The mission of the Cottonwood River Restoration Project is to promote sustainable conservation land use changes through establishing watershed identity and by cooperatively working to increase watershed awareness that will lead to the restoration of the river's environmental health and increased recreational use.


  1. To achieve the highest water quality attainable for ecoregion streams.
  2. To have watershed residents take an active role in enhancing and protecting the  Cottonwood River.
  3. To develop the Cottonwood River as a major recreational resource within the Minnesota River Basin.


  Make the Cottonwood River from Sanborn to Flandrau Park navigable and canoe accessible.
  Increase game fish populations in the main stem from near Lamberton to Flandrau State Park.
  Produce and construct trails, signage, kiosks and outdoor learning centers.
  Establish, train, and support a group of volunteers to monitor watershed health.
  Accelerate adoption of best management practices (BMPs) in high priority areas.
  Help watershed residents understand the connection between their actions and water quality.
  Strengthen cooperation between agencies and units of government that address water quality issues.
  Collect and distribute credible information about water resources in the watershed.
  Work with municipalities and unsewered communities to develop point source reduction plans.
  Develop and implement plans to address total maximum daily load (TMDL) requirements.

Goals and Objectives
Goals and objectives for the Cottonwood River Watershed are based on sampling results, land use assessments, and judgments about reasonable expectations for rivers and streams in this region of the state. In setting goals and objectives, consideration is given to four important watershed characteristics. First, agriculture is the predominant land use in the watershed and improvements to water quality will necessarily require changes in agricultural practices. Second, pollutant transport in the watershed is primarily affected by uncontrolled runoff. Third, the Cottonwood River holds enormous potential for being a recreational resource, but past and present conditions prevent it from being used to its full potential. And, fourth, watershed residents through their involvement and actions hold the key to protecting and enhancing the Cottonwood River.

Executive Summary

The purpose of a the initial phase of this project between 1997 and 1999 was to document factors affecting sediment and nutrient transport to the Cottonwood River, and to determine reductions necessary to meet both main stem and tributary goals. The study defined characteristics of specific pollutants, the processes affecting their transport, and appropriate measures to reduce their delivery to the Cottonwood River. Priority management areas were selected based on relative contributions to the total sediment and nutrient load in the River. Attitudes and opinions of watershed residents were explored as they relate to water quality and measures for its protection.

The Cottonwood River Watershed encompasses 1,310 square miles, and is one of thirteen major watersheds in the Minnesota River Basin. The River originates on the Coteau des Prairies, flowing eastward approximately 150 miles to the Minnesota River, with a drop in elevation of about 750 feet. This topography results in periodic spring and summer flooding in the central portion of the watershed. At times, damages are severe. A related implication is rapid transport of sediment and attached nutrients from inadequately treated cropland during spring snowmelt and spring and summer rainfall events.

Nearly all wetlands have been drained by a highly efficient and interconnected artificial drainage system. This drainage system has allowed agriculture, the primary land use, to flourish. Corn and soybeans are the main crops grown in the watershed.

The study’s primary research tool was a water quality monitoring program used to gather data at three main stem locations and six tributary sites. Streambank erosion assessments were made at several locations along the lower reach of the Cottonwood River. A fishery survey was used to assess populations and species diversity. Land use and physical characteristics of the watershed were analyzed through application of Geographic Information System (GIS) data layers. These evaluations were supplemented by field observations using the tailored integrated stream and watershed assessment (TISWA) methodology.

Annual sediment (TSS) loading from the Cottonwood River in 1997 was estimated at over 330,000 tons, or 252 tons per square mile. Total phosphorus (TP) was estimated at 505 tons. These are much higher figures than reported in earlier studies of the Cottonwood River. Highwater and Dutch Charley Creeks exhibited the largest sediment yield of all sampled tributaries, annually delivering approximately 136 tons per square mile, based on data collected in 1997 and 1998. Additionally, highest flow weighted mean concentrations of total suspended solids and total phosphorus of all sampling stations, including those on the main stem, were recorded on these two tributaries. Sleepy Eye Creek contributed a high nitrate nitrogen load during the study period, but a much lower sediment load than expected. Throughout the study period, flow-weighted mean concentrations of sediment and nutrients on the main stem and most tributaries exceeded expected values for minimally impacted ecoregion streams.

Recreational opportunities on the Cottonwood River are limited by degraded water quality, channel obstructions, limited access, and a general lack of awareness by watershed residents. Potentially, the river is a major recreational resource.

Ten-year goals and objectives were established in the areas of water quality, public participation, and recreation. Main stem and tributary water quality goals will require pollutant reductions of twenty-five to thirty percent. These will be accomplished by concentrating best management practices (BMPs) within priority management areas. The public participation goal will emphasize citizen involvement in watershed monitoring and observation activities. Developing means for people to personally experience the river will help achieve the recreational goal.

Project evaluation will be accomplished through continued water quality monitoring at five stations, citizen surveys, fishery and watershed inventories and assessments, and BMP tracking.

The estimated cost to carry out the six-year implementation plan is slightly under $10 million. About fifty percent of this amount will be used to convert cropland to permanent vegetation and wetlands. These funds will be derived from existing federal and state land retirement programs. Clean Water Partnership low interest loans will be used to upgrade septic systems, increase residue management, and reduce livestock impacts on water quality. State and federal cost-share funds will be used to cover costs related to other best management practices listed in the plan. Additional staff positions will be created to assess needs within priority management areas and work with landowners to select and implement appropriate practices.

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