Mississippi River near Brainerd, Minnesota.
Mississippi River. Aerial view of the Mississippi River, related lakes, forests and wetlands to the northeast of the Crow Wing County Airport and Brainerd, Minnesota. © Mark Godfrey/TNC

Stories in Minnesota

Mississippi River Headwaters

We’re helping protect Minnesota’s Headwaters.

When we turn the faucet on in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud and enjoy a cool drink of clean water, north central Minnesota’s woods and waters may not be the first thing we think about. But perhaps they should be.

This landscape, which encompasses about one-quarter of the state, is where the Mississippi River gets its start. The Crow Wing, Pine, Sauk, Rum and other rivers join the small stream coming from Itasca State Park to form the mighty Mississippi, the source of drinking water for more than 1 million residents in Minnesota.

The sandy soils overlain with forest and interspersed with wetlands in this Mississippi River Headwaters Area also replenish the ground water, which provides drinking water to local communities and is intimately connected to the area’s lakes and rivers.

“Forests are nature’s own water purification system,” said Doug Shaw, Nature Conservancy assistant state director. “They slow runoff, absorb pollutants and trap sediment to keep our lakes, rivers and groundwater clean.

Protecting Land for Water's Sake

The Nature Conservancy has been protecting forests and water quality in the Headwaters Area for more than a decade; in that time, we’ve helped conserve more than 150,000 acres.

Our goal is a healthy, resilient system that provides clean drinking water, well-managed forests, wildlife habitat and world-class recreation opportunities while supporting a vibrant local economy.

“What happens on the land in the Headwaters Area determines whether we have enough clean water to drink, swim in and boat on, grow crops and provide adequate habitat for fish and wildlife,” said Shaw, who helps oversee the Conservancy’s freshwater work in Minnesota. “So keeping the waters healthy and protecting the forested landscape around them should be a priority for all of us and is a major focus of The Nature Conservancy.”

Changing Land Use Affects Our Waters

Today, however, economic forces, including increasing demand for corn and soybeans, are driving changes in land use in the Headwaters Area. As a result, we are losing forest, grassland and wetland habitat and the many benefits they provide, including clean water.

Between 2008 and 2013, more than 260,000 acres of forest, wetland and grassland were converted to agriculture, with the largest proportion of this occurring in critical water supply source areas.

Land conversion has consequences. In the Crow Wing River in central Minnesota, for example, a recent study showed that even modest changes in land use can have profound effects on the amount of contaminants in the water that must be treated. In the study, a 4.5 percent increase in the acreage of agricultural lands could increase nitrate levels in the river up to 19 percent.

We pay a price for that pollution. For every 10 percent decrease in forest cover in the source area, the cost of water treatment for communities increases by 20 percent, according to a 2008 study by the Trust for Public Lands.

“Once land is converted, it is harder to conserve or repair lost or degraded water resources,” Shaw said. “Conserving forests before they are converted to urban or agricultural use has proven to dramatically reduce water degradation in places like New York City.”

Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment
Minnesota Legacy Logo Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment © 2014 Legislative Coordinating Commission
Sustainable Funding for Conservation

Putting conservation on the ground costs money, whether it’s purchasing conservation easements to protect shoreline along lakes and rivers or forests and wetlands that absorb water and slow runoff.

Minnesota's Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, particularly the Outdoor Heritage Fund, is supporting conservation projects in the Headwaters Area. The Conservancy favors investing more of the amendment’s Clean Water Fund money in the region to keep healthy waters healthy.

But there is also a role for private funding. That’s why we created the Minnesota Headwaters Fund, which is gathering investments from companies, foundations and individuals to conserve key lands that filter and regulate water supply.

The fund will support conservation work in targeted watersheds in the Upper Mississippi River basin in Minnesota, including easements, stream bank and floodplain restoration, and other projects that prevent pollutants such as nitrates and sediment from entering key rivers and lakes.

“A water fund designed to attract investors with a stake in keeping our lakes, rivers and water supply clean by investing in protecting our forests, grasslands and wetlands will help accelerate conservation in the Headwaters Area,” Shaw said.

“The quality of life we enjoy in Minnesota is not possible without clean, abundant water,” said Peggy Ladner, director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota. “The Minnesota Headwaters Fund is a way for citizens, business and government to take action now to protect our waters while they are still healthy, ensuring a bright future for us all.”

Clean Water Starts Here

Are you in?

Find out more about The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect Minnesota’s Headwaters and what you can do to help.