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Watershed approach to restoring and protecting water quality

The MPCA uses a watershed approach to restore and protect Minnesota's rivers, lakes, and wetlands. During the 10-year cycle, the MPCA and its partner organizations work on each of the state's 81 major watersheds to evaluate water conditions, establish priorities and goals for improvement, and take actions designed to restore or protect water quality. When a watershed's 10-year cycle is completed, a new cycle begins.

The primary feature of the watershed approach is that it focuses on the watershed's condition as the starting point for water quality assessment, planning, implementation, and measurement of results. This approach may be modified to meet local conditions, based on factors such as watershed size, landscape diversity, and geographic complexity (e.g., Twin Cities metro area).

Intensive watershed monitoring map

Large river monitoring

The large rivers of Minnesota are also managed using similar monitoring, assessment, planning, and restoration processes. These five rivers—the Mississippi, Minnesota, Rainy, Red, and St. Croix—are important water resources for recreation, water supply, and for commerce. 

The MPCA began monitoring large rivers in 2013, starting with the Mississippi river from its headwaters to the St. Anthony Falls. Another river will be started in each of the following years. The MPCA is working with the other border states to develop uniform monitoring and assessment processes.

For more information about the river monitoring effort, visit 5-year water testing starts with the Mississippi.

Large river monitoring schedule map

Process for restoring and projecting water quality

The watershed approach is built around a four-step process.

Step 1. Monitor water bodies and collect data

The cycle begins with a two-year Intensive watershed monitoring program in which the MPCA collects data on water conditions throughout the watershed, including biological and physical monitoring, flow and load monitoring, and chemical monitoring. The MPCA also gathers the results of monitoring that other state, federal, and local organizations have performed for various purposes. Additional information is collected on the watershed's physical characteristics, including land use, topography, soils, and pollution sources. Learn more about monitoring.

Step 2. Assess the data

Next, MPCA water quality specialists evaluate the water monitoring data to:

  • determine whether or not water resources meet water quality standards and designated uses
  • identify waters that do not meet water quality standards are listed as impaired waters
  • identify waters that should be protected
  • identify stressors affecting aquatic life in streams

Learn more about assessment and stressor identification.

Step 3. Develop strategies to restore and protect the watershed's water bodies

Based on the watershed assessment, a watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS) is completed. The watershed restoration and protection strategy report:

  • summarizes scientific studies of the watershed, including the physical, chemical, and biological assessment of the water quality of the watershed
  • identifies impairments and water bodies in need of protection
  • identifies biotic stressors and sources of pollution (both point and nonpoint)
  • may include data from mathematical watershed simulations, which provide better understanding of watershed processes
  • scientific analysis for impairments (TMDLs) that determines the sources of pollution and the reductions needed to meet water quality standards
  • includes an implementation table which contains strategies and actions designed to achieve and maintain water quality standards and goals

Download helpful resources. MPCA staff and contractors will use these tools:

Step 4. Conduct restoration and protection projects in the watershed

In this step, restoration and protection projects are implemented in the major watershed. This includes all traditional permitting activities, in addition to programs and actions directed at nonpoint sources. Partnerships with state agencies and various local units of government, including watershed districts, municipalities, and soil and water conservation districts will be necessary to implement these water quality activities.

Benefits of the watershed approach

MPCA adopted the watershed approach in 2008, as recommended by the Clean Water Council and directed by the Minnesota Legislature. A significant share of the funding for water quality management is provided by the Minnesota Clean Water Fund established in 2008.

The cyclical watershed approach allows efficient and effective use of public resources in addressing water quality challenges across the state. Concentrating efforts at the major watershed scale ensures:

  • ongoing, predictable cycle for water quality management and evaluation
  • more efficient approach for addressing water quality impairments
  • common framework for monitoring, assessments, setting required pollutant reductions, and implementation strategies
  • improved collaboration and innovation

Repeating the management process every 10 years allows periodic measurement of outcomes, identification of new problems, and refinement of strategies and investments.The water quality management cycles for the 81 major watersheds are staggered, with 8 to 10 watersheds beginning a new cycle each year. By 2017, all watersheds will have at least begun their first cycle, and those that began in 2008 will enter their next cycle.

For more information

To learn more information about the watershed approach:


Last modified on January 20, 2015 14:45

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