State study highlights river health in central MN

The waters of the Mississippi River meandering through the Brainerd lakes area are pristine and must stay that way, a new study from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency argues.

A hunter paddles his canoe to his favorite hunting spot on the Mississippi River below the Brainerd dam. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch file photo
A hunter paddles his canoe to his favorite hunting spot on the Mississippi River below the Brainerd dam. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch file photo

The waters of the Mississippi River meandering through the Brainerd lakes area are pristine and must stay that way, a new study from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency argues.

Data gathered from 200 sites over 10 years shows the river is in excellent shape from its birthplace in Itasca State Park to its juncture with St. Cloud, but water quality degrades on its way to the Twin Cities. It's at that point in the river's path the surroundings shift from wetlands and forests to cropland and cities, and the water no longer meets water quality standards for river life and recreation.

The study, the MPCA states in a news release, highlights the need to restore the degraded areas of the river and protect the areas in danger of the same fate. The Mississippi is a source of drinking water for millions of Minnesotans and Americans downstream.

"What we do on the land is reflected in the water," said John Linc Stine, MPCA commissioner, in the news release. "This study underscores that point. ... These areas face increasing threats like forest or other land conversions for agriculture and development. Whenever land goes from a stable and vegetated state without protections in place, water quality will go down. That's the lesson of history."

In monitoring the quality of a water body, the MPCA and its partners evaluate the levels of several characteristics, including nutrients, sediment, bacteria, toxins, dissolved oxygen, chloride, pH and ammonia. Also studied are communities of fish and macroinvertebrates, such as aquatic insects, and the flow of rivers and streams.


This study covered 510 miles of the river from Lake Itasca to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. The MPCA and partners conducted detailed monitoring of the upper Mississippi and the 20,105 square miles of major watersheds draining to it. These watersheds are areas of drainage to tributaries or the Mississippi.

The study found where the Crow River joins the Mississippi River near Dayton, the phosphorous and nitrate pollution doubles. Nitrate can make water unsafe for drinking and while levels are currently well below the threat level, water monitoring shows a trend of increasing nitrate levels, the study noted.

Todd Holman, Mississippi headwaters program director at the nonprofit conservation organization The Nature Conservancy, said the study is important in its recognition of conservation alongside restoration.

"The Brainerd area kind of gets overlooked by policy and funding. A lot of money has gone to impaired waters," Holman said. "The beauty of this study is that we called out that we can't really neglect the importance of keeping healthy water healthy."

"This area is very unique, because we have relatively high water quality for our lakes, but they're also pretty well developed," said Melissa Barrick, district manager of the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District.

Of Crow Wing County's 740,000 acres, 40 percent is covered by water bodies or wetlands and 38 percent is covered by forest, according to the county's water plan.

Barrick and Holman each outlined a number of initiatives to maintain that water quality, represented through numerous partnerships among governmental and nonprofit organizations.

"Many, many partners in the north central region are rolling out protection programs," Holman said.


The idea behind those programs is to preserve forested land, protecting it from development that ultimately leads to degradation of the water quality. According to studies, when land remains natural and forested, just 10 percent of stormwater enters water bodies as runoff. When an area is covered by 75-100 percent hard surfaces-such as parking lots, streets, houses or compacted soils-55 percent of stormwater runs off into water bodies. This is one of the major factors in carrying pollutants into water.

One of the programs is Reinvest in Minnesota of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, which focuses on conservation easements. These easements are agreements by landowners that permanently limit uses of the land for conservation purposes, in exchange for payment for a percentage of the value of the property. Funds supporting these transactions are provided through the legislative bonding process as well as the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund, which was designated through the 2008 Legacy Amendment.

The Crow Wing SWCD and the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation have each tapped those funds to work with landowners in land protection. The BWSR appropriated $2 million for a project to protect lands along the Pine River, one of the watersheds draining into the Mississippi River. Another initiative of the program targets wild rice resources in rivers and lakes.

"It's protecting that land for the future, so that if they die, or they pass that land to their kids, someone can't come and subdivide it and put a bunch of houses on it," Barrick said.

Another agency using conservation easements in its protection arsenal is the Mississippi Headwaters Board, a joint powers board consisting of representatives from eight central Minnesota counties. The MHB is engaged in what it's calling the "Move the Needle Toward Protection Campaign," funded by a $3.1 million grant from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund. The campaign is intended to increase environmental protection and water quality within the first 400 miles of the Mississippi River through land acquisition and conservation easements.

The MHB works with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to identify parcels that are good candidates for the program. The parcels are ranked based on the biggest impact on conserving the river and funding is distributed based upon these rankings.

Another method for land conservation is the Sustainable Forest Incentive Act. Although not as permanent as conservation easements, the program offers incentive payments to encourage sustainable forest use. Landowners are guided through the process of developing a forest management plan and agree to enrolling in the program for at least eight years, and in turn can receive up to $7 an acre of qualifying land.

Another way agencies are curbing development is through a partnership between the Nature Conservancy and Camp Ripley, the main training site for the Minnesota National Guard. The size and location of the 53,000-acre camp makes it a great candidate for conservation efforts, Holman said.


"Thanks to its long-standing, award-winning environmental research, management and education programs, Camp Ripley provides excellent habitat for many unique plants and animals, including red-shouldered hawks, hooded warblers, Blanding's turtles and black bears," the Nature Conservancy website states.

The Army Compatible Use Buffer Program will create a 3-mile permanent buffer area around the camp.

"One important message is that everybody has a stake in water quality," Holman said. "We all share the water resources, so we all have an interest in protecting it long term."

Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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