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WLSSD celebrates 50 years of Clean Water Act

“As a nation, especially of the time, it was an impressive accomplishment,” Marianne Bohren, executive director of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, said during a public tour Tuesday.

Brick building located on paved Lakewalk trail, next to lakeshore
The Western Lake Superior Sanitary District's Endion Wastewater Pumping Station in Duluth.
Contributed / WLSSD
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DULUTH — Community members joined the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District on its 50th anniversary Tuesday to celebrate northern Minnesota’s prospering lakes and rivers under the Clean Water Act .

Festivities included informational, water-themed games for all ages, guided tours of the facility, and an opportunity to learn from Duluth’s local water-waste experts — all over food and beverages provided at no cost (and of course, clean water).

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The Western Lake Superior Sanitary District treatment plant in Duluth.
Steve Kuchera / 2021 File / Duluth News Tribune

The Clean Water Act was established in 1972 with the purpose of regulating industrial pollution entering bodies of water.

“As a nation, especially of the time, it was an impressive accomplishment,” WLSSD Executive Director Marianne Bohren said.

A lifelong area resident, Bohren described her experience growing up near the St. Louis River prior to the regulation of industrial wastewater.

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Marianne Bohren1.jpg
Marianne Bohren

“Do you see this sludge? That is the St. Louis River prior to the act, we could not enter the water” she said. Bohren was pointing to a decades-old black-and-white photograph of a man shoveling the river's top layer. The water’s surface had a dark, dense layer of sludge that was inches thick.

Such sludge began as industrial wastewater that was dumped into free-flowing sources. As a result, its toxic compounds leached oxygen from the water and depleted its quality. Species die-off, waterborne illnesses and the deterioration of the surrounding environment are some hits the St. Louis River valley took as a result of such pollution.

However, due to governmental prioritization of water infrastructure catalyzed by the Clean Water Act, the area’s first solid-waste treatment facility, which was planned and built in six years, began operations in 1978. “So much was accomplished in such little time, it’s truly impressive,” Bohren said.

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Covered tanks and buildings at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facilities on the St. Louis River in Duluth.
Clint Austin / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune

Bohren recalls that only two years after industrial wastewater was both treated and regulated, the St. Louis River and its tributaries had undergone natural restoration.

Today, the district serves clean water to 17 townships and cities, including Duluth, Carlton and Cloquet. That’s over 144,000 residents, 530 square miles and approximately 40 million gallons of wastewater being treated every day.

large pipes lay next to construction equipment
Tom Schluter, of Duluth, working for Utility Systems of America, Inc., is shown in 1997 cutting plastic pipe that would be used to pump out water. The pipe completed the sewage connection between Cloquet and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District after 11 years and $14 million.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

For first grader Anton Alfonsi, the sour smells were worth seeing where his water comes and goes. “That would be a lot of work,” he said. After touring the facility, he applauded the 100-plus workers that contribute to the facility's operations.

“It could absolutely be considered a public service,” said Nathan Parr, WLSSD tour guide and community program coordinator.

Put simply, Anton only needed one word to describe how clean water makes him feel: “Happy.”

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