St. Croix River Watershed

The St. Croix, one of America’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers, lures canoers, boaters, anglers and people who simply love magnificent, untamed rivers to its shores for adventure, solitude and some of the most beautiful scenery in the nation.

I have never met a river that has so many personal connections for people,” said Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association. “From California to Washington D.C., everyone has a story about the river, whether they spent summer vacations in the area as a child or recently canoed the river for the first time.”

The St. Croix River has a long human history, from the early Native American and fur trading days to the logging boom and then the tourism heyday. It is also rich in plant and animal life, including many rare species of freshwater mussels, whose populations are declining precipitously in other parts of the world.

The river and its watershed, which encompasses more than 7,700 square miles in Minnesota and Wisconsin, is a conservation priority for The Nature Conservancy. We are working with partners to help safeguard clean drinking water and habitat for native fish and mussels, sustain and enhance recreation opportunities and jobs, keep forests healthy and well-managed, and provide a refuge for wildlife today and in the future.

Despite Land Use Changes, River is Healthy

The St. Croix River starts its journey in Upper St. Croix Lake in northwest Wisconsin, but is shared for most of its length by Minnesota and Wisconsin, demarcating the border between the two states. All 252 miles of the St. Croix and the Namekagon, a major tributary stream, were designated a Wild and Scenic River in three separate segments between 1968 and 1976.

Since settlement in the 1800s, the St. Croix basin has experienced significant land use changes. The upper portion of the basin is still largely forested, which helps absorb water and reduce pollutant runoff into the river. But residential development continues apace on forest lands and along lake and river shorelines.

Much of the southern half of the basin has been converted to agriculture. Recreational and development pressures are also increasing due to the riverway’s proximity to Minneapolis/St. Paul and regional population growth in both states.

Nonetheless, said Ryun, “The St. Croix still has that wild, unspoiled feel that people love and remember from their youth, and I think that’s why they keep coming back.”

“Despite the changes in the basin,” said Michael Pressman, Nature Conservancy director of protection, “the St. Croix is one of the highest quality rivers remaining in the upper Midwest, and we want to keep it that way.”

A History of Conservation

There’s a long history of people caring about the St. Croix River and working to conserve it.

Ryun’s group, the St. Croix River Association (SCRA), is a citizen-based organization formed in 1911, which advocates for conservation throughout the watershed. They are active today securing funding for land protection and nutrient reduction efforts, and connecting people to the river through paddling trips, river clean-ups and other volunteer events.

Agencies like the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (S&WCD) have worked with landowners for many years to reduce sediment and nutrients in the Kettle River, a tributary to the St. Croix. Along with seven other counties, they are also using conservation easements to protect shoreline on wild rice lakes in the Mississippi River Headwaters area, reducing the disturbance to wild rice and protecting water quality.

“We are excited about this easement program in the Headwaters area and our recent conversations with the Soil and Water Conservation District to build on these efforts in the St. Croix,” said Pressman. “Strategically-placed conservation easements give landowners incentives to protect important habitat and water quality, while preventing flooding and other impacts sometimes associated with development.”

Accelerating Conservation on the St. Croix

“There is so much good work happening on the St. Croix right now,” said Pressman. “We think the science, planning and conservation expertise The Nature Conservancy has developed in our 55 years of conserving Minnesota’s lands and waters will augment these efforts and, hopefully, help accelerate conservation of the St. Croix.”

We’re collaborating with experts to conserve the more than 40 species of native mussels in the St. Croix and its tributary streams. While the mussels are doing fairly well in the St. Croix compared to other places, some are declining, and more research is needed to determine why. We are working with experts and partners to develop and help implement an action plan designed to identify, protect and restore key stream reaches critical for mussel health.  

“The St. Croix River represents one of the last, best refuges for many mussel species,” said Kristen Blann, Conservancy freshwater ecologist. “Because of their unique life history and sensitivity to water pollution and habitat changes, mussels are the ultimate barometer of watershed health. If mussels are doing well, it is a good sign the river is also doing well.”

The Conservancy is providing scientific expertise to several planning efforts, including one in the Snake River basin, which will identify and prioritize the most important places to protect and restore in Minnesota to improve the health of the waters in the St. Croix basin. We’re also serving as advisors to an SCRA and Minnesota Forest Resources Council project, funded by the U.S. Forest Service, which links healthy forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin to clean water in rivers and lakes in the basin.

“Knowing the best places to work on the land to help protect the St. Croix is critical if we want to ensure that public and private dollars are used where they have the biggest impact on water quality and the overall health of the system,” said Pressman.

“The St. Croix is an iconic river in the hearts and minds of people in Minnesota, Wisconsin and across the country,” Pressman added. “It’s still relatively healthy, and if we all work together, we can keep it that way.”


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