MPCA, Red Lake Nation DNR identify strategies to improve water quality in Upper/Lower Red Lake Watershed

Contact: Dan Olson, 218-846-8108

Local, state, and tribal agencies are working across borders to protect lakes and streams in the Upper and Lower Red Lake Watershed of northwest Minnesota. The partners have found that water resources are generally healthy in the watershed, which is located primarily within the Red Lake Nation and covered by forests and wetlands, according to two reports recently released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The reports also identify trouble spots where waterways suffer from levels of nutrients and bacteria too high to meet standards.

The reports, developed in partnership between the MPCA and the Red Lake Nation Department of Natural Resources (RL DNR) found:

  • 12 stream sections with levels of E. coli bacteria too high to meet standards. Bacteria can make streams unsafe for wading and other contact recreation.
  • Three streams with levels of total suspended solids — soil and other particles in the water — too high to meet standards. These particles cloud the water, making it hard for fish and other aquatic life find food, avoid predators and perform other life functions.
  • Nine stream sections with dissolved oxygen levels too low to sustain fish and other aquatic life, along with other conditions that are negatively affecting fish and aquatic insect communities. These communities are impacted by stream alterations that have led to inconsistent flows — too high during spring runoff and summer rains, and too low during remaining periods — which also contribute to erosion.
  • Five lakes have phosphorus levels too high to meet standards. This nutrient causes algal blooms that hinder recreation.  

The first report, known as a total maximum daily load (TMDL), establishes the amount of each pollutant that a water body can accept and still meet water quality standards, and the amount of reductions needed for current levels of pollution. The federal Clean Water Act and the Minnesota Clean Water Legacy Act require TMDL studies for waters that are impaired, meaning they fail to meet standards.

The second report, a watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS), is required by the state Clean Water Legacy Act and uses the TMDL report, monitoring results, and other information to recommend strategies for restoring polluted waters and protecting healthy ones.

Providing a wealth of local knowledge about the watershed, the RL DNR accompanied MPCA staff during fish and aquatic bug sampling, assisted with water quality and assessment activities, conducted public participation events within the tribal community and in other areas of the watershed outside their jurisdiction, and co-authored the TMDL and WRAPS reports. The Red Lake Watershed District also contributed to the reports.

While the MPCA has no jurisdiction over tribal lands, the RL DNR plans to use information and recommendations from the reports to manage lakes and streams within the Red Lake Nation.

Among the reports’ other findings:

  • Because forests and wetlands cover most of the landscape, helping hold back water and filter runoff, most lakes and streams are in good condition.
  • While three bacteria impairments are due to natural causes (wildlife and bird feces), scientists recommend strategies to reduce levels elsewhere through pasture management and cattle exclusion from streams, as well as bringing inadequate septic systems up to code.
  • Five lakes wholly within the Red Lake Nation managed for trout have excellent water quality and are high priority for protection efforts. Several streams also offer exceptional habitat for fish and bugs and need protection.
  • Since high levels of phosphorus in Upper and Lower Red Lake are caused by natural sources and match historical records, the MPCA, along with RL DNR and the Science Museum of Minnesota, are working together to develop site-specific nutrient water quality standards that more accurately reflect the ecology of these lakes.
  • Data gathered from the Upper and Lower Red Lake Watershed reflect similar findings recorded in 10 years’ worth of in-depth studies conducted throughout the broader Red River Basin. The studies are part of the MPCA’s approach to gauging the health of Minnesota’s 80 major watersheds and will inform projects by local, tribal, regional, and even international partners to restore and protect lakes and streams.

The draft reports are available on the MPCA’s Upper/Lower Red Lake Watershed web page. Submit comments to or request information from Denise Oakes (218-846-8119, 800-657-3864); MPCA, 714 Lake Ave. Ste. 220, Detroit Lakes MN, 56501, by 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 21.

Written comments must include a statement of the respondent’s interest in the report, and the action you are requesting from the MPCA, including specific changes to sections of the draft report and the reasons for making those changes.