Pollution to Pristine: A Rainy River success story

Baihly Warfield
Updated: August 13, 2020 09:44 PM

Many an angler has caught a trophy sturgeon or walleye on the Rainy River in recent years. But several decades ago, the fish couldn't even survive in those waters. 


"In the 1950s, standing on the banks of the Rainy River, one would see 3-4 foot mats of fiber from the paper mills, floating globules of stuff from wastewater plants that didn't have very good treatment back then," Mike Kennedy, a project manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said. 

Historic photos show researchers standing in 3 feet of wood waste, digging to find the river. 

"We've had gold rushes, logging drives, steam boats. You name it, that river's seen it in the last 100 years," Kennedy said. 

It flows between Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods and makes up part of the U.S.-Canada border.

Kennedy traces the river's turnaround back to the 1970s. In 1971, Canada passed its Environmental Protection Act in 1971, and Congress approved the United States' Clean Water Act in 1972. Kennedy says that allowed for more permitting and regulations and for the two countries to work with industry to clean things up. 

Sturgeon that had sought refuge in the tributaries off the Rainy River started to return, and so did anglers and other recreation. 

"Today, we have sparkling blue water, world class walleye fishery, 5-6" lake sturgeon that migrate through there," Kennedy said. "It's a beautiful riverway. It's hard to imagine how ugly it used to be."

And Kennedy says it's important to keep it clean because the area economy relies on tourism. Plus, it's historically significant for many cultures. 

"This has been a Native gathering spot for well over 500 years on the Rainy River," he said. "Today, we have a couple of First Nations on the Canadian side on the river. We've got Red Lake on the U.S. side and Bois Forte on the U.S. side."

And he wants to ensure it's pristine for future generations. 

"Water is resilient if you give it a break and give it a chance and try to work with it," he said. 

For more on the project, visit the MPCA's Rainy River page


Baihly Warfield

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