Paleolimnology of a freshwater estuary to inform Area of Concern nutrient delisting efforts

Elizabeth E. Alexson, Euan D Reavie, Richard P Axler, Sergiy V Yemets, Pavel A. Krasutsky, Mark B. Edlund, Robert W. Pillsbury, Diane Desotelle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The St. Louis River Estuary (SLRE), a freshwater estuary bordering Duluth, Minnesota, Superior, Wisconsin, and the most western point of Lake Superior (46.74°, − 92.13°), has a long history of human development since Euro-American settlement ~ 200 years ago. Due to degradation from logging, hydrologic modification, industrial practices, and untreated sewage, the SLRE was designated an Area of Concern in 1987. Action has been taken to restore water quality including the installation of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in 1978 to help remove beneficial use impairments. A better understanding of historical impacts and remediation is necessary to help document progress and knowledge gaps related to water quality, so a paleolimnological study of the SLRE was initiated. Various paleolimnological indicators (pigments, diatom communities, and diatom-inferred phosphorus) were analyzed from six cores taken throughout the SLRE and another from western Lake Superior. Reductions in eutrophic diatom taxa such as Cyclotella meneghiniana and Stephanodiscus after 1970 in certain cores suggest an improvement in water quality over the last 40 years. However, in cores taken from estuarine bay environments, persistence of eutrophic taxa such as Cyclostephanos dubius and Stephanodiscus binderanus indicate ongoing nutrient problems. Sedimentary pigments also indicate cyanobacteria increases in bays over the last two decades. Diatom model-inferred phosphorus and contemporary monitoring data suggest some of the problems associated with excess nutrient loads have been remediated, but modern conditions (internal phosphorus loading, changing climate) may be contributing to ongoing water quality impairments in some locations. The integrated record of biological, chemical, and physical indicators preserved in the sediments will aid state and federal agencies in determining where to target their resources.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)373-395
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018


  • Beneficial use impairment
  • Diatoms
  • Great lakes
  • Lake Superior
  • Minnesota
  • St. Louis River
  • Wisconsin

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