New reports: Mississippi River-Brainerd Watershed has good water quality overall, but many opportunities for improvement

Contact: Stephen Mikkelson, 218-316-3887

According to new draft reports released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the Mississippi River – Brainerd Area Watershed (MRBW) has a mix of good water quality that needs protecting, and lakes and streams with high levels of bacteria and do not meet fish and swim standards. The MRBW in north central Minnesota has more than 2,100 miles of rivers and streams, and contains 212 lakes of ten, or more, acres in size.

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. The TMDL found that nine of the 41 assessed streams in the watershed had high levels of bacteria, and 16 streams do not meet standards for supporting fish and bugs. In addition, 18 of the 92 assessed lakes do not meet aquatic recreation standards for swimming and fishing. Fish populations in four of 61 assessed lakes did not meet the expected standards.

The MPCA identified several stressors to aquatic life in the watershed, including low dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations, excess nutrients, stream connectivity, flow alteration, excess sediment, and lack of habitat. Many of the low DO concentrations are appearing in areas with a high percentage of wetlands, and where ditching (stream alterations) is prevalent. Ditching alters the natural course of a stream and can affect downstream water quantity during high flow periods, and affect water quality during low flow periods. It can also cause a lack of suitable habitat for aquatic life. In a few cases, cattle pastured in riparian areas have caused channel instability and habitat degradation. Biological impairments in the urban areas are partly attributed to stormwater runoff, due to an increase of impervious surfaces, which reduce natural filtering of runoff before reaching surface waters.

The second report, a watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS), is required by the state Clean Water Legacy Act and uses the TMDL, monitoring results, and other information to develop strategies for addressing all pollution sources in the watershed. The MRBW has areas that are quite healthy, and protection strategies will help keep them that way. The Nokasippi River was classified as an exceptional use stream and is a focus for protection.

Strategies for addressing the degraded water quality in the watershed include:

  • Preserving or establishing native vegetation
  • Reducing stormwater runoff in urban areas and around lakes
  • Managing livestock and associated wastes according to established rules and guidance
  • Restoring altered stream hydrology.

The reports are part of the MPCA’s approach to gauging the health of Minnesota’s 80 major watersheds, which each will have an approved comprehensive watershed management plan by 2025. After intensive water 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.

Both reports will be used to develop local plans for implementing stream restoration and protection projects.

The MRBW spans portions of Aitkin, Crow Wing, Morrison, and Todd counties; and includes Aitkin, Brainerd/Baxter, and Little Falls. It offers exceptional fishing, boating, and other recreational opportunities. The area’s lakes and streams are used by permanent residents, seasonal cabin owners, and resort patrons, who contribute greatly to local economies. The draft reports are available on the MPCA’s Mississippi River-Brainerd Watershed webpage. Submit comments to or request information from Bonnie Finnerty (218-316-3897, 800-657-3864), MPCA, 7678 College Road, Baxter, MN, 56425 by 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 1.

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

More information on all of Minnesota’s 80 major watersheds is available on the MPCA’s watershed web pages.