Low flows, bacteria, suspended sediment hurting recreation in Red Lake River Watershed

Contact: Dan Olson, 218-846-8108

According to new draft reports released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), there are 31 impairments of aquatic life (fish and aquatic insects) and recreation in 19 reaches of the Red Lake River and its tributaries. Six of those reaches were deemed potentially unsafe for recreation due to excessive E. coli bacteria levels. The MPCA used DNA testing to identify likely sources of the E. coli. The tests showed likely sources of E. coli contamination likely came from from feedlots and cattle in streams, faulty septic systems, and birds nesting under bridges.

In addition, six reaches were impaired for aquatic life due to excessive levels of total suspended solids. MPCA and local staff also investigated reasons for poor aquatic life populations and low dissolved oxygen levels found in 11 reaches of tributaries to the Red Lake River. A primary reason was found to be a lack of habitat due to periods of low-flow conditions.

“As Minnesotans head to our rivers and lakes for swimming and fishing, we need to take the threat of E. coli bacteria in our water seriously,” said Katrina Kessler, MPCA’s assistant commissioner of water. “While our farmers and homeowners continue to make progress fixing old septics and limiting cattle access to streams, birds and other wildlife also add to our E. coli problem.”

The MPCA is asking for public comments on two reports that recommend specific efforts that reduce pollution and improve habitat to restore and protect rivers and streams for fish, aquatic insects and recreation throughout the Red Lake River Watershed. Members of the public can submit comments on the reports from July 15 through Aug. 13, 2019.

The Red Lake River Watershed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) report identified impaired water bodies, pollution sources/levels, and ways to return water quality to an acceptable level. The Red Lake River Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) Report additionally identified waters in need of protection and recommendations to protect those waters.

The Red Lake River begins at the outlet of Lower Red Lake and flows through the cities of Thief River Falls and Red Lake Falls on the way to its confluence with the Red River of the North in East Grand Forks.

While landowners and water managers in the watershed have long been engaged in good land stewardship practices and have completed many water quality improvement projects, the reports recommend additional efforts to restore impaired waters and protect unimpaired areas important for recreation and aquatic life. These include:


  • Reduce overland and stream bank erosion
  • Stabilize ditch outlets and improve agricultural drainage management
  • Improve septic system compliance
  • Reduce pollutants in stormwater runoff within cities
  • Improve in-stream habitat, base flows, and stream connectivity for fish passage
  • Improve grazing management and limit cattle access to streams
  • Improve the quality of vegetative buffers and protect wetlands.
  • Prioritize and target cost-effective projects and practices to achieve measurable improvements
  • Public education

The study and report are available on the MPCA's Red Lake River webpage. The reports can also be reviewed at the MPCA Detroit Lakes office at 714 Lake Avenue, Suite 220. Comments on the draft reports should be sent to Denise Oakes, 714 Lake Ave., Suite 220, Detroit Lakes, MN 56501; or by email, denise.oakes@state.mn.us. If you have questions, she can be reached by phone, 218-846-8119. More information is also available from Corey Hanson, Red Lake Watershed District: 218-681-5800, corey.hanson@redlakewatershed.org. Comments must be received by 4:30 p.m. August 13, 2019.

Written comments must include a statement of the respondent’s interest in the report, and the requested action required by the MPCA, including specific references to sections of the draft report that should be changed and the reasons for making those changes.