40th Anniversary of WLSSD’s First Flow


WLSSD 27th Avenue West Campus Aerial View 2.jpg

WLSSD 27th Avenue West Campus Aerial View 

Over time, our region has been home to many groups of people. Lake Superior and the St. Louis River have played a pivotal role for each generation residing in the area. With the 40th Anniversary of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) occurring this month, it is worth revisiting WLSSD’s impacts on the region and what the future holds.

After finishing high school, I arrived in Duluth in 2006 to attend UMD. I was attracted to the lake and other natural amenities of the area. For many millennials like me, Duluth has always been seen as an exotic Minnesota vacation spot, but it hasn’t always been that way.

Before Duluth was established it was inhabited by indigenous groups, explorers, and traders. These people largely lived off the land and depended on the lake and the river for subsistence. When white pine tree stands began to be harvested and iron ore deposits were discovered in the mid-1800s, a new industrialized era was born.

Once industrialization of the region began, inhabitants relied less on local waterways for survival. Instead, they used the river to carry wastes “away” and the lake to transport material goods to far off places. Seventeen communities and industries discharged dirty water directly to the St. Louis River with minimal treatment. These activities drove progress, but caused serious pollution in the St. Louis River and Duluth harbor.

Up into the 1960s, the harbor was contaminated with industrial, commercial, and domestic waste. The stench was unbearable at times and fish could not survive in the heavily polluted waters. It wasn’t until local representative Willard Munger introduced a bill that would allow for the creation of sanitary districts outside of the Twin Cities that a solution could be pursued.

Munger’s work set the foundation for the MN Legislature’s creation of Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in 1971. Around the same time Munger was fighting to protect the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, the federal government passed the Clean Water Act. This Act helped provide funding for the construction of modern wastewater treatment across our country, including the WLSSD system. Within just a few years of starting operations in September of 1978, the waters of the St. Louis River were clean enough for fish to return and residents could enjoy the beautiful lake view once again.

Since 1978, WLSSD’s effective, award-winning wastewater treatment has enabled the Duluth harbor and the St. Louis River to heal itself. Addressing pollution in the Duluth harbor through the creation of the WLSSD started a new era where business production would not be inhibited and the beautiful St. Louis River could once again be enjoyed by the community.

Today, WLSSD is looking to the future. Along with replacing and rehabilitating infrastructure to maintain reliable, effective treatment in the region, renewable energy projects are underway to reduce the environmental and economic impacts of the energy-intensive wastewater treatment processes. Resource-recovery efforts continue to be important to WLSSD so valuable nutrients can be reclaimed from the waste stream, instead of being buried in a landfill.

Since 1978, WLSSD has played a major role in the way people use and enjoy the St. Louis River, Lake Superior, and the Duluth region. As a millennial who first arrived in 2006, I see today how decades of hard work at WLSSD influenced the Duluth I came to know and love. It will be interesting to see the role WLSSD plays in the area for future generations, and I am excited to be a part of that future.

By Sam Lobby, Environmental Program Coordinator