Mississippi River - Headwaters

Watershed at a Glance

The Mississippi River - Headwaters watershed consists of 1,255,105 acres (1,961 square miles) in the far north part of the basin. The watershed contains the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in Itasca State Park. The watershed includes parts of Becker, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard and Itasca counties. Bemidji, which prides itself on being the “First City on the Mississippi,” is the largest city in the watershed. Other cities in the watershed include Cass Lake and Deer River. The Mississippi River — Headwaters watershed has approximately 685.05 river miles (NHDPlus - 1:100k source scale, flowline layer) and contains more than 1,000 lakes with a total acreage of 180,375.

Hydrologic Unit Code:07010101
Intensive monitoring start year:2013
Major lakesMajor rivers and streams
Lake Itasca, Ball Club, Cass, Deer, Lake Bemidji, Lake Winnibigoshish, Pokegama
Mississippi, Deer, Leech Lake River, Schoolcraft, Third, Turtle, Vermillion


The Mississippi River - Headwaters watershed is a largely forested watershed located in the Northern Lakes and Forest ecoregion of Minnesota. As the Mississippi River begins its 2,320-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, it runs north to north easterly through the watershed’s abundant forest resources and large riverine wetland areas. The forest resources are a vital component to the economy of the area and provide habitat for a variety of wildlife species.

Approximately 44% of the land in this watershed is privately owned, with the remaining portion of land state, county or federal public land, or held by tribal land owners. Agricultural land use within the watershed is moderate, accounting for approximately 10% of the available acres. 

Groundwater springs are present throughout much of the river channel throughout this watershed. These springs are especially common above Lake Bemidji where groundwater contributes approximately two-thirds of the Mississippi River’s flow in this section. This watershed is rich in surface water resources, including some of Minnesota’s most famous lakes and streams. Each year, thousands of anglers travel to this watershed in search of walleye and other game fish. 

Currently, the vast majority of the surface water resources within this watershed meet Minnesota’s surface water quality standards for conventional parameter pollutants (not including mercury). However, these resources continue to experience increased pressure from development and subsequent loss of shoreline and aquatic habitat. The threat of aquatic invasive species is also a primary concern for local partner groups, conservation groups, and the citizens within this watershed.

The major threats to the watershed include:

  • Loss of shoreline and aquatic habitat due to development. Many of the prime lakeshore properties have been developed with the focus of development turning toward more marginal shoreland and/or shoreland along smaller natural environmental water resources.
  • Increased sedimentation due to forest management practices.
  • 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

    Several lake associations/citizens throughout the watershed actively participate in water quality monitoring through the Citizen Lake Monitoring Program. Several important surface-water-quality diagnostic and implementation projects are ongoing or have been completed in this watershed. In 2013, the Itasca County SWCD completed a diagnostic study of Deer and Pokegama Lakes through the Clean Water Partnership grant program.

    Local partners and conservation groups within this watershed continue to be extremely active in obtaining comprehensive water quality monitoring and assessment data on the various water resources, while working with landowners on the implementation of best management practices (BMPs) throughout the watershed.  It is all part of their ongoing efforts to ensure that the high quality of these surface water resources is protected for future generations.

    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 and data

    Strategy reports

    What is a watershed?

    Illustration showing contour of land directing flow of water

    Learn the basics of a watershed.

    William Patnaude, Beltrami County Environmental Services


    (218) 333-4158
    Kelly Condiff, Cass County Environmental Services


    Julie Kingsley, Hubbard SWCD

    (218) 732-0121

    Noel Griese, Itasca SWCD



    James Owens, Headwaters Science Center


    Nathan Nordlund, Clearwater SWCD


    Tim Terrill,  Mississippi Headwaters Board


    Andrew Mack, Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board


    (218) 759-3579
    Jaime Thibodeaux, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources


    (218) 308-2621