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Water Quality Monitoring

What Watershed am I in?

The EPA has a great way to view which watershed you’re located in through their “WATERS” GeoViewer . More information about this program is available on the EPA’s website:

Lake County’s GIS Parcel Viewer  contains information about the watershed in which you are located based on the centroid of your parcel. Search your name or parcel number and click on the parcel in question. A pop-up should show up depicting information about the property. Major and minor watershed numbers and names are located in the bottom of the pop-up.  

What Is a Watershed?

A watershed is an area of land draining all streams and rainfall to a common outlet. Watersheds can occur at multiple scales. In Lake County, we are in two major drainage areas within the United States – the Great Lakes Basin (04) and the Souris-Red-Rainy Basin (09). With the Laurentian Divide running through Lake County, this means water either flows north to Hudson Bay, or south to Lake Superior.

What Is a HUC, and Why Does It Matter?

Watersheds are often described by number using a “Hydrologic Unit Code” or HUC. The United States Geologic Survey (USGS) sub-divides the U.S. into these hydrologic units to better map, track, and understand how water is connected. The more numbers a HUC has, the smaller the watershed. For instance, Two Harbors, the County seat, is located in the Great Lakes Major Drainage Area (2-Digit HUC-04), in Western Lake Superior Basin (4-Digit HUC-0401), in the Northwestern Lake Superior Basin Area (6-Digit HUC-040101), in the Lake Superior South Major Watershed (8-Digit HUC 04010102), in the Knife River Sub-Watershed (10-Digit HUC-0401010203) in the Skunk Creek Minor Watershed (14-Digit HUC-04010102-528). There are smaller HUC catchments within Skunk Creek!Lake County has five major HUC-8 Watersheds:

  • Lake Superior South
  • Lake Superior North
  • Rainy River Headwaters
  • Cloquet River (which drains into the St. Louis but is a separate HUC-8)
  • St. Louis River

Where Can I Get More Information About Watershed Health?

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has created a virtual map to explore watershed conditions statewide! Check out the Watershed Health Assessment Framework (WHAF) .

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) also has information available on watershed health through comprehensive watershed monitoring with “Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies” (WRAPS) .

What Are “Impaired” Waters?

“Impaired” waters are so called because they do not meet established state standards for water quality. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) provides a summary and list of water bodies qualifying for impairment, as the MPCA is charged under both federal and state law with the responsibility of protecting the water quality of Minnesota’s water resources. MPCA’s authority is tied to the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act which requires states adopt water quality standards to protect their water resources and the designated uses of those waters, such as for drinking water, recreation, fish consumption and aquatic life. If standards are not met and a water body is impaired, states must make appropriate plans to restore those impaired waters. 56% of waters in the State of Minnesota are listed as impaired (MPCA, 2019).

Impaired Waters Information from MPCA

MPCA Impaired Waters Viewer (Map)

What Is a TMDL?

A TMDL, or Total Maximum Daily Load, is a comprehensive study determining the assimilative capacity of a waterbody, identifying all pollution sources causing or contributing to impairment, and an estimation of the reductions needed to restore a waterbody so that it can once again support its designated use. TMDLs are required by state and federal standards to be developed when a waterbody is listed as impaired – in other words, these documents are plans to fix impaired waters.

The term TMDL comes from the calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed to enter a waterbody so that the waterbody will meet and continue to meet water quality standards for that particular pollutant, meaning TMDLs focus on a target pollution reduction number for a specific load. The standard load for Total Suspended Solids (TSS), or sediment, is ≤10mg/L statewide for classification 2A Aquatic Recreation, and exceedances of that load need to occur ≤10% of the time. If exceedances of 10mg/L occur more than 10% of the time, a water body may be listed as impaired, meaning a TMDL would be required. A TMDL would include a calculation of the mg/L load reduction required to bring a waterbody back into compliance with the state standard and the TMDL would outline projects to potentially reach that goal.

The MPCA develops TMDLs with partners and has more resources on their website . TMDLs are approved by the EPA.

Are There Any TMDLs in Lake County?

An updated list of impaired waters can be found through the EPA’s 303(d) site available here: and more information about the process at the MPCA’s Impaired Waters List . List of TMDLs in Lake County:Statewide Mercury TMDL

  • 998 lakes (including Lake Superior) and 178 stream segments are impaired for mercury and nothing else across the state (MPCA, 2019)
  • The Baptism (2016), Beaver (1998), and Knife (1998) Rivers are listed for Aquatic Consumption use designation: mercury in water column
  • 85 total AUIDs/Lakes are listed for Aquatic Consumption use designation: mercury in fish tissue 
  • Lax, Nicado, and Tetagouche lakes have Aquatic Consumption use designation impairments for mercury in fish tissue which exceed state standards

Knife River TMDL – Turbidity (2011)

  • Knife River for Aquatic Life use designation: Turbidity (1998); Knife River was delisted for Aquatic Life use designation: pH in 2014

Lake Superior Beaches TMDL – Recreation (2021 completion anticipated)

  •  Agate Bay Beach (2016) and Burlington Bay Beach (2014) are listed for Aquatic Recreation use designation: Escherichia coli

Lake Superior South Watershed TMDL Report (2019)

  • Beaver River (Headwaters and West Branch) – for Aquatic Life use designation: TSS (or Total Suspended Solids)/Turbidity (1996), fish bioassessments (2014), benthic macroinvertebrates bioassessments (2014), and pH (2002) stressors
  • Little Knife River – for Aquatic Life use designation: TSS/Turbidity and dissolved oxygen stressor (2008)
  • Skunk Creek – for Aquatic Life use designation: TSS/Turbidity (2010); for Aquatic Recreation use designation: E.coli (2014)

Rainy River Headwaters – Impaired, TMDL not required (category 4D)

  • Filson Creek – for Aquatic Life use designation: Aluminum and Copper (2018)
  • Kawishiwi River – for Aquatic Life use designation: Aluminum (2018)
  • Unnamed Creek AUID 09030001-983 – for Aquatic Life: Aluminum (2018)

Lake Superior and Ojibway Lake are listed for Aquatic Consumption use designation: PCBs in fish tissue (1998)

E. coli Monitoring in Two Harbors

Lake County Soil & Water Conservation District, with funding from NOAA and the Lake Superior Coastal Program, has been working together with the Natural Resources Research Institute to identify sources of E. coli contamination in Burlington and Agate Bay and in Skunk Creek via DNA analysis.

I’m Concerned About Lake Superior Coastal Erosion – Where Can I Find More Information?

Coastal erosion along Lake Superior’s “North Shore” has increased in recent years due in part to high lake levels. Lake Superior water levels have been in a “high” period since about 2012, setting a record high in October of 2019. More information on lake levels can be found through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit Office . With higher water levels, come increased “wave runup” up the cliffs and clay banks of Lake County’s Lake Superior shoreline, also leading to increased erosion.

Curious as to how storms impact coastal shoreline? Check out these graphics depicting “Sallenger’s Storm Impact Regimes.”

Lake County has special regulations for building along Lake Superior, called “Erosion Hazard Areas,” where setbacks are 125 feet. For more information on Lake Superior property zoning, visit Lake County Planning and Zoning (Environmental Services). The North Shore Management Board is the zoning authority for Lake Superior.

Lake SWCD is happy to assist with a site visit to your property if you are facing issues related to Coastal Erosion. Please contact our office and a conservation technician can schedule a time to meet with you. We do not currently have cost-share financial assistance available for large-scale revetment (or engineering/rip-rap) projects, but may be able to help with low impact design (natural vegetation), technical assistance, or refer you to more information. 

The Minnesota Lake Superior Coastal Program, NOAA, and Minnesota SeaGrant are working to develop more resources and a “community of practice” around Lake Superior coastal hazards. Lake Superior North One Watershed, One Plan helped start a Coastal Erosion Hazard Mapping Project in 2018 which is in its second phase.

Living on the Coast from Wisconsin Sea Grant and the USACE is an excellent resource if you plan to buy or currently own coastal property. Stop in at our office for a print copy!

Water Plan

County Water Planning began in 1985 with the enactment of the Comprehensive Local Water Management Act . County Water Plans cover the entire area within a County, address water problems in the context of watershed units and groundwater systems, and are based on sound hydrologic management of water. Current Local Water Plans allow Counties and SWCDs to be eligible for Natural Resource Block Grants , which facilitate shoreland and wetland regulation and outreach in the County.

Lake County has implemented a number of different programs since the first Local Water Management Plan was adopted in 2005:

  • Natural Resources Field Day – serving all 6th graders in Lake County annually for over 25 years
  • Hosting and Facilitating the Area III Envirothon Competition for high school students
  • Water Plan display at the Lake County Fair (annual)
  • Waste Water Treatment secondary classroom presentations
  • Administering Non-Point Pollution Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO) and “View from the Lake” Boat Tours with MN Sea Grant
  • Assisting with creation of the Lake County Demonstration Forest 
  • Developing and distributing the Property Owner’s Resource Guide
  • Other activities 

 The 2005 Lake County Local Water Management Plan was due for an update in 2015 as a ten-year plan. The Plan was amended in 2010 at the 5-year mark and approved by BWSR. An update began in 2013 and a Priority Concerns Scoping Document was created in 2014 (valid until 2024), completing Phase 2 of a Water Plan Update. The Lake County Water Plan is currently extended to allow for transition to comprehensive watershed-based planning for Lake County.The current Lake County Water Plan (linked below) outlines 6 High Priority Watersheds:

  1. Beaver River
  2. Kawishiwi River
  3. Knife River
  4. Skunk Creek
  5. Stewart River
  6. Lake Superior