Mississippi River Headwaters Erosion Project

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

The shoreline restoration project was successfully completed in early October, 2020.

Why was 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 was directing flow into the banks. In addition, the heavy foot traffic at the headwaters contributed significantly to the displacement of soil and other material off the shoreline and into the river.

What were the goals?

180 yards of stone materials were added to the project site, covering an area of approximately 2,460 square feet (0.06 acre). The main goal was to repair the original channel as best as possible while allowing for the redesign of the original arch rapids. Specific goals included:

  • 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.
Who did the work?

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. We stabilized the headwaters area using 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