishing, harvesting wild rice, birding, and waving from the shores of their favorite, open-for-swimming beach.

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