Great Lakes Region


Area Overview

The St. Louis River runs along the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, draining into western Lake Superior. The area is a major tourism draw and the largest port in the Great Lakes.  Historically, the St. Louis River estuary area was a bustling center for lumber and paper production and, unfortunately, it has a long history of environmental degradation and pollution. Many years of toxic discharges have led to high concentrations of contaminants – including mercury, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the sediments, water column, plants, and wildlife.

In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the St. Louis River as an Area of Concern (AOC) due to nine Beneficial Use Impairments identified in the area.  BUIs are defined as changes in the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of the Great Lakes system that are sufficient to cause harm to the ecosystem and organisms within it, and/or loss of human use of the system for drinking water, recreation, and other needs.  Below are the BUIs that were identified for the St. Louis River AOC:

  • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • Excessive loading of sediment and nutrients
  • Degradation of fish and wildlife populations
  • Beach closings
  • Fish tumors or other deformities
  • Degradation of aesthetics
  • Degradation of benthos
  • Restriction on dredging activities
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat

There is a large multi-agency team at work on the plan to restore the St. Louis AOC, with considerable financial investments from the EPA, state agencies, and other groups. Several areas have been cleaned up and a few have reached the stage of remediation and restoration.

NOAA’s Role

  • NOAA funded coastal management programs, including the Minnesota and Wisconsin Coastal Programs adjacent to the St. Louis River, to address a wide range of issues – including coastal development, water quality, public access, habitat protection, energy facility siting, governance and planning, coastal hazards, and climate change.
  • NOAA’s Habitat Restoration Center is providing funding for a multi-phase marine debris removal project at Radio Tower Bay. Approximately $2.1 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funds were directed to this area in 2010 and 2013. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is assisting by providing technical expertise on removal of the woody debris.
  • NOAA’s Habitat Restoration Center also provided financial support in the restoration of wetland, riparian, and coastal habitat on Hog Island following contaminated sediment remediation.
  • NOAA funds a 16,697-acre Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) on the Wisconsin side of the river where baseline data is collected on environmental conditions. The reserve is one of two reserves representing a freshwater estuary on the Great Lakes. This reserve also houses the first NOAA funded, freshwater sentinel site to monitor and track aquatic vegetation migration with changes in climate over time.
  • NOAA maintains a water levels gauge station at Duluth, Minnesota.
  • The National Geodetic Survey records elevation benchmarks throughout the St. Louis River vicinity and beyond.
  • Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grants have both been quite active in the estuary in the past thirty years. Most recently, the two Sea Grants have teamed up to support larger, joint projects in the estuary, including citizen scientist projects.
  • Both the Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grants are involved in various committees working to delist the AOC, and have also invested heavily in outreach and educational efforts involving the estuary.
  • The Great Lakes Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) partners with the University of Wisconsin-Superior and the Lake Superior NERR to provide students with hands on environmental education experiences at the St. Louis River.
  • In 2010, NOAA supported a land acquisition project in the area which has now been completed.
  • Duluth and Superior are part of the NOAA NERR Climate Vulnerability survey, the NOAA CWC SARP evaluation of climate change impacts to the port, and were involved in the Climate-Ready Great Lakes initiative.
  • NOAA’s National Weather Service maintains and operates a Weather Forecasting office in Duluth, MN (adjacent to the St. Louis River).


The NOAA Habitat Blueprint

Congress has tasked NOAA with protecting habitat for fish, threatened and endangered species, marine mammals, and natural resources within the coastal zone through a program called the NOAA Habitat Blueprint.  Protecting natural infrastructure—our global life support system—is vital to protecting our communities and their economies, as well as the fisheries and recreational opportunities along our coasts. With continued widespread loss and deterioration of coastal and marine habitats, communities are in danger of losing this infrastructure.

The St. Louis River was selected as a Habitat Focus Area because of the ongoing NOAA involvement in the area, both as a leader in public outreach and education, and as a contributor of financial resources and technical expertise on habitat restoration. Also, the proximity of this AOC to the largest port in the Great Lakes has particular economic significance. Since the St. Louis River is heavily impacted by climate change and related flooding, designating the area as a Habitat Focus Area could provide an opportunity for new research related to forecasting the impacts of climate change on habitat restoration.

For more information, about the NOAA Habitat Blueprint and the St. Louis River Focus Area, check out this Fact Sheet or contact Heather Stirratt ( or Julie Sims (

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