The Clearwater River Watershed is located in the Red Lake Watershed District and includes all of Red Lake County & parts of the following counties: Beltrami, Clearwater, Itasca, Koochiching, Mahnomen, Marshall, Pennington, Polk and Roseau. The Clearwater River watershed drains an area of approximately 1,362 square miles in northern Minnesota. It flows into the Red Lake River in the city of Red Lake Falls, MN. The Red Lake River then flows into the Red River of the North in East Grand Forks, MN. The Red River of the North then flows north to Lake Winnipeg, in Canada. Some of the significant tributaries within the Clearwater River watershed include Walker Brook, Ruffy Brook, Lost River, Poplar River, Terrebonne Creek, Hill River, Silver Creek, Beau Gerlot Creek, and Lower Badger Creek.
The Clearwater River watershed is very diverse. Game fish can be found throughout the Clearwater River and some of its tributaries. Trout, walleye, bluegill, catfish, and bass can be found in the river, depending on where you are fishing. Plus, the Clearwater River watershed features fishing and recreational opportunities in lakes like Clearwater Lake, Maple Lake, Pine Lake, and more. Land use varies throughout the watershed. The river and its tributaries are bordered by riparian wetlands and forest in the eastern part of the watershed and become more influenced by agricultural practices as it flows west past wild rice paddies and an increased density of agricultural drainage ditches.
The headwaters portion of the Clearwater River begins west of Bagley and flows northeast toward the Clearwater and Beltrami County border. This upper reach of the river has a relatively low gradient and much of the river banks are lined by wetlands. Many of these wetlands are fens that feed the stream with cold, ancient groundwater. The groundwater origin erof a portion of the flow in the Clearwater River contributes to the excellent clarity of the water in the river. Because the water has been underground for so long, however, the water is devoid of dissolved oxygen.
Consequently, the headwaters of the Clearwater River and its tributary Walker Brook have been found to have dissolved oxygen levels that fall short of meeting the state water quality standards. Much of the causes of low dissolved oxygen in the Bagley area are natural due to the oxygen-depleted nature of the groundwater inputs and the decomposition occurring in the organic material of the wetlands line the channel. Walker Brook can be visibly flowing with cool, clear water in the summer, but still have dissolved oxygen concentrations that are lower than 1 mg/l.
Near the border between Clearwater and Beltrami Counties, the gradient of the Clearwater River steepens as it transitions into the trout stream portion of the Clearwater River. The river turns north near Pinewood and flows into Clearwater Lake. Clearwater Lake is a very good fishing lake and has an active lake association. The lake is kept at its current level by a dam at the outlet of the lake. The Clearwater River resumes its journey and begins to flow west after leaving the lake. The outlet of Clearwater Lake is one of, if not the, top monitoring sites in terms of water quality within the Red Lake Watershed District.
After a stretch of great water quality and habitat, the Clearwater River then enters a reach in which it has been channelized (dredged and straightened). Along this reach, the river is utilized by multiple wild rice farms as a source of water for flooding paddies and as an outlet for drainage. The density of agricultural drainage ditches and row crop agriculture increase along this reach. Although the river is buffered decently by grass and other vegetation along this reach, there are fewer trees and less shade along this reach of the river when compared to the upper reaches. The channelization of the Clearwater River stopped east of Plummer, Minnesota. The gradient steepens downstream of Highway 59 and the river regularly flows over rapids as it flows toward Red Lake Falls, MN where it meets the Red Lake River.
Despite its name, monitoring within the Clearwater River watershed has identified some water quality problems. Low dissolved oxygen levels have been found in the headwaters of the Clearwater River, Walker Brook, much of the Poplar River, Judicial Ditch 73 (Poplar River Diversion channel), the channelized reach of the Clearwater River, and streams flowing into Pine Lake. Fecal coliform impairments already exist for Ruffy Brook and Silver Creek. Recent monitoring has uncovered that many of the Clearwater River’s tributaries may have E. coli impairments. The channelized reach and the lower reach of the Clearwater River have been listed as impaired by high turbidity. An ammonia impairment was identified within the trout stream reach. On the bright side, several fecal coliform impairments on the Clearwater River and the Lost River have been removed from the official 303(d) List of Impaired waters due to improvements that have been made to water quality since problems were identified during the Clearwater River Nonpoint Study.