Red River: Water quality concerns growing in river popular for recreation

Contact: Dan Olson, 218-846-8108

The fish are doing OK, but many other challenges face the Red River of the North, according to a study released today by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). This is Minnesota’s first comprehensive study on the Red River’s water quality that looks at the health of insects and fish that live in the river, starting from near Breckenridge to the Canadian border.

The river forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota and drains roughly 40,000 square miles in northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota.  

Monitoring shows the Red River and its tributaries carry too much sediment to meet Minnesota standards designed to protect fish and other aquatic life. Some stretches are impaired for swimming due to high levels of bacteria. Generally speaking, fish and aquatic insect communities are doing OK, but could be more diverse and healthier if the water were clearer.

Many of the Red River’s problems can be traced to flow levels. Too much water is flowing through tributaries and the Red River during spring runoff and rain events, and at other times, there is too little or no water in the tributaries. And there’s more rain, more artificial drainage, and not enough places to store excess water.

The high flows bring pollutants like sediment, nutrients and bacteria with them. The pollutants hurt fish and other aquatic life, and can also affect recreation. The high nutrient levels contribute to the severe algae downstream in Lake Winnipeg on the Canadian side of the basin.

Climate change is causing more intense rain events, but flow rates have increased five times faster than precipitation. One reason: The Red basin is one of the most artificially drained areas in the world, with a vast network of ditches, altered streams and, increasingly, agricultural tiling systems. The drainage is so effective that many streams run dry in summer, forcing fish and other river life to move downstream or die.

“This is one of the most productive farming areas in the world, and we want our farmers to remain productive,” says Jim Ziegler, MPCA Detroit Lakes Regional Manager. “Farmers, watershed districts, state agencies, and many other organizations are working together to improve and protect water quality while still maintaining high levels of agricultural productivity.”

Other highlights of the report:

  • Nitrogen levels in the river are creeping up in a few areas. Several communities draw their drinking water from the river, and nitrogen can be a health risk to humans. It can also be toxic to fish.
  • More changes are needed to help the fish population, including preventing extreme fluctuations in flow, reducing pollutants, and increasing habitat. As the river flows north through more cultivated and drained land, habitat declines along with the number of fish species, from 22 near the headwaters to 13 near the Canadian border.

The report recommends actions that can protect and restore water quality, including:

  • Invest in water storage, such as methods that filter and store rainwater, leading to cleaner water in rivers
  • Improve fertilizer and manure management
  • Build soil health; boosting soil health also helps the land absorb water during heavy rains
  • Invest in wastewater treatment – communities in the basin are working to reduce the phosphorous they discharge to the river
  • Prevent runoff with flood mitigation projects; runoff flushes pollutants from the land

The Red River report is the third report on Minnesota’s major rivers produced by the MPCA in the past two years. The first two looked at the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Minnesota rivers. Local partners, such as watershed districts, also use the water quality data to plan water restoration and protection projects.

To see the full report, visit the MPCA web site.