ON THE ST. LOUIS RIVER - John Lindgren jumped out of his boat, wearing waders of course, and landed waist-deep in the river with a thud.

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"It's all wood down here that I'm walking on,'' said Lindgren, St. Louis River estuary restoration coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "There's no sediment here. No organic matter. No plants ... and no fish."

The sheer amount of wood piled up at Grassy Point in Duluth's harbor is staggering - an estimated half-million cubic yards, 16 feet deep in some places, that's choked this part of the St. Louis River estuary for 120 years.

Much like Radio Tower Bay upstream, which was cleaned up in 2015, the sawmill castoffs at Grassy Point are remarkably intact.

"These are boards mostly, pieces of boards ... wood under water like this just doesn't decompose," Lindgren said.

All that wood has ruined the area as fish habitat, to be sure, but it's a big part of Duluth history, when Duluth was briefly the lumber capital of the world. In one year alone, 1894, Duluth sawmills produced 343 million board feet of lumber, Lindgren noted. At Grassy Point, two sawmills built on stilts over the water - the LeSeur and St. Louis lumber companies - turned thousands of northwoods white pines that lumberjacks floated down the St. Louis River into millions of boards that helped build the cities of the Midwest.

"And it's not like they hauled the sawdust or the leftover pieces away. They just let it drop into the water. And it's still there," Lindgren said.

Now, the ongoing St. Louis River Restoration Initiative is swooping in with a $14.7 million project set to start in January to clean up much of the wood waste. The project also includes removing 165,000 cubic yards (13,750 big dump trucks full) of sediment from the mouth of nearby Kingsbury Creek.

A public meeting to unveil the plan is set for Wednesday in West Duluth. Work is expected to run through 2019.

While federal superfund cleanups at Stryker Bay and at the former U.S. Steel plant in Morgan Park are more expensive, the combined Kingsbury-Grassy Point project is the single largest so far in the Twin Ports under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. It's all part of the effort to restore the lower St. Louis River - the headwaters of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater estuary in North America - to a more natural state.

The goal at both the mouth of Kingsbury Creek, and 1.5 miles downstream at Grassy Point, is to recreate shallow-water fish habitat - the kind of places some fish go to spawn and nearly all species in the estuary go to feed or find shelter at some point in their lives.

"There was a lot of that kind of habitat before we industrialized the estuary. Now, it's pretty rare, especially downstream," Lindgren said. "Restoring that quality shallow-water habitat is a big part of what we're trying to do."


Moving, reusing and burning

Habitat restoration is just one of a dozen goals on the checklist as state and federal natural resource agencies and nonprofit groups try to get the Twin Ports harbor taken off the list of Great Lakes locations so polluted and with such damaged ecosystems they are simply called "areas of concern."

Scott Cieniawski, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency's role in the river cleanup, said the Kingsbury-Grassy Point project will meet about 12 percent of the overall goal to rehabilitate 1,700 acres of aquatic (underwater) habitat in the 12,000-acre estuary.

That new habitat should help macroinvertebrates thrive at the bottom of the food chain and ultimately lead to "increased and healthy fish populations."

At Grassy Point, some 300,000 cubic yards (25,000 dump truck loads) of sawmill waste will be dug out and hauled onto shore where much of it will be dried and burned as biomass to generate electricity at the nearby Hibbard Renewable Energy Center.


Not all the wood waste will be removed, Lindgren said, noting it would be far to expensive. So in some areas the wood will be removed to the desired depth for fish habitat and then covered with a layer of sediment from the Kingsbury Creek project.

Where a wet bog now sits on top of of a mound of wood waste, plans call for an upland island to be built, with Kingsbury sediment on top of wood waste. The wood waste will form the base of the island.

"We can save a lot of money and get more work done by reusing what we take up from one site and using it to accomplish some goals on the other site," Lindgren said.

At the mouth of Kingsbury Creek, next to Indian Point Campground, sediment and acres of invasive, narrow-leaf cattails will be dredged. Much of the sediment in Kingsbury Bay washed down from Proctor and West Duluth's hillside and into the creek during various flood events, including the massive rainstorm in June 2012.

Because the sediment from Kingsbury Creek has been analyzed and found to be not contaminated, the project will use much of it to help fill deeper areas.

In front of Grassy Point, pumped sediment will be used to create a new isthmus of land, a protective barrier creating a sheltered bay where wind and waves can't penetrate from the main river channel.

On shore, the project includes a public fishing pier to take advantage of the fish that do show up. Future plans call for walking trails, kayak landings and increased public access to connect the estuary with nearby neighborhoods, but those additions will be up to the city to advance when money is available.

"The goal of all of this is to make it better not just for fish and wildlife, but people, too," Lindgren noted.


Funding already approved

The money for the Kingsbury-Grassy Point project comes from three major pots. The largest share, nearly $6 million, comes from Minnesota's Outdoor Heritage Fund that's stocked with a small percentage of the state sales tax. The second, nearly $3.3 million, comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The third source is the pending legal settlement from the Stryker Bay Superfund site, with XIK Corp. tentatively agreeing to pay $5.5 million to help cover the cost of natural resource degradation that occurred during decades of the Stryker Bay pollution.

Nearly all of the money is approved and ready to spend, no matter what happens in Congress or the statehouse in St. Paul.

That's not the case for other big projects planned for the lower river/harbor area as part of the Area of Concern delisting effort. Those will depend on both federal and state grants. While President Trump zeroed-out Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding in his 2018 budget, Congress already has added back $300 million, but the budget is not final.

"We've never had this situation before where we have both the federal and the state money to play off each other and do these big projects,'' Lindgren said. "I just hope we can keep it going."



If you go:

  • Kingsbury Bay/Grassy Point restoration project
  • Public information and input meeting
  • Wednesday, 6-8 p.m.
  • Civic Center West/Evergreen Center, 5830 Grand Ave., Duluth

The Kingsbury Bay - Grassy Point project will restore 245 acres of open water, coastal wetlands and stream channels in two locations in the upper St. Louis Bay. Project partners from the EPA, city of Duluth, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota DNR will be available to answer questions.

For more information contact John Lindgren at john.lindgren@state.mn.us.