Draft water quality reports offer good news and protection opportunities for Mississippi River-Headwaters watershed

Contact: Steve Mikkelson, 218-316-3887

The watershed that includes the iconic Mississippi River Headwaters has very good overall water quality, and forest protection is critical to preserve it, according to two draft reports recently released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and local partners. The agency is seeking public comments on the reports through July 5, 2018.

This part of the Mississippi River is the healthiest of the entire river length down to the Gulf of Mexico, according to a study of the entire river in Minnesota. This wealth of water resources includes some of Minnesota’s most famous lakes and streams. To preserve its current water quality, forest protection is critical. The watershed is heavily forested with many rare or declining plant and animal species dependent on the aquatic resources and features the watershed provides.

The watershed is located in the northernmost portion of the Upper Mississippi River Basin and covers 1,961 square miles. It contains the Mississippi River headwaters in Itasca State Park and parts of six counties: Becker, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard and Itasca. It is rich in surface water resources with about 685 river miles and more than 1,000 lakes.

The first report, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, establishes the amount of each pollutant that a water body can accept and still meet water quality standards. The TMDL report describes the impairments for Little Turtle Lake and Lake Irving in Beltrami County. These lakes do not meet the state’s water quality standards due to excess amounts of phosphorus that cause excess algae (small free-floating green plants) and reduces water clarity. Phosphorus reductions required to attain water quality standards for Lake Irving are 57% and Little Turtle Lake, 33%. Key strategies to restore these lakes include reducing phosphorus sources, fixing failing septic systems, and in-lake phosphorus treatment.

The second report, the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies, uses TMDL and other information to develop strategies to address different pollution sources. The WRAPS process is designed to develop strategies that not only restore impaired waters but also protect healthy waters from degradation. This report resulted from a strong collaborative effort between the MPCA, other state agencies, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, local government partners, and other stakeholders.

The WRAPS report identified several focused priority areas for water quality protection and restoration. These include lands in the Mississippi River corridor, the Lake Bemidji catchment area, associated with Bemidji’s drinking water supply management areas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in Cass Lake, and numerous stream riparian and floodplain areas. Another high priority is protecting the important recreational and environmental lakes most sensitive and vulnerable to phosphorus pollution.

The draft reports are available on the MPCA’s Mississippi River-Headwaters Watershed webpage, or at the St. Paul MPCA office, 520 Lafayette Road North. Comments may be submitted to Phil Votruba, MPCA, 7678 College Road, Baxter, MN, 56425, or by email to, phil.votruba@state.mn.us by 4:30 p.m. on July 5. For more information, contact Votruba at 218-316-3901, or toll-free at 800-657-3864.

Written comments must include a statement of your interest in the report, and the action you wish the MPCA to take, including specific references to sections of the draft report you believe should be changed and the reasons for making those changes.

More information on all of Minnesota’s 80 major watersheds is available on the MPCA’s watershed webpages. Information about the study of the entire Mississippi River in Minnesota is available on the MPCA's Upper Mississippi River: What to protect, what to fix webpage.