Leech Lake River

Watershed at a Glance

Upper Mississippi monitoring and assessment study overview

Upper Mississippi River: Monitoring and assessment study

The entire upper Mississippi River, from the headwaters to downtown Minneapolis, was evaluated for aquatic life and pollutants. Here is a summary of this effort, and a summary of restoration and protection activities.

PDF icon Upper Mississippi River: What to protect, what to fix

PDF icon Our Upper Mississippi River Large River and Basin Restoration and Protection Strategies (wq-ws4-38b)

The Leech Lake River watershed consists of approximately 854,659 acres (1,335 sq. miles) in the northern part of the Upper Mississippi River Basin. The watershed includes parts of Beltrami, Cass, and Hubbard counties. Major communities in the watershed are Laporte, Benedict, Walker, Federal Dam, Boy River, Whipholt, Longville, and Hackensack. The watershed also includes the Leech Lake Reservation (Leech Lake Band of Chippewa). The Leech Lake River watershed has 277 total river miles and contains over 750 lakes with a total acreage of 166,374.

Hydrologic Unit Code:07010102
Intensive monitoring start year:2012
Major lakesMajor rivers and streams
Boy, Woman, Child, Girl, Kabekona, Inguadona, Leech, Sixmile, Tenmile, Steamboat
Boy, Kabekona, Leech Lake River, Little Boy, Mud, Sixmile Brook, Steamboat


The Leech Lake River watershed is located in the Northern Lakes and Forest ecoregion of Minnesota. This watershed is largely forested, with about 46% of the land privately held, with the remaining portion of land state, county or federal public land, or held by tribal land owners.

This watershed is situated in the heart of Minnesota’s lake country and contains some of the most pristine natural resources in Minnesota. This watershed has a very high degree of biodiversity in its thousands of acres of forests and surface waters. One-half of Minnesota’s naturally producing Muskie lakes and a quarter of the natural Muskie habitat in the United States is located in the Leech Lake River watershed. Forests in the watershed boast the largest number of breeding eagle pairs in the lower 48 states, as well as many other healthy wildlife populations. The State Action Plan for Minnesota Wildlife identified 89  “species of greatest conservation need,” including 29 species that are federal or state endangered, threatened, or of special concern within the watershed.

Currently, the surface water resources within this watershed meet Minnesota’s surface water quality standards for conventional pollutants (not including mercury).  However, these resources are experiencing increased pressure from development and subsequent loss of shoreline and aquatic habitat. The surface water resources within this watershed are highly prized for their recreational value and these resources attract several hundred thousand vacationers to the area each year. The protection of these resources is vital in sustaining the local economy and natural heritage and character of this watershed. 

The major threats to the watershed include:

  • Loss of shoreline and aquatic habitat due to development.
  • Population growth of up to 60% projected for the watershed by 2030, according to Minnesota State Demographers.
  • Increased nutrient, contaminant, and sedimentation loading from stormwater runoff from development and other non-point sources.
  • Loss of biodiversity due to competition from invasive species.

    What's being done

    Many lake associations/citizens throughout the watershed actively participate in water quality monitoring through the Citizen Lake Monitoring Program. In an effort to fill lake data gaps, Cass County Environmental Services (ESD) and Hubbard SWCD are monitoring several lakes in the watershed through grants and local water plans. The Minnesota DNR and Cass County have worked together to identify sensitive shoreland areas on all lakes greater than 500 acres in Cass County. These sensitive shoreland areas represent the most critical fish and wildlife habitat areas for protection and will be evaluated for zoning re-classification to Resource Protection Districts.

    In addition, the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation successfully continues toward its mission to fund, promote, and enable activities that will protect the natural environment of the Leech Lake Watershed. Through their efforts numerous land conservation projects have been implemented since 1997, including preserving and protecting over 20 miles of wild shoreline.

    The Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) for this watershed began in 2012.  Since then, watershed monitoring data has been collected through an intensive watershed monitoring approach where chemical and biological monitoring was conducted on the streams within the watershed. In addition, chemical monitoring was completed by local partners on select lakes within the watershed through the Surface Water Assessment Grant program.

    Citizens play an important part in “keeping clean waters clean” for future enjoyment. Citizens interested in getting involved with the project can contact the MPCA project manager.

    Monitoring and assessment reports

    Strategy reports


    What is a watershed?

    Illustration showing contour of land directing flow of water

    Learn the basics of a watershed.

    Kelly Condiff, Cass County Environmental Services


    Julie Kingsley, Hubbard SWCD

    (218) 732-0121