Karst in Minnesota

Stagecoach Spring by Watson Creek in Fillmore County Southeastern Minnesota is characterized by an unusual type of geography called karst. It features rolling hills, hollows, caves, sinkholes, and dramatic bluffs and valleys.

These features, formed primarily of limestone, make the topography "porous" and make the area's water resources more challenging to protect. Contaminants can quickly find routes from the surface into groundwater. Petroleum and other chemicals leaking from underground storage tanks can quickly move into groundwater. Spilled manure can cause fish kills many miles from the release point. Chemicals used on the landscape can reappear at unexpected times and in unexpected locations.

Some features of karst geography: 

  • Subsurface drainage (lack of streams and other surface water) — When rainwater filters quickly into the soil, as in a karst landscape, water is not collected into streams and cannot cut valleys.
  • Blind valleys terminate abruptly at a point where its stream sinks, or once sank, underground. Blind valleys are completely enclosed valleys that water cannot flow out of on the surface.
  • Caves
  • Disappearing streams are surface streams that run into holes in the ground and partially or completely cease flowing on the surface
  • Sinkholes are closed depressions caused by a collapse of soil or overlying formation above fractured or cavernous bedrock
  • Springs — Any natural discharge of water from rock or soil onto the surface of the land or into a body of water. Disappearing streams may re-emerge at springs.

Map: Minnesota karst lands

Protecting water in karst region

In karst landscapes, the distinction between groundwater and surface water is blurry. Groundwater may emerge as a spring, flow a short distance above ground, only to vanish in a disappearing stream, and perhaps re-emerge farther downstream again as surface water. This connection between groundwater and streams makes southeastern Minnesota home to many cold-water streams, where trout and other important species thrive. In addition, pollution affecting groundwater can quickly threaten a stream, and the animals and plants living there. And contaminated surface water can easily become groundwater pollution, and pose a health risk to those using it for drinking.

Another concern is the potential for carbonate bedrock beneath liquid storage basins to collapse, which has been reported in many states, including North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. Municipal sewage lagoons have collapsed in three southeastern Minnesota communities (Altura, Bellechester, and Lewiston) since 1976. All three were built in similar hydrogeologic settings: shallow carbonate bedrock beneath a thin layer of sand or sandstone. Geologists theorize that the lagoons’ high leakage rates saturated the sandy material beneath with carbonate-poor water, which readily dissolved the underlying carbonate bedrock, or washed soil into preexisting solution cavities. The collapsed lagoons sent millions of gallons of wastewater into the aquifer.

Additional resources

Karst data and publications

HTML icon Geologic controls on groundwater and surface water flow in southeastern Minnesota and its impact on nitrate concentrations in streams

Investigation to support watershed planning efforts in southeast Minnesota, specifically the geologic controls on nitrate transport in the region, including nitrate in groundwater that is the source of baseflow to streams. (Runkel, Anthony C., et al.; Minnesota Geological Survey, 2014)

HTML icon Stratigraphic positions of springs in southeast Minnesota

This report and associated database summarize the results of various projects where MGS staff investigated the location and stratigraphic position of southeastern Minnesota springs. (Steenberg, Julia R; Runkel, Anthony C; Minnesota Geological Survey, 2018)

HTML icon Minnesota groundwater tracing database and dye tracing studies

Information from nearly 400 groundwater traces in Minnesota, most conducted using fluorescent dyes

HTML icon The farmer who went underground

Cave explorations by Martin Larsen (Olmsted Soil and Water Conservation District) shine a light on water quality and farming practices in southeastern Minnesota. (MN Conservation Volunteer article)

PDF icon Drain tiles and groundwater resources: Understanding the relations

This white paper documents the state of the science for describing, understanding, and quantifying the relation of subsurface drainage (drain tiling) to groundwater resources. (Minnesota Ground Water Association, 2018)

Technical resources

Pollution prevention is the best strategy for protecting water quality in the karst region. Learn more through these technical resources: