State of the Boundary Waters: Precious Water


In the coming century, no resource will be as valuable as clean water. The 2,000 lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, with their abundant clean water and critical aquatic habitat, become more precious every year.

However, as the climate warms and changes, precipitation patterns and other parts of the water cycle are shifting. The lakes of the Boundary Waters are becoming more endangered as extractive and polluting industries target the region.

Current Water Conditions

Ninety-two percent of lakes in northeastern Minnesota meet water quality standards for aquatic recreation — suitable

Excerpt from State of the Boundary Waters Report. Click here to read the entire thing!

for fishing and swimming. The high number of healthy waters is largely due to the region’s abundant wetlands and forest, which slow and filter runoff and erosion.

The waters of the BWCAW are some of the cleanest and most beloved in the nation. Every lake, stream, and wetland in the wilderness is designated by the state of Minnesota as “Outstanding Resource Value Waters.”

In one study of Boundary Waters lakes which used satellite imagery and analysis to estimate water clarity, 100 percent were found to fully support recreation like swimming. The sub-watersheds of the Kawishiwi River located entirely or mostly within the wilderness are all “excellent, relatively stable, and reflective of natural watershed conditions.”

Most of the lakes in the BWCAW have low or intermediate levels of living matter in the water, due to the climate, geology and forested landscape of the wilderness. This makes them ideal for swimming and drinking, as well as good habitat for certain fish species, including lake trout. They are often stained red-brown with tannins, dissolved peat, from wetlands in the headwaters of lakes and rivers.

The Threats from Copper Mines

In 2013, the Kawishiwi River, which flows out of the Boundary Waters near Gabbro Lake and re-enters at Fall Lake, was named one of the 10 Most Endangered Rivers in America. The designation was due to the Twin Metals mine proposal, which would be located next to and even under the river only a few miles upstream from the wilderness.

The Boundary Waters remains one of the most threatened water systems in the U.S.

Extracting copper and nickel from sulfide ore releases an acidic byproduct that would damage this pristine water.

The mix of acidic water laden with toxic metals that runs off waste rock and other parts of the mine is called Acid Mine Drainage. This substance can kill fish and other aquatic life, leaving lakes and rivers dead for years.

The Threat Posed by Mercury

Almost all areas of northeastern Minnesota have lakes with average mercury concentrations in game fish at or above safe levels. This includes many lakes in the BWCAW. The lakes have “consistently high [total mercury] concentrations and many have high [methylmercury] concentrations.”

Two conditions in the region cause mercury to easily contaminate the ecosystem:

  1. Forests capture atmospheric mercury in plant leaves, which fall to the ground and are carried into water systems.
  2. Certain bacteria in the region’s peatlands convert the metal from a non-toxic form into its dangerous form, methylmercury, which works its way through the food web into fish and other animals.

The Effects Mercury Has on You

Methylmercury is a problem not just for wildlife but also for humans. It can harm the central nervous system, causing poor motor skills, dulled senses, and in severe cases, irreversible brain damage.

Mercury is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and infants, with effects occurring in babies at exposure levels five to ten times lower than that of adults. In the Lake Superior basin, eight percent of Minnesota’s infants surveyed were born with high levels of mercury, above the regional average.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the Great Lakes region, followed by metals

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Olson

mining and processing and fossil fuel combustion. Approximately 100 tons of mercury are emitted from human activities each year in the United States. In Minnesota, emissions have been reduced by more than half since the state and utilities began efforts to cut mercury in the mid-1990s, when Minnesota released 1,850 pounds into the atmosphere. It has already reached 870 pounds per year, and is headed for for less than 200 pounds.

Much of the mercury deposited in the Boundary Waters comes from sources far from Minnesota – carried thousands of miles on the wind, falling to earth and into wilderness waters. About 90 percent of the mercury deposited in Minnesota originates from other states and countries.

Mercury contamination has proven to be a persistent problem. While the Great Lakes states and Ontario have made progress in reducing their mercury emissions, as much as 50 percent since 1990, mercury contamination in our lakes, streams, and fish remain high.

Visitor impacts

The 150,000 people who visit the wilderness each year can add up to a lot of people rinsing themselves, cleaning dishes, shampooing, and using latrines near the water. Without care, users can be a source of significant water pollution.

Wilderness visitors can help protect canoe country’s waters by following the rules and practicing Leave No Trace camping principles. These practices include taking steps to avoid water contamination, such as:

  • Not soaping and rinsing in lakes
  • Always using designated latrines
  • Not washing dishes in lakes
  • Don’t go in water when you’re covered in bug spray, sunscreen, soap, and don’t spit your toothpaste in the water.
  • Consider natural cleaning and hygiene products.
  • Use the latrines for their intended purpose.
  • Don’t burn trash, which releases dioxins into water.

One of the most common ways humans contaminate wilderness waters is with bacteria.

Fecal coliform concentrations (E. coli) in waters around Boundary Waters campsites are often significantly elevated, due to shallow topsoils and limited latrine locations, bathing or defecating in water, and overuse. E. coli infections include stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Children are more likely than adults to develop symptoms.

Human’s visiting the wilderness do not seem to be adding to the amount of nutrients and the increased algae in the lakes, and other resulting impacts to water quality.

A recent study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, U.S. Forest Service, and Vermilion Community College of three high-use wilderness lakes: Alton, Ensign, and Caribou found all three met water quality standards for clarity, nutrients, and algae. There was no significant difference in water quality between the deep and shallow locations.

A Fragile Balance

The rocky lakes of the border country are sometimes seen as “sterile.” They are actually home to many plants and animals, but naturally have some of the least amount of organic activity in the world.

This “low productivity” is a result of their northern latitudes, cold and deep waters, the basalt bedrock, and the surrounding landscape of unbroken forests, wetlands, and more lakes and rivers. There are generally low amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and thus fewer algae and zooplankton, and more competition between fish for limited food sources.

Changes to the wilderness — whether from temperature changes, human activities, alterations to fire patterns or precipitation — can disrupt how these low production lakes function. Fires can create erosion and increased runoff in rain storms, resulting in a flow of soil and nutrients into the lakes. Warm weather and changes in wind patterns, combined with lake depth and fetch, can interfere with lake functions.

How can you help?

Wilderness travelers have an important role to play in monitoring the BWCAW’s water quality.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is looking for help from citizens to collect water quality data so the state can better track changes to water quality — and address negative impacts. To join the effort, contact the Citizen Lakes Monitoring Program Coordinator at 800-657-3864 or via email at

On the 40th anniversary of the creation of the BWCAW — and as part of our longtime leadership in protecting, preserving and restoring this national treasure — the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has compiled a State of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness report. Examining the current situation in the Boundary Waters, it provides an overview of the ecological health, human experiences and emerging threats.

Want more?

Read the entire report here.