Star Tribune

By Editorial Board

A major new effort at Great Lakes restoration — spurred in part by the nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law — will directly benefit Minnesota, Lake Superior and, by extension, the country.

The expected benefits reflect how vital the connected waterways are to global trade, drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, and tribal life.

While the lakes will benefit, tributaries and associated areas will get the bulk of the investment. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 31 "Areas of Concern" (AOC), including the St. Louis River in northeastern Minnesota. According to the EPA, the river — the largest tributary to Lake Superior — is the second-largest U.S.-based AOC.

The St. Louis drains 3,634 square miles of watershed encompassing a 1,020-square-mile area, so in size alone its significance is apparent. One peek at the port in Duluth during the shipping season (a summertime favorite for many tourists) reflects the economic significance of maintaining this region.

Prior to modern pollution laws, sediments contaminated with mercury, dioxins and other toxins were often discharged with wastewater and other discharge within the AOC, according to the EPA. The overall AOC is broken down into 14 possible "Beneficial Use Impairment" units. The St. Louis River has nine of them, and so far three have been addressed.

These Washington words and acronyms are basically a checklist for tasks such as remediating contaminated sediment, plant and habitat restoration and other vital remediation projects. Once all are addressed, the process of removing the AOC status begins. For the St. Louis, the projects are slated to be completed by the end of 2026.

Some of the remaining projects involve well-known areas, including Munger Landing, Spirit Lake, Erie Pier, the Scanlon Reservoir, and Howards Bay in the Superior, Wis., area. Overall, the new law will allot about $1 billion to address these hot spots over five years, on top of an already existing annual appropriation of about $300 million. The new investment will expedite the projects intended to improve the Great Lakes and its waterways.

"This Great Lakes funding is incredibly important," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told an editorial writer. Klobuchar, who along with fellow Minnesota Democratic Sen. Tina Smith was a key backer of the bill, mentioned the importance of drinking water as she lauded the "really big influx of funding for good projects that have been waiting for a long, long time."

It's the type of work only government can do on such a scale. Like highways and other infrastructure investment, private spending may supplement, but never replace, the power of public funding. And it's not just rhetoric to call the bill bipartisan: 69 senators voted for it, breaking the usual pattern of a 50-50 vote in the split Senate. The House margin was closer, with only 13 Republicans voting for it and six Democrats against it as some more progressive members held out for tandem passage of the Build Back Better bill, which is still stalled on Capitol Hill.

Minnesota has myriad water quality challenges to address. In November, another 305 state streams, lakes and rivers were added by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's impaired-waters list, making for a total of about 3,000 bodies of water with more than 6,000 specific impairments.

To their credit, former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson and others have pressed successive administrations to take water quality issues seriously, and the Walz administration should be listening.

A bill introduced in the House by DFL Rep. Kelly Morrison and DFL Sen. Jennifer McEwen calls for a $650,000 appropriation for the Water Council, a consortium connected to the University of Minnesota, "to develop a plan to ensure that Minnesota has an abundant supply of clean water for the next 50 years." That would at least be a start.

From our license plates to the Dakota origin of our state's name, Minnesota has long defined itself by water. It's imperative that this generation does its part to insure future Minnesotans can do so as well.

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