Stories in Minnesota

Mississippi River Headwaters Area

Clean Water Starts Here

A beaver swims in Stump Bay on the upper Mississippi River.
Mississippi Headwaters Beaver swims in Stump Bay on the Mississippi River near Brainerd, MN. The Mississippi River is a conservation priority due to its significance for fish and wildlife and its importance to the economy of Minnesota and the United States. © Richard Hamilton Smith
Map of Minnesota showing the Mississippi River headwaters.
Mississippi River headwaters Map of Minnesota showing the headwaters. © The Nature Conservancy

This page was updated on January 5, 2021.

When we turn the faucet on and enjoy a cool drink of clean water, our woods and waters may not be the first thing we think about. But they should be.

The Mississippi River’s headwaters area, which encompasses about one-quarter of the state, is more than merely where the Mississippi River gets its start.

It's a dynamic and diverse landscape, providing food and habitat for hundreds of species, drinking water for millions of people and recreational enjoyment for countless others.

The Mississippi River is a global destination and backyard treasure that is worthy of our care and protection.

Protected Lands Protect Water The Mississippi River is a point of pride and a source of inspiration, sustenance and enjoyment for millions of Minnesotans. It’s also facing a number of threats which could seriously impact its water quality.

Our Mighty Mississippi

  • A variety of mussels recovered by field researchers with the Minnesota Division of Natural Resources (DNR).


    The river and the land surrounding the rivers and streams that flow into it support more than 350 species of mammals, birds and other wildlife, including most of the listed species in Minnesota.

  • Baltimore oriole in flight.

    Migratory Flyway

    The Mississippi River is a vital migration corridor for nearly half of North America’s bird species and about 40 percent of its ducks and other waterfowl.

  • Girl drinking water from a fountain.

    Drinking Water

    In all, the Mississippi River and its almost 13-million-acre headwaters area provide drinking water for 2.5 million Minnesotans—more than 44 percent of the state’s residents.

Protecting Land for Water's Sake

Sandy soils overlain with forest and interspersed with wetlands in the headwaters area replenish groundwater—a critical source of drinking water for local communities that is intimately connected to the area’s lakes and rivers.

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

“What happens on the land determines whether or not we have clean water to drink, swim in and boat on, grow crops and provide adequate habitat for fish and wildlife. So, keeping the waters healthy by protecting the forested landscape around them is one of our most urgent priorities," says Shaw.

Despite what we know about their value, Minnesota is losing its forests, grasslands and wetlands at an alarming rate. Since 2008, we’ve lost nearly 600,000 acres of natural lands to farmland and development. That’s more than twice the size of Voyageurs National Park, or eight times the size of the Twin Cities.

We pay a price for this. 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 study by the Trust for Public Land.

Once land is converted, it is harder to conserve or repair lost or degraded water resources.

Assistant Chapter Director, Minnesota, North Dakota & South Dakota

Conserving forests before they are converted to urban or agricultural use has proven to dramatically reduce water degradation.

Sustainable Funding for Conservation

The good news? It’s not too late to protect the Mississippi River’s headwaters area.

Our scientists have identified 200,000 acres that are most critical for protecting the river’s clean water. But TNC cannot achieve this ambitious target alone.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Ammendment logo.

Putting conservation on the ground costs money, most of which is currently coming from Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. TNC 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 from entering key rivers and lakes.

The quality of life we enjoy in Minnesota is not possible without clean, abundant water. The Minnesota Headwaters Fund is a way for citizens, business and government to act now to protect our waters while they are still healthy, ensuring a bright future for us all.

Mississippi Headwaters: The Business Case for Conservation

Protecting the river's headwaters area now is a smart investment in Minnesota. If action is delayed, it may cost billions in remediation.