Red River Basin partnerships deliver solutions

A man and a woman in chest waders walk in a stream looking down at the water on a bright sunny autumn day.

Working with local, regional, and international partners, and funded by the Legacy Amendment, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is finishing its first cycle of the watershed approach in the Red River Basin. First cycle Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) reports have been completed in 12 of the 17 major watersheds in the basin. The remaining reports will be completed by 2021.

Map showing the location of the 17 watersheds that make up the Red River Basin in the northwest corner of Minnesota, bordered to the north by Canada and to the west by the Red River of the North and North Dakota.

Through this approach, the agency gauges the health of major watersheds in Minnesota by identifying impaired waters and stressors to fish and bug populations, determining pollutant reductions needed to restore waters to standards, and developing strategies for protection as well as restoration. The public has an opportunity to comment on the reports as they become available.

These studies and strategies lay the foundation for continued restoration of lakes and streams in the Red River Basin. Local partners can build on this foundation with implementation projects. The MPCA will follow up during cycle 2 of the watershed approach to see if the waters are improving.

Common problems, common solutions

Similar landscape features (ecoregions) stretch across watershed boundaries, so watersheds that share those features often share similar water quality problems and solutions. Each watershed is unique in its own way, though, and will have its own combination of water quality problems and priorities.

Many problems are linked to inconsistent stream flows — high-flows during spring runoff and summer rain events and extended low-flow periods for much of the rest of the year. These stream flow conditions are caused by land that is drained and streams that have been straightened, and by more intense storms from climate change.

Common water quality problems in the Red River Basin include:

  • High levels of sediment that cloud the water
  • Bacteria that can potentially make the water unsafe for swimming
  • Excessive nutrients that grow algae and make our waters green
  • Oxygen levels too low to sustain fish and bug populations
  • Degraded habitat for fish and other aquatic life

Because problems in the basin are often consistent, so are the strategies identified in the reports to fix them. Slowing down the flow of water across the landscape will be key to addressing stream flow extremes, erosion and degraded habitat in many areas. This will improve dissolved oxygen concentrations and aquatic life habitat, and reduce in-stream sediment.

Strategies range from small-scale practices such as nutrient and manure management and cover crops to larger, engineered solutions such as stream restoration, wetland restoration, or impoundments for storing and slowly releasing water.

The power of partnerships

Many partnerships have formed to tackle the problems in the Red River Basin at the local, regional, and even international level.

“Water quality improvements are a result of successful partnerships, planning, and implementation at many levels — local, state and federal,” says Katrina Kessler, assistant MPCA commissioner for water policy. “On the ground implementation is the key to water quality improvements, which is due to efforts by local governments and landowners.”

Local partnerships

Local water quality planning entities such as watershed districts and Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) use information from MPCA reports to inform decisions during development of their One Watershed, One Plan following the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources (BWSR) process. These plans prioritize projects that can be implemented on the ground with local landowners.

That’s what’s happening in the Red Lake Watershed District, says Water Quality Coordinator Corey Hanson. “Data from the reports is used in our planning process where our local partners such as the three county SWCDs in the watershed are cooperating and sharing resources to accomplish things on a watershed basis, not just in their specific part of the watershed.”

  • Red Lake River Watershed – A science-based, targeted and prioritized plan for the next three years includes constructing 248 side-water inlets. Combined, the projects will help prevent an estimated 2,480 tons of sediment from reaching the Red Lake River.

Regional partnerships

Only a portion of the Red River Basin exists in Minnesota. Much of it extends into North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada. The Red River Basin Commission (RRBC), based in Fargo, N.D., draws together a broad group of people with an interest in water management from all three regions for an annual conference to share strategies, highlight success stories, and build consensus around water quality issues of concern to all three regions.

“All of our diverse stakeholders are concerned about water quality, and since there are few high volume dischargers left in the basin, we look for every small step that can be taken. The commission constantly looks for opportunities to foster these small steps,” says Executive Director Ted Preister. “None of these alone is the answer to our water quality challenges, but combined they can have a measurable impact.”

The RRBC is helping facilitate a process involving several cities in the Red River Basin, agriculture sector leaders, the MPCA, and other regional stakeholders in finding creative solutions to the phosphorous/algae issue in Lake Winnipeg. An approach has been agreed upon that will look for non-point phosphorus “offsets” in the basin that may result in a more meaningful impact on water quality at less cost than requiring additional equipment/treatment at wastewater treatment facilities. Offsets might include any number of land management or environmental remediation practices or projects that result in a measureable reduction in phosphorus transport to the Red River. The RRBC Water Quality Offset Working Group began its efforts in 2019 and will count on help from collaborating groups as well as North Dakota and Manitoba.

International partnerships

Minnesota is also part of the International Red River Board (IRRB), established to help resolve water issues along the U.S.-Canada border. The MPCA is represented by Regional Manager Jim Ziegler on the IRRB, which has recommended nutrient goals for the international border. The RRBC, using those nutrient objectives as long-term goals, is working to coordinate nutrient reduction strategies in Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba in order to, among other things, maximize the effectiveness of phosphorous reduction efforts across the basin, eventually leading to the reduction of massive algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg just north of the border.

“The WRAPS process helps identify priority areas in a watershed where implementing projects will do the most good for that watershed,” Ziegler says. “On a larger scale, the states and Manitoba are working as a team on our nutrient reduction efforts to identify priority areas across the basin where projects will make the biggest difference in improving water quality in the Red River.”

Partnerships with landowners

Equipped with sound science from the watershed approach and other sources, partners at all levels can set priorities for what type of projects to implement and where in order to have the most impact. Ultimately it takes partnerships with local landowners to implement projects on the ground to make a difference in water quality in the Red River Basin.

  • Upper Buffalo Watershed – State and local agencies partner with landowners to implement clean water projects to reduce sediment loads. The largest is on land owned by Chad Okeson. “We could not do this on our own, not even close.”
  • Whiskey Creek – Partnerships with landowners and leveraged funding are hallmarks of a Wilkin SWCD/Buffalo-Red River Watershed District project on 30-mile long Whiskey Creek focused on clean water, wildlife habitat and drainage solutions in Wilkin and Otter Tail counties.
  • Grand Marais Creek – Landowners and state and local governments working together reversed 100 years of erosion damage by restoring six miles of creek to its original natural channel.