Springs, Springsheds, and Karst


A spring is a focused, natural discharge where water emerges from the ground.

Springs are natural points of groundwater discharge. Springs provide flow for coldwater streams (trout streams) and cool water fisheries. In addition, some streams need the water flow that springs provide during dry periods. Other important functions include sustaining unique ecological habitats along with their associated plants and animal communities. Finally, springs have their own aesthetic and historical value that creates a special “sense of place” for local residents and visitors.

Minnesota Spring Inventory

The Minnesota Spring Inventory (MSI) project brings together fragmented groundwater spring data by providing a single spatial database for the entire state, and will add new (previously undocumented) springs from field analysis and citizen input. The MSI includes a web application for citizens to submit spring locations and shares data with the public through a map application.

The DNR is currently only aware of approximately 3,000 of the possible 22,000 springs statewide from various agency records and searching public lands. The database will contain both reported and verified spring location information and physical, chemical, and historical data for spring sites, if available. The MSI will facilitate cross-agency cooperation to manage and protect Minnesota’s groundwater resources and provide a standardized structure to store data long-term.

Help us find Minnesota Springs! We need the help of private citizens to expand on our current knowledge. If you know of springs please let us know. The citizen Minnesota Spring Inventory Reporting App allows you to report locations from your mobile device or home computer. Spring locations will be available on a Spring Inventory Map after verification by the DNR.

This project is funded by the Legislative Citizens Commission for Minnesota Resources.


Springsheds: areas within groundwater and surface water basins that contribute discharge to springs.

Springshed delineation involves determining the size and nature of the land area that contributes to groundwater and spring discharge. This area can encompass both a contributing surface watershed and an underlying groundwatershed. Understanding the extent of springsheds is important for the protection of the numerous trout fisheries in SE MN. The boundaries of groundwater springsheds do not necessarily correspond to those on the land surface and are dynamic in their areal extent, changing as groundwater levels rise and fall.

Dye Tracing

Fluorescent dye tracing is a fundamental technique of karst hydrology to characterize springshed groundwater flow. Dye is poured into sinkholes or sinking streams and springs in the area and monitored to detect if, where, and when the dye emerges.  Dye tracing has been conducted for nearly eighty years in the sedimentary bedrock of southeastern Minnesota. The majority of the work has been a collaborative effort with the University of Minnesota, the DNR, Soil Water Conservation Districts, and local cavers.

The findings are summarized in Dye Trace Reports that typically include geologic and hydrogeologic descriptions of the study area, study methods, dye introduction and detection points, monitoring locations, and discussion relevant to springshed delineation and pollution sensitivity. Reports, related information, and contacts are listed on the Dye Tracing page.

The Minnesota Groundwater Tracing Database contains geospatial data that includes a collection of dye input points, inferred groundwater flow vectors, descriptive attribute data, and springshed delineations. The database is undergoing changes but is available upon request. This data is most useful when used in conjunction with Minnesota Spring Inventory and the Karst Features Database described on this web page. The data will be incorporated into an interactive online map where all three databases can be viewed and queried synchronously.


Karst: A terrain with distinctive landforms and hydrology created primarily from the dissolution of soluble rocks. It is characterized by sinkholes, caves, springs, and underground drainage dominated by rapid conduit flow.

In karst, water dissolves fractures and joints in the bedrock forming a network of inter-connected underground conduits that can carry groundwater long distances at speeds up to miles per day. Sinkholes, blind valleys, karst windows and springs are found on the land surface above underground karst systems and are thought of as surface expressions of karst or “karst topography”. Karst also occurs in areas with few or none of these land surface features and therefore the absence of these features does not imply the absence of karst.

Minnesota Regions Prone to Surface Karst Feature Development: GW-01

Areas prone to the development of karst features within 50 feet of the surface. GIS data can be used alone or in conjunction with the Minnesota Karst Features Database.