Report: Mississippi River’s St. Cloud watershed sees progress, ongoing threats

The Mississippi River as it flows through St. Cloud, pictured in 2017.
The Mississippi River as it flows through St. Cloud.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News | 2017

A new report finds a Mississippi River watershed northwest of the Twin Cities shows signs of improving water quality, but still faces challenges.

The Mississippi River-St. Cloud watershed northwest of the Twin Cities drains parts of seven counties, including fast-growing Wright and Sherburne.

About 40 percent of the land in the watershed is agricultural. There are also 374 lakes and more than 900 miles of rivers and streams.

“It’s a very dynamic watershed, and one that contains four of the fastest growing communities in the state of Minnesota either within or on the edge,” said Phil Votruba, watershed project manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The St. Cloud stretch of the Mississippi River is designated as wild and scenic and is popular for recreation, including canoeing and fishing. St. Cloud is the most upstream city to draw its drinking water from the Mississippi.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency first monitored the watershed in 2009. A decade later, a second round of monitoring found some hopeful signs.

“It’s a watershed that we have really made good strides positively going forward from the previous cycle,” Votruba said. However, “we stepped back in a few areas as well,” he said.

Eight lakes and streams are no longer on the state’s list of impaired waters, and 17 lakes are showing positive trends, Votruba said. The overall health of fish and macroinvertebrates has improved.

But the watershed still faces threats, including the loss of shoreline buffers and habitat to development, and excess levels of phosphorus, sediment and bacteria due to runoff from farms and urban areas.

One of the biggest challenges, Votruba said, will be to manage growth and agriculture in the watershed to protect rivers, lakes and groundwater as much as possible.

The MPCA is accepting public comments on the report until June 12. A virtual public meeting is scheduled for 9-11 a.m. Thursday.

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