The Threat

Water quality in the Mississippi River’s headwaters area is degrading at an alarming rate

Aerial view of the Mississippi River in north central Minnesota
Aerial view of the Mississippi River in north central Minnesota
Image Credit
© Mark Godfrey

Our Lands Are Changing Fast

Originating as a small and pristine stream flowing out of Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River begins its journey in north central Minnesota. Before European settlers arrived, the region was covered with big, old-growth trees like those you can still see at Itasca State Park. In recent years, however, more and more of our forests and grasslands land have been converted to urban and agricultural uses. The result is increasingly worsening water quality in our lakes, rivers and streams.

Why Are We Losing Ground?

Timber harvest on a snowy landscape
Image Credit
© Layne Kennedy

Loss of Forests and Wetlands

Forests, grasslands and wetlands protect water quality in our rivers, streams and lakes by filtering out pollutants including nutrients and sediment. How we use our lands impacts the health of our waters.

Sunshine beaming through cornstalks
Image Credit
© Erich Schlegel

Rapid Agricultural Expansion

As our population grows, farmers have rushed to meet increasing demand. But due to rapid land-use changes, nutrients and sediment from intensive row crop production degrade water quality.  

Aerial shot of a long parking lot
Image Credit
© Felix Mizioznikov, Shutterstock

Unsustainable Development

More people are choosing to put down roots in Minnesota, which is a great thing for local economies. However, with this growth, the Mississippi River faces increasing threats from runoff in developed areas.

Street sign emerging from floodwaters
Image Credit
© David Y. Lee

Intensifying Climate Conditions

As our changing climate brings more extreme weather events to Minnesota, the threats to our water become greater. Increased precipitation means larger and more frequent floods, and more pollutants washing into our waters.

Aerial photo of a small stream running through agricultural lands
Aerial photo of a small stream running through agricultural lands
Image Credit
© John Gregor / ColdSnap Photography

Natural Lands Are Disappearing

Since 2010, we’ve lost about 600,000 acres of natural land—an area nearly the size of Crow Wing County—to conversion and development. Our forests, wetlands and grasslands —which keep our lakes, rivers and groundwater clean— continue to be converted. We have a very small window of time, less than 10 years, to protect and restore key lands in the Mississippi River’s headwaters area and secure drinking water for more than 2.5 million people.

Zumbro River Bottoms
Zumbro River Bottoms
Image Credit
© John Gregor / ColdSnap Photography

More Than Half of Our Waters Are Impaired

The threats facing our Mississippi are the same threats that have degraded the Minnesota River, along with many other waters across southern Minnesota where it is unsafe to swim or eat the fish. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency now lists more than 56% of Minnesota’s waters as impaired. If we fail to act, more waters will likely end up on that list. We still have time to make a different choice for our Mississippi.

Here's What We’re Risking

Drinking Water

Safe Drinking Water for 2.5 Mil

More than 44% of Minnesotans rely on surface waters and groundwater in the headwaters area as their primary source of drinking water. If we allow our waters to degrade further, we’re risking the health of our families, neighbors and friends.

Tourism Revenue

A $16 Billion Industry

More than 160,000 Minnesotans rely on healthy waters in the Mississippi’s headwaters for their livelihood. Our state reels in about $1.8 billion per year from fishing.

Flood Control

Protects Against Property Damage

By converting forests, wetlands and grasslands, we lose the natural flood control benefits they provide, increasing the amount of water flowing in our rivers and exacerbating flooding.


350+ Species of Fish & Wildlife

Fish and wildlife are a huge part of what makes Minnesota special. This area is home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds and other wildlife, including most of our state’s endangered, threatened and rare species.

Air Quality

Nature Filters Our Air

Keeping natural lands intact isn’t just good for water, it’s good for our lungs. By protecting natural areas, we help protect public health and reduce costly medical expenses caused by respiratory illnesses from air pollution.

Trapping Carbon

Keeping It in the Ground

Forests and grasslands capture and store carbon. Preserving and restoring lands forests,  is a natural solution that can help us  reduce emissions and meet our global climate targets.

Leaves floating in the Rum River
Leaves floating in the Rum River
Image Credit
© Richard Hamilton Smith

What Happens If We Do Nothing?

We’ve seen what happens if we fail to protect our water: closed beaches at our favorite lakes, fish that are no longer safe to eat and new expensive treatment plants just to have safe drinking water. It doesn’t have to be this way. But we need to act now.

It matters more than ever that we protect and restore key lands across the headwaters area. By investing now in nature’s benefits, we can ensure clean water for ourselves and future generations—and save Minnesotans a boatload in avoided costs down the road.


The Cost of ‘Business As Usual’

$61 Million

New Water Treatment Costs

If we fail to protect our waters now, we will pay for it, literally. While upgrading water treatment infrastructure remains an important priority, protecting water while it’s still clean costs less and provides more benefits.

$32 Million

Lost Property Values

There are about 90,000 lakefront homes in the Mississippi’s headwaters area, which depend on clean waters to retain their value. If those waters become degraded, Minnesotans can expect to lose tens of millions in property values.

$29 Million

Flood-Related Damages

As climate change increases the frequency and impact of rainfall events, we can expect flood-related damages to increase. Protecting natural lands is critical as flooding becomes Minnesota’s most common —and most costly— type of natural disaster.

$8 Million

Lost Jobs and Revenues

We host visitors from all over who come to enjoy our famously clean waters. If we fail to protect our waters, we’ll be risking about $8 million in tourism revenue and thousands of jobs that Minnesotans depend on.

$243 Million

Lost Carbon Mitigation

Protecting forests and wetlands keeps carbon out of the atmosphere. By allowing critical lands to become converted to other uses, we can expect to lose carbon sequestration benefits that we’re currently enjoying for free.

$116 Million

Public Health Costs

The natural lands that filter our air and water have a direct link to Minnesota’s ranking as one of the healthiest states in the nation. Losing these lands puts our health at risk, which could cost us millions more.


Raise Your Voice For Our Mississippi