An Agate Original
Ojibwe tradition and travelers’ accounts tell us the St. Louis River, flowing through Duluth into Lake Superior, was once rimmed with abundant stands of wild rice. After more than a century of bustling port and industrial activity, only a few skimpy remnants remain, by one estimate in 1971 totaling only about one acre. Now, several agencies and organizations are cooperating to bring back this basic staple of Ojibwe nutrition and culture that also feeds a resurgent waterfowl population. As organizers look forward to seeing how well last year’s seeding is doing, they are concerned about several likely challenges to the revitalized beds, including carp, geese, and sulfate pollution from upstream taconite mines.
Thomas Howes grew up hearing his grandparents’ stories of the thick stands of wild rice in the bays of the St. Louis River estuary.
“’Nagaajiwanaang,’ we call it,” Howes said. “It’s the place where the water stops flowing downhill. The river from the rapids (at what is now Jay Cooke State Park) down to Lake Superior had everything you needed for life, and that’s where our great-grandparents lived.” Howes says he’s excited to be part of the project to bring life-giving wild rice back to this special place.
“I live down there, so I can see some of these restoration areas from my house,” Howes explained, “so if someday I can take my kids or grandkids or great grandkids out there and say, ‘hey, Grandpa did this,’ that’d be pretty cool.”
As Natural Resources Program Manager of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Howes is in charge of collecting the rice grains used to re-seed the now-depleted stands in the bays. Last fall he bought 8,000 pounds of rice from harvesters at the landings. He tried to use rice from as close to the planting location as possible, but “there’s such a limited amount of rice in the estuary, we had to move outward.” Some of the rice seed came from reservation lakes; much of it was brought from the Sandy Flowage, a river system about 50 miles to the west. Both tribal experts and researchers believe a strain of rice that’s adapted to grow in one river should do well in another river.
In addition to the Fond du Lac Band, participants in the project include the 1854 Treaty Authority, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Land Trust, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, with funding from the Minnesota Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment and the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Each group brings different expertise to the work.
The 1854 Treaty Authority is responsible for monitoring the beds. Emerging plants will be vulnerable to carp and to Canada geese, which respectively dig up the roots and graze on the young stems. Workers will construct “exclosures” with fencing to protect the rice in a few locations. “It’s not viable to exclude a large area to prevent impacts from geese and carp, so the plan is to put one or two in these bays as a test area to see if we’re having problems,” said Darren Vogt, the organization’s Environmental Director.
The plantings last fall are just the first in a multi-year effort. In August and September of 2016, workers will spread more seed in the same five bays, and Vogt said new locations may be seeded as well.
Vogt and Howes agree that Canada geese present the most immediate threats to the project’s success. But they share another concern for the longer term: sulfate from taconite mines upstream (PDF).
Sulfate levels in the river are high, and while sulfate itself does not harm wild rice, bacteria in sediments convert sulfate into another form, sulfide, which can kill young shoots and reduce seed production over time, causing long-term decline in the stand.
“These bacteria effectively breathe sulfate as we humans breathe oxygen,” explained Nathan Johnson, associate professor and researcher in the University of Minnesota Duluth Civil Engineering Department. “And when they breathe out they discharge sulfide, which is the form that can accumulate in sediments in some situations and cause harm to rice.”
Johnson has been studying sulfide’s impact on wild rice for several years. He collaborated with John Pastor, professor in UMD’s Biology Department, on experiments in which they grew rice both hydroponically (using equipment similar to test tubes) and in stock tanks, called “mesocosms,” to identify concentrations at which sulfide either killed rice outright or diminished the plants over time.
In a separate research project, Johnson measured sulfate in the St. Louis River estuary at concentrations above the 10 milligrams/liter standard, fairly consistently in both the main channel and in side bays.
And in sediments in a few side bays he found sulfide concentrations “in excess of that which caused toxicity in the hydroponics experiments, and in excess of levels that caused rice to decline over time in the mesocosms.”
Although the findings provide useful information about wild rice, Johnson’s current study of the river is not about wild rice, but about why walleye and other fish in the river have higher concentrations of mercury than fish either out in Lake Superior or in the river upstream. In some situations, sulfate is thought to contribute to higher concentrations of mercury in fish, but Johnson says it’s unclear so far whether that’s happening in the St. Louis River.
A complicated ecosystem
“It’s a really complicated ecosystem,” he said. “It grades from major river channel with coarse, sandy bottom sediment all the way back into side embayments where it feels like you’re back in a little isolated lake or wetland area.” In such a diverse ecosystem, he said, “we need to think about the potential impacts of sulfur in a nuanced way that matches the complexity of the environment.”
That may be what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is trying to do as it struggles to come up with a new sulfate standard for wild rice waters. Minnesota’s fifty-year-old standard limiting wild rice waters to ten milligrams/liter of sulfate is under attack from industry, which argues it should be much higher, and the agency is in a multi-year process of reconsidering the standard. Regulators have designed an equation that takes into account several variables that appear to affect the rate at which sulfate is converted to sulfide. The agency says it appears that higher levels of iron in sediments can lead to less sulfide, and higher levels of organic carbon can lead to more sulfide. The MPCA plans to collect sediment samples in wild rice stands, measure the iron and organic carbon concentrations in the sediment, and then plug the data into the equation to calculate a “protective sulfate concentration” for that particular body of water.
The calculations are complex and critics assail the plan from a variety of viewpoints, including the arguments that scientists don’t yet fully understand the chemical processes, that water chemistry can change over time, and that it would be expensive and unpredictable to set different standards for different bodies of water. UMD researcher John Pastor is conducting further studies that so far suggest that far from protecting wild rice plants, iron may combine with sulfide to form a deposit on the roots which over time results in diminished seed production. “The iron and the sulfide precipitate onto the roots so you get this black coating of iron sulfide on the roots and that appears to be physically blocking uptake of nutrients needed at the end of the growing season to fill out the seeds,” said Pastor.
The 1854 Treaty Authority’s Darren Vogt serves on an advisory panel that is tracking the MPCA’s process of evaluating the sulfate standard. “My understanding going in was that the purpose was to evaluate the current standard, and one option would be to conclude there’s not enough evidence to change it, so the current standard would stay,” said Vogt.
Whatever the standard, enforcement and compliance will determine the outcome for wild rice and the ecosystem as a whole. Although it has been on the books for fifty years the current standard has never been enforced in the mining sector. In 2015, the MPCA proposed to include the limit in a renewed permit for MinnTac, the state’s largest taconite mine. Politics intervened: Gov. Mark Dayton said, “U.S. Steel has made it very clear they’re not going to agree to a permit which has a standard of ten,” and the Minnesota Legislature responded by forbidding the MPCA from enforcing the standard until it finishes its review process. More recently, the legislature is considering a bill that would exempt U.S. Steel’s Keetac taconite operation from the state’s standard.
Preliminary analysis by the MPCA indicated the “protective sulfate concentration” for the St. Louis River could be significantly higher than the current limit of 10 milligrams/liter. But according to Patricia Engelking in the agency’s Environmental Analysis and Outcomes division, “We are still refining our analysis based on the comments received and additional data gathered last year.”
Engelking said the agency will release a draft technical support document late this spring, and will then go through formal rulemaking to change the existing standard; that rulemaking will also include a list of specific wild rice waters that are subject to the standard.
The Fond du Lac band’s Thomas Howes is hoping the current standard will not only be maintained but enforced. “It’s a lot cheaper to be protective in the first place than it is to do all of this restoration,” he said. A truly protective standard would give him a better chance of showing his children and grandchildren healthy stands of wild rice in the river.
Photographs in this story originally appeared in an article in Yale Environment 360, “For U.S. Tribes, a Movement to Revive Native Foods and Lands,” by Cheryl Katz.