Rainy River - Headwaters

Watershed at a Glance

The Rainy River - Headwaters watershed covers 1,890,689 acres. 3,531 lakes represent 267,654 of the watershed’s acreage and wetlands represent another 362,218 acres. The watershed starts in northern Cook and Lake Counties and flows west and northwesterly into St. Louis County and the Canadian border waters and Basswood Lake and the Rainy River. There are no large cities in this remote watershed. The total watershed population is 6,784 (fewer than three people per square mile). Ely (population 3,841) is the largest city within the watershed borders, and nearby Winton has just 158 residents.

Hydrologic Unit Code:09030001
Intensive monitoring start year:2014
Major lakesMajor rivers and streams
Burntside, Insula, Big, White Iron, Shagawa, Bear Island, Basswood, Snowbank, Sea Gull, Ash, Black Duck, Gunflint
Rainy, Isabella, South Kawishiwi, Little Isabella, Kawishiwi, Ash, Stony, Cross


This watershed’s upper two thirds is in the Border Lakes ecological sub-region and the lower third is in the Laurentian Uplands. The majority of this watershed is within the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and Voyageurs National Park. This area features boreal forest on shallow soils over bedrock. The BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park are roadless, undeveloped country that is interconnected with lakes and rivers. No motors are allowed in the BWCAW which makes it uniquely suited to canoe and kayak travel with portages and some long hiking trails.

Wilderness recreation and national park tourism are the prime economic drivers due to the scenic beauty, camping, and fishing opportunities. The Superior National Forest is also part of this watershed. Federal lands make up over 90% of this watershed.

Logging occurs outside the BWCAW and the national park. Some mining activity has occurred in the southern area. Additional lands are currently being explored for mining.

What's being done

Since 2005, the MPCA began working with volunteers from the White Iron Chain of Lakes Association (WICOLA) to monitor four of the lakes in the Kawishiwi River system using the protocols of the Clean Lakes Monitoring Program Plus. 

In 2010, WICOLA applied for a state Clean Water Legacy Act grant with Lake County serving as the fiscal agent. They were awarded a $225,000 grant and another Clean Water Partnership grant for $174,500 in early 2011. These grants have expanded water quality monitoring through more of the watershed. This research and monitoring for water quality, invasive species, failing septic systems, and sensitive areas, has provided information for outreach to partners and citizens, and ultimately produced a watershed management plan for the Kawishiwi portion of the Rainy River Headwaters.

In 2014, the state’s intensive watershed monitoring 10-year cycle began in this watershed. The MPCA and its partners will be monitoring dozens of lakes and streams to assess water quality for two years. That data will be assessed to determine whether these waters are meeting water quality standards. Protection or restoration strategies will be developed as appropriate. Implementation begins with the Board of Water and Soil Resources and their local partners. At the end of the 10-year cycle, the process starts over to see what has changed.

Monitoring and assessment reports and data

PDF icon Rainy River-Headwaters Watershed Monitoring and Assessment Report (wq-ws3-09030001b)

PDF icon Rainy River-Headwaters Watershed Monitoring and Assessment - Summary (wq-ws3-09030001c)

What is a watershed?

Illustration showing contour of land directing flow of water

Learn the basics of a watershed.

WICOLA (White Iron Chain of Lakes Association)

P.O. Box 493
Ely, MN 55731