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Grant aims to reduce Nemadji's red plume in Lake Superior

The federal government's effort to clean up the Great Lakes will hit the Northland this summer with a reforestation effort miles away from Lake Superior.

The federal government's effort to clean up the Great Lakes will hit the Northland this summer with a reforestation effort miles away from Lake Superior.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week announced $249,000 for a project aimed at reducing the sediment that fouls the Midway and Nemadji rivers and pours into Lake Superior during snowmelt and after nearly every rain.

It's the first of what's expected to be a string of local projects approved under the federal government's massive Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service will use the money to plant trees, mostly on private land, at key locations along the Nemadji and its tributaries. The government will pay 75 percent to 90 percent of the cost.

Supporters say reforesting farmland that was originally cut from forests can change the hydrology of the area, slowing water down and keeping soil in place.

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Other efforts could pay farmers or landowners for projects that keep livestock out of streams and keep more grass on pastures to hold soil in place.

"It's a massive problem. There's a natural process going on with water running off the land that we've really made worse by how we've treated the land," said Paul Sandstrom of the Conservation Service office in Duluth. "The problem is the runoff comes now in such big pulses, and it takes the soils along with it."

Anyone who looks out at Lake Superior from Duluth's hillside can usually see the ruddy-brown plume into Lake Superior, through the Superior Entry, from the Nemadji River. When it rains across Carlton County, the Nemadji fills with clay and silt that runs off forests, farm fields and stream banks.

The stuff runs into creeks, streams and into the Nemadji itself and then dumps into Lake Superior through the Twin Ports Harbor. The U.S. Geological Survey says the Nemadji has the highest sediment load of any Lake Superior tributary in Minnesota or Wisconsin -- more than 100,000 tons each year. That's like backing up 23 dump trucks and unloading into the lake every day, all year.

The Nemadji drains a huge, 433-square-mile area straddling the Minnesota-Wisconsin border south of Duluth, all the way into Pine County. The rolling hills and mix of farms and forests that make this area so appealing are the same qualities that contribute to the problem. The clay and sand, left by glacial Lake Duluth centuries ago, make a fragile base for an ecosystem much more prone to erosion than the nearby St. Louis River, which runs through more rocky and boggy country.

Water from rain and melting snow that was once absorbed by thick forests and wetlands along the Nemadji and its tributaries now flows quickly off fields, down roads and ditches and into streams overwhelmed by mini-floods.

It wasn't always like this. More than a century ago, the Nemadji and its tributaries ran much slower and clearer. The problem was created by intensive logging, farming, road construction and development.

Other partners in the effort include the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, county Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the St. Louis River Alliance.

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"Our job is to promote the effort so the landowners up there know how much impact their actions have downstream and in Lake Superior,'' said Julene Boe, director of the St. Louis River Alliance. "This is just the first in what we expect to be a series of projects in the (western Lake Superior) area that are really going to make a difference."

In coming months, more money will be coming for local projects through the Environmental Protection Agency, although those specific projects haven't yet been announced. Congress and the Obama administration in 2009 approved $475 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for the current year. Millions more are expected in coming years.

For more information or to enroll in the effort, contact the Duluth office of the NRCS at (218) 720-5209.

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