Mississippi River Headwaters Erosion Project

Circa 1935 - Lake Itasca, Source of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park, Minn.

A shoreline restoration project is scheduled for October, 2020, at the headwaters of the Mississippi River within Itasca State Park.

Why is the project needed?

Erosion at the headwaters has occurred gradually over a long period of time due to heavy visitation rates and the action of water scouring and undercutting the shoreline and widening of the mouth of the river. The site has been periodically repaired to replace boulders and add sand to maintain the access area.

The rock dam has changed over the years, becoming ineffective at preventing erosion of the shoreline of the river at the headwaters site and is now directing flow into the banks. In addition, the heavy foot traffic at the headwaters has contributed significantly to the displacement of soil and other material off the shoreline and into the river.

While the river downstream of the headwaters is still intact and does not show visible impacts of the erosion, this project will ensure it remains protected into the future.

When will the project take place and how will visitors be impacted?

To best accommodate visitor access to the headwaters, the project seeks to minimize the closure period at the site and is timed to occur during off-peak visitation.

The headwaters area will be closed to the public for approximately five days between October 5 and October 16, 2020. The closure will restrict access to and visitation of the headwaters. The exact timing of the closure will depend on factors such as weather.

During the project construction period the area will be fenced off at the Headwaters Trail and downstream of the walking log. The service road and part of the bike trail from the project site to the Burial Mounds parking lot, as well as the walking log, will be intermittently closed during the construction period to provide a route for project equipment and address safety.

The Headwaters live cam will be offline during the construction.

What are the goals of the project?

The project site includes approximately 2,460 square feet (0.06 acre), where 180 yards of stone materials will be added to the area, along with minimal excavation to place the stone. There are no plans to change the historic dam, which is underneath the rocks. Specific project goals are to:

  • lessen the amount of materials (sand, silt) added to the river;
  • use additional rock to redirect flows toward the middle of the river and stabilize the shoreline;
  • reestablish the natural width of the river; and
  • establish native vegetation between the rocks to stabilize the shore.
Will the appearance of the headwaters change?

The appearance of the headwaters will not change dramatically from present. The project goal is to repair the original channel as best as possible while allowing for the redesign of the original arch rapids. Visitors will notice a narrowing of the channel, the addition of boulders on the shoreline (including flat boulders providing a safe passage to access the river at the headwaters) and added vegetation on the streambank for stabilization.


Headwaters as they are now

After: (Artist's rendering)

Headwaters as they will look after the project is completed

Who is undertaking this project?

The DNR Divisions of Parks and Trails, Ecological and Water Resources, and Fish and Wildlife partnered to combine expertise and resources (equipment, funding and staff) to make this project happen.

The DNR partnership among divisions reduced the cost of the project by using agency talent and resources.

What are the benefits of the project?

Creating a buffer along the headwaters shoreline.
Naturally vegetated stream banks, riparian zones and floodplains are crucial to streambank and channel stability, stream condition and function, water quality and overall ecosystem health. Stabilizing the headwaters area will use a combination of boulders and natural vegetation that will grow and root quickly, thereby providing immediate soil strength and erosion protection.

A healthy stream system that supports a diversity of fish and aquatic animals.
Erosion, removing permanent vegetation along the shoreline or altering natural water features in the stream system can degrade. The natural design of the headwaters erosion project provides a properly shaped channel using boulders that create a natural flow to the water. This will help stabilize bank erosion by directing water away from the shoreline, which prevents scouring of the streambanks.

Clean water upstream means less treatment for our drinking water downstream.
Water quality not only determines where fish can or cannot live, but it is also important for human health and quality of life. Things that happen on the land in the Mississippi River watershed (and others) are eventually reflected in the water quality of lakes and rivers.

Historic photos





1940s - 1950s


1960s - 1980s


2000 - 2005


2010 - 2020