New water quality reports: Kettle River and Upper St. Croix River watersheds healthy overall but need protection against phosphorus and bacteria threats

Contact: Stephen Mikkelson, 218-316-3887

According to new draft reports released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), lakes, rivers, and streams in the Kettle River and Upper St. Croix River watersheds are healthy overall, but restoration and protection efforts must continue to combat water quality threats from phosphorus and bacteria.

The MPCA and partners found lakes with excess nutrients in both watersheds, though a relatively small number compared to other watersheds in the state. The Kettle and Upper St. Croix watersheds contain a combined 126 lakes of ten acres or larger. Of the 31 assessed lakes, 18 are meeting water quality standards. Project partners include area soil and water conservation districts, county environmental service offices, lake associations, the National Park Service, and the Mille Lacs and Fond du Lac Bands of Ojibwe.

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 in current levels of pollution. In the Kettle River Watershed, monitoring and assessment has shown bacteria impairments in just 10 of 78 monitored stream sections, meaning bacteria levels are too high to meet water quality standards, particularly in the Pine River and Grindstone River subwatersheds. The watersheds are also home to unique natural resources that need protection, including 17 lakes with wild rice beds. Two lakes, Hanging Horn and Little Hanging Horn, are designated as refuge lakes for cisco, a sensitive fish species that many other fish depend on for food. In addition, Grindstone Lake is a cold-water fishery that supports lake trout populations.

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.

To restore lakes and streams affected by pollution, the WRAPS recommends removing barriers to fish passage, including culverts and dams; restoring ditched wetlands and altered streams; managing livestock and manure for water protection; repairing or replacing failing septic systems in shoreland areas; and managing internal nutrient loading in specific lakes. To protect healthy bodies of water, the WRAPS report recommends shoreland and forest protection, prevention and management of aquatic invasive species, managing in-lake plant and fish communities, and expanded monitoring.

The reports are part of the MPCA’s approach to gauging the health of Minnesota’s 80 major watersheds, each of which will have an approved comprehensive watershed management plan by 2025. After intensive watershed monitoring, the agency and partners evaluate biological conditions in lakes and streams. Waters that fail to meet standards are placed on the Impaired Waters List, and the agency develops information and strategies that are used to restore impaired waters and protect healthy ones.

The Kettle and Upper St. Croix watersheds include about 1,700 miles of streams and 126 lakes, and cover all or parts of Aitkin, Carlton, Kanabec, and Pine counties.

The draft reports are available on the MPCA’s Kettle River or Upper St. Croix River watershed web pages. Submit comments to or request information from Karen Evens (218-302-6644, 800-657-3864), MPCA, 525 Lake Ave., Suite 400, Duluth, MN, 55802 by 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 10.

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.