Shell Rock River

Watershed at a Glance

The Shell Rock River begins at Albert Lea Lake in Freeborn County in south-central Minnesota, a few miles from the Iowa border. It flows 113 miles into Iowa, where it enters the Cedar River. The Cedar winds its way to the Iowa River, a tributary to the Mississippi River. In Minnesota, the Shell Rock drains 246 square miles (160,000 acres), all in Freeborn County.

Several lakes dot the landscape, the main ones being  Fountain Lake in Albert Lea, which is used extensively for recreation, and Albert Lea Lake, which is bordered by Myre-Big Island State Park, housing developments, and farmland.

Hydrologic Unit Code:07080202
Intensive monitoring start year:2009
Major lakesMajor rivers and streams
Albert Lea, Fountain, White, Pickerel, Lower Twin, Upper Twin, Sugar, Halls, School Section, Mud
Peter Lund Creek, Bancroft Creek, Wedge Creek, Shell Rock River


Once prairie and wetland, this area is now mostly cropland and heavily drained with tile and ditch systems. Agricultural in the watershed is dominated by corn and soybean row crops.

The Shell Rock River is affected by the high levels of algae from its headwaters, Albert Lea Lake. These algae reduce the clarity of the water and can combine with mineral soil particles to negatively affect fish and aquatic insects. There is also a problem with low dissolved oxygen in the Minnesota section of the river, which will be the focus of additional water monitoring and investigation activities. 

Pickerel, Fountain, and Albert Lea lakes have excessive levels of nutrients, mainly phosphorus that fuels algal blooms. This chain of lakes in the center of the watershed is popular for fishing, boating, and other recreation.

Albert Lea Lake, a 2,600-acre shallow lake that is popular for fishing, bird-watching, canoeing and pontooning, draws thousands of waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Eagles nest year-round on the east end of the lake.

    What's being done

    The Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District is coordinating a water pollution study of the entire Cedar River Basin with the Shell Rock River, Cedar River, and Turtle Creek watershed districts. This Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) project will determine the levels of pollutants that the water bodies can accept and still meet water quality standards; the sources of those pollutants; and ways to reduce the levels of pollutants.

    The MPCA conducted biological monitoring of the Shell Rock and its tributaries in 2009, intensely studying the fish and aquatic bugs found there. The agency recently published a report identifying stressors to fish and other aquatic life in the watershed (see below).

    Monitoring and assessment reports and data

    What is a watershed?

    Illustration showing contour of land directing flow of water

    Learn the basics of a watershed.

    Shell Rock River Watershed District


    Andy Henschel, Shell Rock River Watershed District

    Freeborn County Environmental Services


    Richard Hoffman, Freeborn County Environmental Services