The St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior — the greatest of North America’s Great Lakes — has a long and turbulent history. Once a portal for Native American trade and a garden for wild rice, these waters that drain Minnesota’s north woods were polluted in the 19th and 20th centuries with waste from lumber, paper and steel production industries.
Today, state agencies and organizations are cleaning up the river by containing and removing contaminated sediments — but it’s not cheap. The river is emblematic of a broader fight across the Great Lakes to keep federal dollars flowing in to restore, protect and enhance the region.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is a major source of funds for the St. Louis River cleanup and similar projects. In 1987, the EPA included it among 43 “areas of concern” in the Great Lakes that had been degraded by generations of pollution. In 2010, the federal government launched GLRI to support rehabilitation efforts around the planet’s largest system of fresh surface water. Congress funded these projects into 2021, but the Trump Administration has proposed scrapping the program in its 2018 budget.
If GLRI is completely defunded, cleanups in eight states would be halted, including an initiative to restore wildlife habitats on the Buffalo River near Lake Erie, a project to reduce contamination of the Grand Calumet River in Indiana and an effort to restore water quality and biodiversity on the Cuyahoga River, which infamously caught fire in 1969 and spurred environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act. All told, GLRI has funded more than 3,000 projects to remove contaminants, prevent invasive species, reduce runoff and restore habitats.
Those engaged in cleanups say funding cuts would stymie progress on the St. Louis and other bodies of water. Kris Eilers, executive director of the nonprofit St. Louis River Alliance, says this would be a mistake.