Sauk River Watershed

Minnesota's Major Watershed Projects

The Sauk River watershed covers 667,200 acres (1,043 square miles) and extends from the Mississippi River near St. Cloud to within 3 miles of Alexandria. The overall watershed is about 75 miles in length.

Since European settlement in the 1860s the Sauk has undergone dramatic land use modification; including the plowing of its native prairies, harvesting of its hardwood forests, draining of its wetlands and modifications to its natural stream courses. Today, 77 percent of its landscape is utilized for agricultural production. The watershed’s wealth of surface waters is a valuable resource for aquatic recreation and its health is essential to resident aquatic life.

Monitoring and assessment

In 2008 the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) undertook an intensive watershed monitoring effort of the Sauk River Watershed’s surface waters. Fifty-four sites were sampled for biology at the pour points of variable sized sub-watersheds within the Sauk River watershed. These locations included
the mouth of the Sauk River, the outlet of its major tributaries and the pour points of headwater tributaries. As part of this effort MPCA also joined with the Sauk River Watershed District (SRWD) who completed stream water chemistry sampling at the pour points of the Sauk River’s nine major subwatersheds. In 2010, a holistic approach was taken to assess all of the watershed’s surface waterbodies for aquatic life, recreation and consumption use support, where data was available; 39 streams and 44 lakes were assessed in this effort. (Not all lake and stream AUIDs were able to be assessed due to insufficient data, modified channel condition or their status as limited resources waters.)

Thirteen of the watershed’s assessed lakes are fully supporting for aquatic recreation. Thirty-one lakes are non-supporting for aquatic recreation and nine are non-supporting for aquatic consumption. Lake water quality in the Sauk River Watershed in modest to poor; nutrient eutrophication is a common concern across the watershed’s 374 lakes.

Eight stream AUIDs are fully supporting for aquatic life, while 11 are fully supporting for aquatic recreation. Twenty-four stream AUIDs are non-supporting for aquatic recreation throughout the watershed; twenty-three are non-supporting for aquatic life use. Aquatic consumption impairments
span the entire length of the Sauk River. Aquatic biological impairments are isolated to specific reaches on the mainstem Sauk River but are widely dispersed across assessable tributary streams. Channelized streams throughout the watershed are generally in poor biological condition. Three mainstem impairments occur downstream of large stretches of riverine lakes, impaired for nutrients. Water chemistry impairments involving low dissolved oxygen and high bacteria concentrations are common across the watershed’s tributaries.

PDF icon Sauk River Watershed Monitoring and Assessment Report (wq-ws3-07010202b)

Strategy development projects

As part of the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) process, the following table of protection strategies was constructed for the non-impaired resources within the watershed.

Parameter Description Responsible Party

Septic System Loading


Conduct county-wide septic system inventories and work with watershed residents to address
non-compliant or substandard septic system. Support rules and ordinances developed in DWSMA regarding septic systems.

MPCA, County Planning and Zoning and SRWD

Groundwater Priority areas Promote adoption of more protective groundwater BMPs and support protection rules and ordinance in the DWSMA for public water supply areas. SRWD, Municipalities, MDH, county agencies
Wetlands Promote wetland restoration and protection by collaborating with federal, state and local agencies to provide technical assistance and financial incentives for landowner participation. DNR, USFWS, SWCD, SRWD
Stormwater Promote the revision of land use ordinances to include maximumparking ratio, efficient parking lanes, and grassed over-flow lots. Promote the construction of runoff storage infiltration basins for existing lots that need retrofitting or additional space. Promote the construction, use and maintenance of grit chambers and other filtration systems. Promote early street sweeping and other stormwater BMPs. Municipalities, county agencies, SRWD
Aquatic invasive species Develop a plan to assess the presence and density of invasive species within the watershed and develop a plan to prevent the spread of AIS that threatened water resources. DNR, Lake Associations, SRWD
Erosion Collaborate efforts with County SWCDs/ NRCS,MDA and Environmental Services to work with producers to implement BMPs to address field erosion and/or steambank erosion. Pursue funding to encourage participation in BMP implementation. SWCDs, NRCS, SRWD, MDA, county agencies
Agriculture Collaborate efforts with County SWCDs/ NRCS,MDA and Environmental Services to work with producers to implement BMPs to address agriculture runoff. Promote gridded soil testing to reduce over application of fertilizers, Promote new innovative programs to increase landowner participation. SWCDs, NRCS, SRWD, MDA, county agencies
Drainage Management Explore opportunities to provide assistance to landowners within drainage areas to minimize flow volume and agricultural runoff to private and public drainage ditches to reduce impact to receiving waterbodies. Promote the incorporation of BMPs in stormwater conveyance systems. SRWD, SWCD, NRCS and municipalities
Riparian / Shoreland Promote adoption of more protective riparian/shoreland management standards at state and local levels to protect critical habitat and geological sensitive areas. Pursue funding to provide technical and financial incentives to restore riparian areas to a stable state. DNR, County agencies, SRWD
Civic Engagement/ public outreach Promote and participate in civic engagement and public outreach efforts. Encourage collaboration and coordination among state and local agencies, conservation groups, special interests groups and residents to strengthen watershed protection efforts. Identify barriers to participation in existing programs and identify strategies to overcome the barriers. State and local agencies, Conservation Groups, lake associations, SRWD
Ordinance/rules Promote the development and adoption of ordinance and rules to protect water resources from degradation. Work with townships, municipalities and other local agencies to develop protection ordinances and rules that are feasible and enforceable. State and local agencies, Townships. Municipalities, Conservation Groups, lake associations, SRWD

Restoration strategies for impaired resources mostly focus on agricultural impacts. Landowners having drainage from confined livestock areas will be encouraged to direct runoff to retention basins, grassed buffer strips, constructed wetlands, or other recommended nutrient-reduction feature. Manure accumulated in confined holding areas should be regularly removed and applied to crop or pasture lands during appropriate seasons and at appropriate agronomic rates. Other “manure management” planning, such as specifying nutrient rate limits, setback distances to surface waters, and use of designed facilities and techniques for storing and transport of manure may be utilized. Livestock producers will be encouraged through enhanced incentives, education, and (when required) regulations to implement measures to protect riparian areas and waterways, such as managing livestock access in riparian areas and providing off-site watering structures. Agriculture extension programs, as well as other partnership programs, will be used to help agricultural producers assess the environmental risk of their operations. The programs will also be used to provide advice on how to prevent the contamination of groundwater and surface water.

PDF icon Sauk River Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies Report (wq-ws4-08a) (MPCA approval 4/8/2015)

Implementation activities

The Sauk River Watershed has a number of completed TMDLs, with a couple in progress. Find more information about each TMDL.


    Information contact

    Anna Bosch
    Watershed Project Manager
    MPCA Brainerd Regional Office
    7678 College Rd, Suite 105, Baxter, MN 56425