Scientific Studies of the River

River Watch

River Watch MHB members recognized the need for a means of measuring the health of the river system. A comprehensive river monitoring program provides a measurement over time of the quality of the water of the Mississippi Headwaters. Water quality fluctuates throughout the year, as the seasons change, and as use of the water body changes. Measurement of water quality must be conducted regularly, to record the normal fluctuations and to develop a baseline from which trends can be assumed.

In 1989, the Mississippi Headwaters Board proposed establishment of the Mississippi Headwaters River Watch, a community based river monitoring and protection program. Mississippi Headwaters River Watch is an ambient surface water quality monitoring and protection program, assessing the health of the Mississippi headwaters through nine indicators of chemical and physical tests and surveys of biological indicators of river health. This information will then be used by citizens and government to improve and protect water quality.

This program is modeled on concepts developed by River Watch Network, Montpelier, Vermont, which have been used successfully on a dozen rivers, from the Ottaquechee in Vermont to the Rio Grande in Texas. Other sources of inspiration for the Mississippi Headwaters River Watch are the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Citizens Lake Monitoring Program, the Izaak Walton League's Save Our Streams program, and citizen-based river protection programs in Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Establishment of the Mississippi Headwaters River Watch project is made possible with the generous support of the Charles K. Blandin Foundation, Grand Rapids. The foundation's support is its first major environmental affairs program. Blandin Foundation President Paul Olson described Mississippi Headwaters River Watch as "the first link on what we hope will be a far-reaching chain of programs to adopt the Mississippi River from its Headwaters to the Gulf."

The Mississippi Headwaters River Watch project produces credible water quality background information, acceptable for use by state and federal agencies. This information then can be used to establish a data base of water quality for the region. This data base can be used to identify water quality problems and to set water quality management goals.

Sampling stations will be established on the Mississippi River and its tributaries near the communities of Bagley, Bemidji, Blackduck, Deer River, Grand Rapids, Remer, McGregor, Aitkin, Crosby, Brainerd and Little Falls. Sampling will be conducted by volunteers from those areas, students at middle and high schools, or volunteers from community groups.

Sampling will be organized and conducted by trained personnel provided by the Mississippi Headwaters Board. Equipment and supplies will be provided by the Mississippi Headwaters Board. All lab and field methods will follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other standard procedures and a quality control program will be followed.

This monitoring plan provides the guidelines for the volunteer sampling program, including sampling site selection and descriptions, field and laboratory equipment requirement, sampling procedures, field and laboratory analysis methodology, reporting methods and quality assurance/quality control program (QA/QC). The inclusion of the QA/QC will assure the reliability and usability of the reported data.

  • Monitor water quality of the Mississippi River using chemical, physical and biological indicators of river health.
  • Establish a data base of water quality for the Mississippi Headwaters, indicating trends over seasons and over time.
  • Determine sources of nutrient input to the Mississippi Headwaters.
  • Determine impact of nutrients on the river's health, especially impact of individual on-site septic systems and municipal sewage treatment systems.
  • Determine the impact of land use practices on the river's health, from development to recreation.
  • Establish a water quality index for the Mississippi Headwaters that includes an indicator species of macroinvertebrates.
  • Report results to communities in a variety of forms, from news media to informational programs to decision making bodies.
  • Build a partnership of schools, community groups, businesses, state and local government committed to maintaining the waters of the Mississippi Headwaters as an "outstanding resource value" for Minnesota.
  • Use the data gathered by the monitoring program to design and carry out local projects to improve and maintain water quality.
  • Promote awareness and stewardship of the Mississippi Headwaters.

The parameters for measuring stream health are summarized below. This provides information about how the specific water quality indicators of the Mississippi Headwaters River Watch Project describe river health. This information is excerpted from Mark Mitchell and William Stapp's, "Field Manual for Water Quality Monitoring," (second edition) Dexter, MI: Thomson-Shore Printers: 1986.


Dissolved oxygen is an essential element for the maintenance of healthy lakes and rivers. Most aquatic plants and animals need a certain amount of oxygen dissolved in water for survival. Some aquatic organisms such as pike and trout require medium to high levels of dissolved oxygen to live. Waters of consistently high dissolved oxygen are usually considered healthy and stable aquatic ecosystems capable of supporting many different kinds of aquatic organisms. The atmosphere, algae and vascular aquatic plan ts are the sources of dissolved oxygen in lakes and rivers; the accumulation of organic wastes depletes dissolved oxygen.


Fecal coliform bacteria are derived from the feces of humans and other warm-blooded animals. These organisms enter rivers through direct discharge from mammals and birds; from agricultural and storm runoff containing mammal and bird wastes; and from sewage discharge. Even though fecal coliform bacteria are not pathogenic, they occur along with pathogenic organisms; therefore, their presence suggest the occurrence of disease-causing organisms. When fecal coliform counts are greater than 200 colonies/100 ml of water sample there is a greater chance that the disease-causing organisms are present. It is advised that water contact be avoided at this coliform level. Possible diseases and illnesses carried by such waters are typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, dysentery, swimmers itch, and ear infections.


The pH value of water, on a scale of 0 to 14, measures the concentration of hydrogen ions. Pure distilled water is considered neutral, with a pH reading of 7. Water is basic if the pH is greater than 7; water with pH of less than 7 is considered acid. For every one unit change in pH there is approximately a ten-fold change in how acidic or basic the sample is. Most valuable species, such as brook trout, are sensitive to changes in pH; immature stages of aquatic insects and immature fish are extremely sensitive to low pH values. Very acidic lakes and streams cause leaching of heavy metals into the water.


Carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand measures the amount of organic material in the water. Organic material is fed upon by aerobic bacteria which require oxygen. In this process, organic matter is broken down and oxidized. Protozoa prey upon the growing population of bacteria and also require oxygen. CBOD is a measure of the quantity of oxygen used by these microorganisms in the aerobic oxidation of organic matter.


Many of the physical, biological and chemical characteristics of surface water are dependent on temperature. Temperature affects the solubility of oxygen in water; the rate of photosynthesis by algae and larger aquatic plants; the metabolic rates of aquat ic organisms and the sensitivity of organisms to toxic wastes, parasites and diseases.


Conductivity measures the electrical conductants in the water. This is an indication of the quantity of dissolved inorganic acids, bases and salts in the water.


Total phosphorus includes organic phosphorus and inorganic phosphate. Organic phosphorus is a part of living plants and animals. It is attached to particulate organic matter composed of once-living plants and animals. Inorganic phosphates comprise the ion s of bonded to soil particles and phosphates present in laundry detergents. Phosphorus is an essential element for life; it is a plant nutrient needed for growth and a fundamental element in metabolic reactions of plants and animals. In northern Minnesota, phosphorus functions as a "growth-limiting" factor because it is usually p resent in very low concentrations. This scarcity of phosphorus is attributed to its relationship with organic matter and soil particles. Any unattached or "free" phosphorus, in the form of inorganic phosphates, is rapidly taken up by algae and larger aqua tic plants. Because algae only require small amounts of phosphorus to live, excess phosphors causes extensive algal growth called algal blooms. Algal blooms color the water a pea-soup green and are a classic symptom of cultural eutrophication. Sources of phosphorus are human wastes, animal wastes, industrial wastes, and human disturbance of the land and its vegetation.


Nitrate and nitrite are inorganic forms of nitrogen in the aquatic environment. Nitrate along with ammonia are the forms of nitrogen used by plants. Nitrates and nitrites are formed through the oxidation of ammonia by nitrifying bacteria, a process known as nitrification. In turn they are converted to other nitrogen forms by denitrification and plant uptake. Nitrogen, in its various forms is usually more abundant than phosphorus in the aquatic environment; therefore, nitrogen rarely limits plant growth as does phosphorus. Aquatic plants are not usually as sensitive to increases in ammonia and nitrate levels. Sources of nitrates are the atmosphere, inadequately treated wastewater from sewage treatment plants, agricultural runoff, storm drains, and poorly functioning septic systems.


Turbidity is the relative clarity of water. It is the result of suspended solids in the water that reduce the transmission of light. Suspended solids are varied, ranging from clay, silt and plankton to industrial wastes and sewage. When turbidity is high, water loses its ability to support a diversity of aquatic organisms. Oxygen levels decrease in turbid water as they become warmer as the result of heat absorption from the sunlight by the suspended particles and with decreased light penetration resulting in decreased photosynthesis. Suspended solids can clog fish gills, reduce growth rates and disease resistance, and prevent egg and larval development. Settled particles can accumulate and smother fish eggs and aquatic insects on the river bottom, suffocate newly-hatched insect larvae and make river bottom microhabitats unsuitable for mayfly nymphs, stonefly nymphs, caddisfly larvae and other aquatic insects.


Benthic macroinvertebrates are bottom dwelling organisms that live in, crawl on or attach themselves to the river bottom. These are visible with the naked eye. Macroinvertebrates are good indicators of river health because they are sensitive to pollution, they live in the water over a year, cannot easily escape pollution as a fish can, and can easily be collected.

A list of the School Systems with participation in the Project:

  • Bagley High School
  • Headwaters Science Center
  • Bemidji Blackduck High School
  • Cass Lake High School
  • Bug-o-Nay-Ge-Shig School
  • Walker-Hackensack-Akeley High School
  • Nevis Public Schools
  • Deer River High School
  • Grand Rapids High School
  • Itasca Community College
  • Hill City High School
  • McGregor High School
  • Aitkin High School
  • Crosby-Ironton High School
  • Central Lakes College
  • Pierz-Healy High School
  • Little Falls Community High School
  • Royalton High School