Three northeast Minnesota water quality reports offer good news for outdoor enthusiasts

Contact: Anne Perry Moore, 218-302-6605

Duluth, Minn. — Great news for people seeking a spring-like northern wilderness experience: Water quality in two northeastern Minnesota watersheds is considered outstanding, and in a third watershed, many streams have exceptionally high water quality.

That’s according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) water quality monitoring and assessment reports for the Lake Superior-South, Big Fork and Nemadji River watersheds. These three watersheds represent about 3,000 square miles, or 20 percent, of the 10 watersheds in northeastern Minnesota.

Outstanding water quality in the first two watersheds may be related to larger areas of undisturbed landscape. Undeveloped portions of the Nemadji are covered by forests and wetlands, including state forests, wildlife management areas and other public lands which feature natural buffers and conditions that are protective of clean water.

Some of the cleanest waters in the Lake Superior-South watershed are McCarthy and Captain Jacobson creeks and the West Branch Little Knife, Gooseberry and Stewart rivers. These streams have excellent fish and aquatic invertebrate (bug) communities, and the habitat required to sustain them. They often support highly-sensitive species that are generally not found in stream systems with highly-disturbed watersheds.

A large majority of the Big Fork River system is in excellent condition; it is one of the healthiest watersheds in the state with more than 150 stream miles that support recreation and aquatic life. The Big Fork’s top waters include Macafee Brook, Plum Creek, Turtle River, Deer Creek and Bowerman Brook. More than 100 lakes met recreation- based standards including Turtle, North Star and Gunn.

Although water quality monitoring results show a different story in the Nemadji, there are some bright spots to be found in the watershed, including State Line Creek and the Net River.

But the news is not all good. Agency research confirmed the lakes and streams in the Lake Superior-South watershed, stretching along Minnesota’s North Shore from Duluth to Silver Bay, and the Big Fork River watershed, in Itasca and Koochiching Counties, are also showing some signs of stress.

High levels of bacteria and nutrients, eroding stream banks and loss of sensitive aquatic species were found in streams in all three watersheds during the past four years of monitoring and assessment. A handful of lakes, such as Jesse, Round and Bowstring, dominated by large watersheds and relatively shallow conditions are not meeting recreation expectations. Additional testing should indicate whether these stressors are more likely due to natural causes or from human activities.

Testing also identified high mercury levels that limit the number of fish people can safely consume from the Lake Superior-South, Nemadji River and Big Fork River watersheds.

Clay soils eroding from the Nemadji watershed’s steep stream banks are sometimes visible as distinct red pools carried by the current from Superior Bay through the shipping channels into Lake Superior.

See the full Lake Superior-South monitoring and assessment report on the Lake Superior — South Watershed webpage and the Nemadji River monitoring and assessment and stressor identification reports on the Nemadji River Watershed webpage or contact Nathan Mielke at 218-316-3916 or

Read the Big Fork River monitoring and assessment report on the Big Fork River Watershed webpage or contact April Lueck at 651-757-2363 or

With funding from the Clean Water Fund, from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, the MPCA conducts and oversees a variety of surface water monitoring activities that support its mission of helping Minnesotans protect the environment. For more information, visit