The Red Lake River Watershed is located in the Red Lake Watershed District which is located in northwestern Minnesota and includes all of Red Lake County & parts of the following counties: Beltrami, Clearwater, Itasca, Koochiching, Mahnomen, Marshall, Pennington, Polk and Roseau. The Red Lake River begins at the outlet of Lower Red Lake. Flow at that point is controlled by the Red Lake Dam that is managed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The river is channelized and straightened for a little more than 3 miles downstream of the dam then meanders toward western border of the Red Lake Nation Reservation.
The river is channelized (dredged and partially straightened) downstream of a small dam that is approximately 5 2/3 river miles upstream of where the river crosses the reservation boundary. The channelization of the Red Lake River continues downstream to a point between the Highlanding and Kratka Bridges, shortly downstream of the confluence with Pennington County Ditch 39.
The upper reach of the Red Lake River then returns to a more natural, meandering state with riffles and pools and flows west to the Thief River Falls reservoir. The Red Lake River upstream of Thief River falls is usually relatively clean, but the easternmost reaches have problems with low dissolved oxygen. Dissolved oxygen levels improve as the river travels west. In the City of Thief River Falls, the Red River is joined by the Thief River. The combined waters of the Red Lake River and Thief River are used as a source of drinking water for the City of Thief River Falls. The Thief River Falls Reservoir is created by the Thief River Falls Dam, which also generates some hydroelectric power.
After passing over the dam in Thief River Falls, the river flows south to St. Hilaire and Red Lake Falls. This beautiful stretch of river has rapids and good fishing opportunities, but could use more public canoe/kayak access points between Thief River Falls and Red Lake Falls. As the river begins traveling further south and west into the Red River Valley Ecoregion, its water starts to become more cloudy (increased turbidity).
In Red Lake Falls, the Clearwater River flows into the Red Lake River at Sportsman’s Park. The Red Lake River is used for recreation in the Red Lake Falls area. It is used for tubing, kayaking, canoeing, fishing and swimming. The river then flows south and west through the cities of Crookston, Fisher, and East Grand Forks. It empties into the Red River of the North in the City of East Grand Forks. The Red River of the North then flows north to Lake Winnipeg in Canada. East Grand Forks is another city that uses the Red Lake River as a drinking water source.
The Thief River and Clearwater River are two larger rivers that flow into the Red Lake River. Some of the other significant tributaries to the Red Lake River include Burnham Creek, Gentilly Creek, Kripple Creek, Black River, Cyr Creek, and a lot of ditches. High concentrations of E. coli have been found in some of the tributaries like the Black River, Cyr Creek, Gentilly Creek, Pennington County Ditch 96, and Pennington County Ditch 21. The Red Lake River is officially listed as impaired by high turbidity downstream of the Pennington County Ditch 96 confluence in St. Hilaire. Burnham Creek and the Black River are also impaired by high turbidity.