Frequently asked questions about rivers and streams

What is a watershed?

A watershed is a topographically delineated area that is drained by a stream system. It is the total land area above some point on a stream or river. It is sometimes referred to as a drainage basin. The watershed is a hydrologic unit that has been described and used as a physical-biologic unit and a socioeconomic-political unit for planning and management of natural resources.

     Learn more about watersheds.

What are some common hydrologic terms and definitions?

See Hydrologic Terms.

What constitutes a "stream" versus a "river"?

"Stream" is a generic word that is used to refer to either a creek or a river, although there are no universally accepted definitions that clearly differentiate between the two. It is generally accepted that a river is larger than a creek, however, it is possible to find a few named rivers that are tributary to named creeks across the Untied States. These few cases are a function of local name use or preference, and have nothing to do with the size of the respective streams.

What is the definition of ordinary high water level (OHWL) and why is it important?

The ordinary high water level (OHWL) is a reference point that defines the DNR's regulatory authority over development projects that are proposed to alter the course, current, or cross section of public waters and public waters wetlands. For lakes and wetlands, the OHWL is the highest water level that has been maintained for a sufficient period of time to leave evidence upon the landscape. The OHWL is commonly that point where the natural vegetation changes from predominately aquatic to predominantly terrestrial. For watercourses (rivers and streams), the OHWL is the elevation of the top of the bank of the channel. For reservoirs and flowages, the OHWL is the operating elevation of the normal summer pool. The OHWL is also used by local units of government as a reference point from which to determine structure setbacks from water bodies and watercourses.

     Learn more about ordinary high water levels.

What is a wild and scenic river?

A wild and scenic river is a river that has been designated under the Minnesota Wild and Scenic Rivers Act or the National Wild and Scenic River Act. These designated rivers are the following:

  • St. Croix River on the border with Wisconsin,
  • Kettle River in Pine County,
  • Mississippi River from the city of St. Cloud to the cities of Ramsey and Dayton,
  • North Fork of the Crow River in Meeker County,
  • Minnesota River from the Lac Qui Parle dam to the city of Franklin,
  • Rum River from Ogechie Lake to the city of Anoka, and
  • Cannon River from the city of Faribault to the Mississippi River.

What can I do to prevent erosion?

Two general methods are available to prevent your lakeshore from eroding: hard armoring and soft armoring. The most common hard-armor technique is riprap, which consists of placing large rocks in the water and up the slope of the eroding shoreline. Riprap is commonly used to control erosion along streambanks and lakeshores where vegetation is not sufficient to prevent erosion caused by high water or wave action. It is expensive to install and is often installed incorrectly. If installed properly, however, riprap normally provides good protection from the impact of waves, stream velocities and ice. Some believe that riprap is overused and unsightly and that Minnesota lakes have lost much of their natural shoreline to riprap.

In contrast to hard-armor techniques, soft-armor methods use organic and inorganic materials combined with plants to create a living barrier of protection. Bioengineering, a soft-armor method, provides erosion control through the use of live vegetation. Bioengineering can be used in addition to or in place of hard armor such as rock riprap. It creates a more natural, environmentally friendly shoreline that includes additional benefits to erosion control, such as habitat enhancement. Specific to rivers and streams, DNR Waters published a booklet in 1991 called ?Streambank Erosion: Gaining A Greater Understanding, August 1991?, which is available in limited quantities from our Stream Hydrology Program personnel in St. Paul. A DNR public waters work permit (application available under DNR Waters Forms) may be required for both soft and hard armoring methods.

How do I name a river or stream?

Naming lakes, rivers, streams, or other water bodies (natural geographic features) in Minnesota is guided by the statutory process found in Minnesota Statute 83A.05 - 83A.07. Basically, the process requires 15 or more registered voters to petition the county board of commissioners in the county where the feature is located for a public hearing concerning a proposed name. If the public hearing is successful, the county board would adopt a resolution in support of the proposed name (or other name if favored by the board as a result of testimony at the hearing) and forward it to the state commissioner of natural resources. The name proposed in the resolution MUST be approved by the commissioner of natural resources to become the official name of the feature in Minnesota. Approved names are subsequently submitted to the United States Board on Geographic Names for federal approval and use.

The process to change a name is the same. However, a name that has existed for 40 years or more may not be changed. Also, the commissioner of natural resources will not approve a name that commemorates, or may be construed to commemorate, living persons. For additional information, contact: Peter.Boulay@state.mn.us, 651-296-4214.