MPCA reports call for continued protection of northern Minnesota’s most pristine waters

Dan Olson, 218-846-8108

Three new reports by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) show that lakes and streams in two watersheds bordering Canada have very few impairments, but must be protected to ensure that Minnesotans and tourists alike continue to enjoy unmatched recreational opportunities and wilderness experiences. The watersheds — Rainy River-Rainy Lake and Lower Rainy River — border Voyageurs National Park and the Rainy River in areas known for world-class sturgeon and walleye fishing.

Biologists credit excellent water quality in the two watersheds to forests and wetlands that dominate the region. These natural habitats absorb and filter precipitation, keeping runoff carrying pollutants out of these pristine lakes and streams.

The MPCA and local partners found that the vast majority of streams meet water quality standards designed to protect fish and other aquatic life; and all monitored lakes, including Rainy Lake, meet standards for swimming and other recreation. The reports cite only two areas impaired for recreational use due to elevated levels of E. coli bacteria.

Rainy River - Rainy Lake Watershed

  • Biologists found no impairments, but sediment levels and low dissolved oxygen readings occasionally fail to meet standards in portions of the Rat Root River and the river’s east branch.
  • Flat stream slopes, slow flows, and area wetlands contribute to low dissolved oxygen.
  • Highly erodible glacial lake sediment and low stream flows contribute to sedimentation.

Lower Rainy River Watershed

  • One stream reach harbors exceptional fish and bug communities, an important indicator of excellent water quality.
  • Portions of the Black River and the river’s west branch in the eastern portion of the watershed are impaired for recreation use due to excessive E. coli bacteria levels.
  • Other water quality issues include high total suspended solids (sediment), and low dissolved oxygen in some streams, although fish and aquatic insect communities remain very healthy.  
  • This watershed drains to Lake of Woods, which is impaired for recreational use due to elevated nutrient levels that cause nuisance algae blooms.

Protection strategies

MPCA and its partners developed several protection strategies to maintain and improve the water quality for the watersheds. For both watersheds, the reports recommend protection of in-stream wood deposits that provide critical habitat for aquatic life and other benefits; wild rice management; forest protection programs and timber harvesting best management practices; and streambank restoration projects.

The Lower Rainy River Watershed would benefit from additional protection strategies that include agriculture best management practices such as buffers and conservation tillage; pasture and manure management; and stormwater control improvements in urban areas.

TMDL and WRAPS reports

The first report is a total maximum daily load (TMDL) study for the E. coli impairments in the Lower Rainy River Watershed. A 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 to meet the standards. TMDLs are required by the federal Clean Water Act.

The next two reports, watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS) reports, are required by the state Clean Water Legacy Act and use TMDL reports, monitoring results, and other information to develop strategies for restoring polluted waters and protecting healthy ones. Local partners will use this information to develop detailed implementation plans and set priorities for projects.

The MPCA invites the public to share feedback on these reports including suggestions for additional or revised protection and restoration strategies as they relate to aquatic life and aquatic recreation. The draft reports are available on the MPCA’s web site: Rainy River - Rainy Lake Watershed and Lower Rainy River Watershed.

Submit comments to or request information on the Rainy River - Rainy Lake Watershed from Amy Mustonen (email: amy.mustonen@state.mn.us); phone: 218-302-6638, 800-657-3864), MPCA, 525 S Lake Ave # 400A, Duluth, MN 55802 by 4:30 p.m. on May 4, 2022.

Submit comments to or request information on the Lower Rainy River Watershed from Mike Kennedy (email: mike.kennedy@state.mn.us); phone: 218-302-6629, 800-657-3864, MPCA, 525 S Lake Ave # 400A, Duluth, MN 55802 by 4:30 p.m. on May 4, 2022.

Comments must include a statement of your interest in the report(s), and the action you are requesting from the MPCA, including specific changes to sections of the draft report(s) and the reasons for making those changes.

Public information meeting planned

A virtual public meeting will be held via Webex on Monday, April 11, from 3-5 p.m. Visit the Rainy River - Rainy Lake Watershed web page for more information and options for joining the meeting (search online “MPCA Rainy River - Rainy Lake Watershed”).

The Koochiching SWCD will be hosting an in-person meeting option where they will facilitate connection into the Webex meeting. This gathering will take place at 3 p.m. at the Koochiching County Courthouse board room (715 4th Street, International Falls).