Watershed approach to restoring and protecting water quality

The MPCA, in collaboration with local governments, other state agencies, and Tribes, 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 is funded by Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment.

When a watershed's cycle is completed, a new cycle begins and water monitoring starts to show trends in water quality and the impact of any restoration or protection actions. The strength of the watershed approach is that it focuses holistically on the watershed's condition as the starting point for water quality assessment, as the scientific basis for 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

The watershed approach has four major steps or phases. 

Step 1. Monitor bodies of water 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. Outcomes of this step include the creation of a monitoring and assessment report. 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 in good condition that should be protected

Learn more about assessment.

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

Additional information is collected on the watershed's physical characteristics, including land use, topography, soils, and sources of pollution, and the MPCA creates a stressor identification report. Based on the watershed assessment, a watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS) report and a total maximum daily load (TMDL) report 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 use these tools:

Step 4. Conduct restoration and protection projects in the watershed

In this step, local government units, including counties, 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. The Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources oversees local water planning and implementation, including the One Watershed One Plan process. Public participation is a core element in all steps of 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, through the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment to the state constitution.

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 multiple, connected impairments at one time
  • A common framework for monitoring and assessment, TMDL studies, setting required pollutant reductions, developing restoration and protection strategies, and implementation
  • 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 an average of 8 to 10 watersheds beginning a new cycle each year.