MPCA reports: Protection rather than restoration is priority for two Boundary Waters watersheds

Contact: Dan Olson, 218-846-8108

Lakes and streams in the watersheds bordering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota offer some of the most pristine water quality in the state. Protection strategies such as forestland conservation, protective shoreline buffers, proper culvert installation, and septic system maintenance will be crucial to maintaining their healthy conditions, according to four draft reports by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

Excellent water quality in the Vermilion River and Rainy River - Headwaters watersheds is attributable to the forests and wetlands that dominate the area. They absorb and filter precipitation, resulting in far less runoff carrying pollutants into lakes and streams.

“The rivers and lakes in these watersheds are some of the cleanest waters in the state,” says Katrina Kessler, MPCA assistant commissioner for water policy and agriculture. “That’s why it’s so important that we focus not only on restoring waters that don’t meet water quality standards, but also protecting lakes and streams from becoming impaired in the first place. That’s especially true for areas like the Boundary Waters that are enjoyed and treasured by so many residents and visitors.”

The MPCA and local partners found that the vast majority of streams in the two watersheds meet water quality standards designed to protect fish and other aquatic life; nearly all lakes meet standards for swimming and other recreation. Several streams harbor exceptional fish and bug communities, an important indicator of excellent water quality. Only a few waters failed to meet water quality standards in the two watersheds.

In the Vermilion River Watershed, the MPCA assessed the health of fish and bugs in 21 stream sections and only one failed to meet the standard. Staff also assessed nine streams and 32 lakes to determine whether they’re suitable for recreation. All the streams and most of the lakes met the applicable standards. Two lakes did not meet the standard for recreation, one due to natural conditions and the other, Myrtle Lake, due to excess phosphorus that is causing nuisance algae blooms.

In the Rainy River - Headwaters Watershed, the MPCA studied 62 stream sections; 97% fully support fish and other aquatic life and all but one lake assessed met the standards for recreation. More than 99% of the watershed is undeveloped and used both for timber production, and for hunting, fishing, hiking, and other recreation.

Two of the four reports, compilations of total maximum daily load (TMDL) studies, establish the amount of each pollutant that an impaired 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 other two reports, watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS) reports, are required by the state Clean Water Land and Legacy Act and use the 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.

With minimal water quality problems in either watershed, the WRAPS reports are focused on protection strategies to ensure the watersheds remain pristine. In both watersheds, a core team representing local, state, tribal, and federal agencies met to guide assessments, investigate problems, and develop protection strategies. Local water managers, such as soil and water conservation districts, are particularly focused on managing lakeshore development that could degrade the currently healthy conditions. Healthy buffers and septic system maintenance can be implemented in these localized areas of shoreline development. The focus is on lakes and streams where water quality is decreasing.

The MPCA is seeking public feedback on these four 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 Vermilion River Watershed and Rainy River - Headwaters Watershed web pages.

Submit comments to or request information from Amy Mustonen, 218-302-6638, 800-657-3864, MPCA, 525 S Lake Ave #400A, Duluth, MN 55802 by 4:30 p.m. by Friday, Oct. 29, 2021.

This public notice period has been set for 60 days rather than the standard 30 days to provide ample time for people to respond given the uncertainties associated with the threat of wildfires in the region, which include the possibility of evacuations.

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.

A virtual public meeting will be held via Webex on Wednesday, Sept. 8, from 2-4 p.m. Visit the Vermilion River Watershed web page for more information and options for joining the meeting (search online “MPCA Vermilion River Watershed”).