In an era of flashy quick fixes, the Rainy River is a story of how slow and steady wins the race. Once one of the most polluted rivers in the state, the Rainy River now boasts “good to excellent” water quality.
Back in the 1950s, the Rainy River was so choked with industrial wood waste and raw sewage, one had to dig several feet to hit water. Now the Rainy River supports drinking water, fishing, tourism, and recreation.
Reading a new report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) on the health of the river, another idiom comes to mind: “Many hands make light work.” This story of recovery came via efforts of many agencies and environmental legislation in both Canada and the United States. For more than 50 years, the two countries have collaborated to restore and protect water quality.
“The Rainy River is a vital economic and cultural bond between the United States and Canada,” says MPCA commissioner Laura Bishop. “With all partners working together — including federal, state, and local governments, Tribal Nations, industry, and environmental advocates — we have moved the river from near total destruction to one of the most treasured fishing spots in North America that is also integral to the health of economies on both sides of the border.”
Though it would take several decades to turn the Rainy River around, two pieces of legislation set the river in the right direction: Canada’s Environmental Protection Act in 1971 and the United States’ Clean Water Act in 1972. In addition, the International Joint Commission established the International Rainy River Water Pollution Board to assist the two countries to address pollution in the Rainy River. By the early 1980s, pollutants had dropped dramatically on both sides of the border.
“The improvements that we have seen in the Rainy River demonstrate what can be accomplished when our two countries collaborate, in this instance by working together in the International Joint Commission’s International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, to achieve shared objectives,” said Ariel Delouya, Consul General of Canada in Minneapolis.
The Rainy River is now considered a world-class fishery, and one of the top five places in the U.S. to catch a 10-pound walleye or a four-foot or larger sturgeon. Other aquatic life, such as insects that provide food for fish and birds, are also doing well.
The MPCA report cites the need to continue to protect sensitive headwaters lakes and streams, to ensure spawning for multiple game species. Protections are needed from future development and land use changes. For the report and supporting images, visit the Rainy River pages.
The Rainy River report is the fourth in a series on big river systems in Minnesota. Previous reports have focused on the Upper Mississippi, Minnesota, and Red rivers. The MPCA is now working on its assessment of the St. Croix River.