Watershed approach to restoring and protecting water quality

The MPCA employs a watershed approach to restoring and protecting Minnesota's rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Money to accelerate efforts to monitor, assess, and restore impaired waters, and to protect unimpaired waters was funded by the Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy Act.

There are 80 major watersheds in Minnesota. Intensive water quality monitoring and assessments will be conducted in each of these watersheds every ten years. 

During the ten-year cycle, the MPCA and its partner organizations work on each of the state's 80 major watersheds to evaluate water conditions, establish priorities and goals for improvement, and take actions designed to restore or protect water quality. When a watershed's ten-year cycle is completed, a new cycle begins.

The primary feature of the watershed approach is that it focuses on the watershed's condition as the starting point for water quality assessment, planning, implementation, and measurement of results. This approach may be modified to meet local conditions, based on factors such as watershed size, landscape diversity, and geographic complexity (e.g., Twin Cities metro area).

Map of watersheds for cycle 2 of watershed monitoring

Process for restoring and protecting water quality

Along with the Watershed Approach, the MPCA developed a process to identify and address threats to water quality in each of these major watersheds. This process is called WRAPS or the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy. WRAPS has four major steps or phases. 

Step 1. Monitor water bodies and collect data

The cycle begins with a two-year intensive monitoring program of lakes and streams in which the MPCA determines their overall health and identifies impaired waters. Results of monitoring that other state, federal, and local organizations have performed for various purposes are included in the process. Additional information is collected on the watershed's physical characteristics, including land use, topography, soils, and pollution sources. Outcomes of this step include the creation of a Monitoring and Assessment Report and a Stressor Identification Report on the watershed’s biota (fish, bugs, etc.). Learn more about monitoring.

Step 2. Assess the data

Based on the results of the monitoring in step one, MPCA water quality specialists evaluate the data to:

  • determine whether or not water resources meet water quality standards and designated uses
  • identify waters that do not meet water quality standards and list them as impaired waters
  • identify waters that should be protected
  • identify stressors affecting aquatic life in streams

Learn more about assessment and stressor identification.

Step 3. Develop strategies to restore and protect the watershed's water bodies

Based on the watershed assessment, a WRAPS report and a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) are completed. The two provide details on water quality issues and identify what needs to be done to clean up streams and lakes that are impaired and to protect those that are at risk of becoming impaired. 

Download helpful resources. MPCA staff and contractors will use these tools:

Step 4. Conduct restoration and protection projects in the watershed

In this step, restoration and protection projects are implemented in the watershed. Various local units of government, including watershed districts, municipalities, and soil and water conservation districts, take the lead in developing and carrying out implementation plans based on what is learned during the earlier steps of the process. Civic engagement and public participation are core elements of all steps throughout the process. 

Benefits of the watershed approach

MPCA adopted the watershed approach in 2008, as recommended by the PDF icon 2008 Biennial Report to the Legislature and directed by the Minnesota Legislature. A significant share of the funding for water quality management is provided by the Minnesota Clean Water Fund.

The improved system allows efficient and effective use of public resources in addressing water quality challenges across the state. Concentrating efforts at the major watershed scale ensures:

  • an ongoing, predictable cycle for water quality management and evaluation
  • a more efficient approach to addressing impairments
  • a common framework for monitoring, TMDL studies,  assessments, setting required pollutant reductions, and implementation strategies
  • improved collaboration and innovation
  • increased stakeholder interest and local support
  • a reduction in the cost of improving the quality of waters

The water quality management cycles for the 80 major watersheds are staggered, with 8 to 10 watersheds beginning a new cycle each year. By 2017, all watersheds will have at least begun their first cycle, and those that began in 2008 will enter their next cycle.