Report: Rainy River makes remarkable recovery, thanks to regulations and partnerships

Contact: Lucie Amundsen, 218-302-6600

The Rainy River is a story of recovery, international partnership, and effective environmental regulations taking a river from heavily polluted to “good to excellent” water quality, according to a report recently released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The river basin’s water quality is good enough to support drinking water, fishing, tourism, and recreation, which was not the case 68 years ago.

Industrial pollution caused by paper mills and raw sewage from cities — originating from both sides of the border — once marred the river, hurting its fish, aquatic insects and recreational potential. Regulation, education, and industry partnerships have led to dramatic decreases in pollution and sewage discharges to the river, and the water quality in the Rainy River has significantly improved.

“The Rainy River is a vital economic and cultural bond between the United States and Canada,” says MPCA commissioner Laura Bishop. “With all partners working together — including federal, state, and local governments, Tribal Nations, industry, and environmental advocates — we have moved the river from near total destruction to one of the most treasured fishing spots in North America that is also integral to the health of economies on both sides of the border.” 

A conduit between Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods, the river forms part of the border between the United States and Canada. For more than 50 years, the two countries have collaborated to restore and protect water quality, important to the river life and the people who treasure it, as the river faces new potential threats from changes in land use.

“The improvements that we have seen in the Rainy River demonstrate what can be accomplished when our two countries collaborate, in this instance by working together in the International Joint Commission’s International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, to achieve shared objectives,” said Ariel Delouya, Consul General of Canada in Minneapolis.

Historic problem

Before environmental regulations, wood fiber from the paper industry was choking the Rainy River. In 1952, state researchers had to dig through three feet of wood waste to find the river’s water. In addition, raw sewage from cities and towns once flowed into the river. The industrial and municipal discharges fouled the water with sediment that made it cloudy, toxins that harmed river life and recreation, and caused low oxygen levels that harmed fish and other creatures.

The solution

Though it would take several decades to turn the Rainy River around, two pieces of legislation set the river in the right direction: Canada’s Environmental Protection Act in 1971 and the United States’ Clean Water Act in 1972. In addition, the International Rainy River Water Pollution Board was established on January 18, 1966, to assist the International Joint Commission in complying with a directive from the two governments to address pollution in the Rainy River.  By the early 1980s, pollutants had dropped dramatically on both sides of the border.

The Rainy River is now considered a world-class fishery for sturgeon and walleye, and one of the top five places in the U.S. to catch a 10-pound walleye or a four-foot or larger sturgeon. Other aquatic life, such as insects that provide food for fish and birds, are also doing well.

Looking ahead

The MPCA report cites the need to continue to protect sensitive headwaters lakes and streams to ensure spawning for multiple game species. Protections are needed from future development and land use changes. For the report and supporting images, visit the MPCA website.

The Rainy River report is the fourth in a series on big river systems in Minnesota. Previous reports have focused on the Upper Mississippi, Minnesota, and Red rivers. The MPCA is now working on its assessment of the St. Croix River.