In response to citizen demands to clean up the St. Louis River, the Minnesota Legislature created the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) in 1971. WLSSD’s initial goal was to improve and protect the waters of the St. Louis River basin and its tributaries. In 1974, additional legislation was passed, giving WLSSD the added responsibility of solid waste management.


The mission of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) is to plan and provide for the effective and economical collection and treatment of wastewater and to ensure responsible solid waste management through effective planning and oversight, education and customer services in order to

– protect public health and safety;
– preserve and ensure the best use of waters, land, and natural resources;
– prevent, control and abate water and solid waste pollution,

thereby protecting the St. Louis River basin and Lake Superior.

These services will be performed in a manner that exceeds state and federal environmental regulations and with a focus on pollution prevention, waste and toxicity reduction, beneficial reuse and recycling.

A Dirty Water Past

Across the nation, communities and industries used rivers to take wastes “away”. The resulting impact on our waterways was considered the price of progress. In northeastern Minnesota, area communities used the St. Louis River as a means to dispose of wastewater and other wastes. Industries discharged their wastewater directly to the River virtually untreated, and most municipalities treated their wastewater only minimally. This severely affected the River by depleting the dissolved oxygen supply. Noxious odors and large fish kills kept most people away.

Clean Water Act

Beginning in the 1950’s, citizens of Minnesota and the nation began to encourage lawmakers to find solutions to water pollution problems. In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed and Congress appropriated funds under the Act to build and upgrade wastewater infrastructure across the country. $100 million in federal funding was provided to build WLSSD’s wastewater collection and treatment facilities.

River Recreation Returns

The treatment plant was completed and began operating in September 1978, consolidating 17 old, inadequately treated wastewater discharges into one point that met state and federal discharge standards from day one. Water quality in the St. Louis River rapidly improved. By the early 1980’s, an increasing number of citizens returned to the river for fishing and recreation. Although the legacy of toxic materials remains in the river sediments, water quality today is dramatically improved.

Sometimes its easy to forget how far we’ve come since 1978 when the St. Louis River was not much better than a sewer. The cleanup of the St. Louis River is an achievement that all residents in the region can be proud of.