The crowd crunched across nearly frozen mud toward the St. Louis River shoreline in Chambers Grove Park as a cold wind came across the water and a flock of Canada geese took off into the blue sky.
City, state and federal officials gathered at the park in far southwestern Duluth on Friday to mark the completion of restoring 1,000 feet of St. Louis River shoreline, while more funding was announced to restore a wildlife habitat along St. Louis Bay at 21st Avenue West.
The Chambers Grove Aquatic Habitat Enhancement Project rid the shoreline of a sheet metal wall, replacing it with giant boulders that push the water toward the middle of the river to resist flooding along the shore, explained John Lindgren, senior fisheries specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The project also restored 2 acres of fish habitat, and added a canoe and kayak landing and flat-rock fishing areas.
The several inches of rain this week gave the officials a chance to see the changes in action as they stood along the shore while Lindgren pointed out that the river water was rippling down the center, exactly as intended.
During a news conference at Chambers Grove, Duluth Mayor Don Ness thanked state and federal elected leaders for partnering with the city to find funding for the restoration, as well as neighborhood leaders who advocate for the city's parks. Duluth is beginning to see the fruits of its investment in the St. Louis River corridor, he said.
"When I think about this park and the work that has been done here, it is both a testament to the resiliency and overcoming and rebuilding from the 2012 flood, but also seeing it as an opportunity to not just build exactly what was in place before the flood began - but to think about, how can we make improvements, how can we make this a true gateway on the far southern end of our city and take advantage of this incredible natural beauty, increase connectivity to the river," he said.
The Chambers Grove project is part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a Congress-funded cleanup and rehabilitation of the lakes, their harbors and tributaries. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, said Friday that he has been assured Congress will reauthorize $300 million annually to fund GLRI projects from fiscal years 2016 to 2020.
"I'm pretty darn confident we're going to get the money (and) continue the great, great progress that's been completed and the ongoing progress that's going to be required so we can restore all the areas of concern in these Great Lakes of ours," Nolan said.
Nolan noted that the GLRI has made a difference in Duluth.
"Business and industry was leaving our city and now it's all coming back. The St. Louis River and these Great Lakes are such an integral part of laying the foundation for that progress to occur," he said. "We not only have fish and wild rice and wildlife coming back, we've got people coming back to Duluth and that's good. There's nothing better than that."
The St. Louis River is one of 43 Areas of Concern on the Great Lakes where the United States and Canada are working to clean up "the legacy of pollution" left behind by industries before laws such as the Clean Water Act were enacted, said Susan Hedman, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator. The completion of the Chambers Grove project was a "major step forward," she said.
"Cleaning up this area of concern is not just important locally, it's important to the entire Great Lakes system. The St. Louis River is the largest freshwater estuary in the world and this estuary is the headwaters for the entire Great Lakes system. The work you're doing here will be felt throughout the Great Lakes," she said.
Work also continues on the 21st Avenue West Channel Embayment, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is using 300,000 cubic yards of dredged materials to convert part of St. Louis Bay into a wetland. The project, started in 2013, is placing dredged material into about 20 acres of the bay in front of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District wastewater treatment plant and the mouth of Miller Creek. The work can easily be seen by drivers heading from Interstate 35 toward the Blatnik Bridge.
At the start of the project the bay ranged from 3 feet to 24 feet deep. The goal is to make it much shallower - ranging from 1 foot to 10 feet - to allow plants to take root and thrive.
In addition to restoring habitat for wildlife, it eliminates some of the need for onshore disposal of the dredged material.
Hedman announced Friday that the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will provide an additional $2 million to GLRI to support the work being completed on the bay.