The Far End of the Lakes: Designing Resilient Habitat on the St. Louis River at Lake Superior

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

A mother piping plover with her chicks. Credit: Kaiti Titherington/US Fish and Wildlife Service
A mother piping plover with her chicks. Credit: Kaiti Titherington/US Fish and Wildlife Service


The US Army Corps of Engineers hopes to use dredged materials for another project in the northwest end of the Great Lakes basin. By providing foraging and nesting habitat for piping plover birds in the St. Louis River Area of Concern on the west end of Lake Superior, project partners are working to design and build a resilient and stable shoreline to restore habitat for the endangered birds.

Predatory piping plovers are a major control on insect and crustacean populations on beaches, and serve as an indicator species for scientists to determine how healthy and clean an ecosystem is, according to the University of  Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. The species has been threatened by habitat loss due to shoreline development throughout its habitat zones and is listed as endangered by the United States and Canada.

The project’s partners include the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA,) US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). It’s still in the design phase, but the most suitable location has been identified as a degraded beach within the WDNR’s bird sanctuary, near the federal navigation channel at the Duluth-Superior Harbor, according to Amanda Meyer, project manager with the USACE Detroit District. Part of the plan to remove the St. Louis River from the list of Areas of Concern is to restore more nesting habitat for the plover, Meyer said, which will contribute to a goal set by the USFWS of 150 nesting pairs throughout the Great Lakes.

A project map. Credit: WDNR
A project map. Credit: WDNR

The USACE plans to use dredged materials from the harbor to widen the beach, giving piping plovers space to forage and nest. The harbor needs to be dredged to allow commercial shipping to continue, and since that sand isn’t contaminated, reusing it to create habitat nearby is considered a good opportunity, according to the project website. The USACE plans to add cobble to attract the birds and patches of dune grasses to stabilize the shoreline and provide cover. Erosion or deposition is possible while the beach is stabilizing, and Meyer said the final design will include a plan for longer-term maintenance and management actions to keep plover nesting habitat healthy. The final beach design is expected to hold together and remain healthy in high- and low-water periods along the Lake Superior shore.

Besides the benefits to shipping, building out the beach is expected to improve resiliency along that section of the waterfront. The dredged materials should stabilize the remaining beach and broader shoreline, reduce erosion and help protect existing habitat from waves and high water events. Part of the design phase is determining if the USACE needs to construct anything else to best protect the shoreline from erosion.

Meyer said the design phase is expected to wrap up in the spring of 2019, and pending permits and construction funds, the dredged materials, cobble and dune grasses are targeted to be placed later in 2019 or 2020. At this point, she said construction is expected to cost US$2-3 million via the Area of Concern program in the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

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