Priority Waters List

The Metropolitan Council developed the Priority Waters List to help sustainably manage Twin Cities metro area waterbodies. Rivers, streams, and lakes included on the list provide significant use and benefit to the region based on seven categories: recreation and tourism, healthy habitat, drinking water protection, tranquil connection, equity, industry and utility, and science and education.

Some of the first uses of the Priority Waters List will be to:

  • Guide how the Met Council allocates limited resources to monitor, assess, plan for, and improve the region's waterbodies.
  • Provide a key lens for developing policies and activities to include in the 2050 Water Resources Policy Plan (2050 WRPP). It will inform how the Met Council can align with the priorities of local, regional, and state partners, and provide value for those partners.
  • Offer insights to other organizations as they prioritize projects and spend their resources.

Find details about this project:

Explore the Priority Waters List

Search the tables or map to find information on waterbodies of interest. Lakes are in a separate table from rivers and streams. You can also download an Excel spreadsheet, a PDF, or GIS layers.

Use the search box to search by waterbody name, filter by county or watershed organization, or click on a column to sort by ID or name. The lists are in alphabetical order and are not ranked.

Map with lakes, rivers, and streams

Use the text box to search by address, city, or county, or use your mouse to pan and zoom. Click on a waterbody to see its name and the reason(s) it qualifies for the list.

View larger map

The Met Council’s regional planning work needs to support and reflect the region's values. Waterbodies included on the Priority Waters List have been determined to be regionally significant based on the benefits these waterbodies provide. Identifying these waterbodies is important, so that their benefits can be protected and fostered as the region continues to develop and change. This approach supports the Met Council's mission to foster efficient and economic growth for a prosperous metropolitan region, and directly supports the five outcomes (PDF) from the Met Council's most recent regional development guide, Thrive MSP 2040: Stewardship, Prosperity, Equity, Livability, and Sustainability.

Our focus on benefits in the Priority Waters List is intended to complement the current way many other organizations allocate resources. The most common way Met Council partners, including state, regional, and local agencies and organizations, allocate resources is through a focus on improving and restoring impaired waterbodies. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), through its enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act, directs resources to establish Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for impaired waters of the state. In recent years the MPCA has prioritized further by focusing financial and staff resources on waterbodies that are nearly or barely impaired, and waterbodies that have high risk of becoming impaired. Following the MPCA's lead and in accordance with local municipal stormwater (MS4) permits, many metro area organizations have prioritized resources based on impairment status for their waterbodies as well. The Met Council believes paring the Priority Waters List with waterbody impairment status will encourage more holistic water resources management in the region.

Additionally, the Priority Waters List focuses on waterbodies deemed regionally significant. Regional significance was determined using regional scale datasets. Just because a waterbody is not on the Priority Waters List does not mean it does not have value. That waterbody may still be a priority for an individual city or local organization.

The Met Council has had a version of a Priority Waters List since 1982. It was previously called the Priority Lakes List. The Met Council last updated the Priority Lakes List in 2015 as part of its Water Resources Policy Plan Update. This new version includes rivers and streams as well as lakes. With more than 950 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in the region, waterbodies needed to be prioritized to adequately dedicate staff and financial resources.

The Priority Waters List was developed primarily to be used for Met Council work prioritization but is being shared publicly to encourage use by regional partners. Robust outreach was conducted on a draft Priority Waters List in Spring 2022, and comments received during that period were used to help finalize the List.

This Priority Waters List was approved for use by the Metropolitan Council on July 13, 2022. This list supersedes any previous Met Council Priority Waters List or Priority Lakes List for planning and implementation purposes.

The name Minnesota is derived from Mni Sóta Maḳoce, the name that the Dakota people gave this land — their homeland. Mni Sóta Maḳoce is a phrase that means the land where waters reflect the skies.

The landscape of the Twin Cities metro area is dotted with nearly 1,000 lakes and traversed by hundreds of miles of rivers and streams. The waterbodies of this region provide us with drinking water, economic opportunity, and spaces great and small to recreate and reflect. These waterbodies carry history. Over the course of many millennia, geologic processes of glaciation and melting, as well as shifting ecosystems driven by a changing climate, have formed the waterbodies and land of today. Now, as in the past, residents of the metro area derive benefits from our water resources. Waterbodies once too treacherous to cross are now tapped for hydroelectric power, and motorboats glide across lakes and rivers carrying the day's catch.

As the uses and benefits of these waterbodies have changed, so have the people who inhabit this region. Through seizures of land and often misleading treaties, culminating in the 1863 Dakota Expulsion Act, the Dakota people — who had lived in the area for thousands of years — were displaced by white settlers. The scars of this displacement are ever-present. Fort Snelling, the site of Dakota imprisonment in 1862 during the U.S.-Dakota war, looks over Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, a place of great spiritual significance for the Dakota. Many waterbodies in the seven-county metro have Dakota names. After years of court battles, the lake formerly named after the pro-slavery and pro-Indian removal vice president, John C. Calhoun, had its original name, Bde Maka Ska, restored.

After the Dakota people were expelled from their homeland, white settlers built industries in the region centering around milling and rail. As the region developed and technology progressed, new industries emerged and economic reliance on the Mississippi and other waterbodies shifted. New populations arrived in the region as well. Immigrants from southeast Asia, east Africa, and other parts of the world have made homes in the metro, bringing their own relationships with water.

The Priority Waters List is a snapshot in time. It is an index of the waterbodies that are here now, the ways in which we benefit from them, and the methods we devise to assign value. Determining the value of one lake, one river, or one stream is a complicated task with shortcomings. The interconnectedness of water, from a small pond to deep aquifers to the mighty Mississippi, is a testament to the value of all waterbodies. The Dakota concept of wakąn (PDF) emphasizes the sacredness of all things. As this project lays out a framework for the Met Council to prioritize waterbodies in our region, it is important to embrace wakąn and acknowledge the Eurocentric nature of prioritization.

While the Priority Waters List offers a data-based assessment of waterbodies, the intention of this project is not to label waterbodies as inherently “bad” or “inferior.” Instead, the Priority Waters List highlights the waterbodies that currently supply the greatest benefits to our region.

The waterbodies of the Twin Cities region have been prioritized based on scores calculated in seven quantifiable categories. Two additional categories were identified, but they were not scored due to a lack of data. For detailed information about the scoring approach in each category, visit the Technical Details section.

Drinking water protection
The likelihood that a waterbody may impact the quality of a regional drinking water source if degraded.

Access to clean drinking water is critically important for all communities. Specific surface waterbodies in the region are direct sources of drinking water or reserved as future drinking water sources. Other surface waterbodies that are not direct sources of drinking water still have regional importance for drinking water protection because of their connection to surface and groundwater sources.

An estimate of a waterbody’s accessibility to communities that may generally have more limited access to benefits waterbodies can provide.

Equity is one of five desired outcomes identified in the Metropolitan Council's long-range policy plans for the region: "Equity connects all residents to opportunity and creates viable housing and transportation options for people of all races, ethnicities, incomes and abilities so that all communities share the opportunities and challenges of growth and change. For our region to reach its full economic potential, all of our residents must be able to access opportunity that leads to success, prosperity, and a high quality of life.” The abundant waterbodies in the Twin Cities area provide a variety of benefits to residents. Having the opportunity to access these benefits is important to achieve a more equitable outcome for the region. Waterbodies advance equitable outcomes if they are accessible by alternative modes of transit, provide natural space benefits, and are accessible by communities that may have historically had more limited access to waterbodies.

Healthy habitat
The likelihood that a waterbody provides good habitat for native wildlife and vegetation to live and thrive.

Healthy habitats provide a wide range of benefits. They provide food, water, and shelter for native wildlife such as fish, plants, and birds. Other benefits of healthy habitat often go unrecognized, such as flood control, air and water purification, and temperature regulation. Healthy habitats also tend to be more resistant to the effects of extreme weather, which are becoming more common in Minnesota due to our changing climate.

Industry and utility
The degree to which a waterbody provides or supports utility or economic benefits for the region.

Waterbodies can be used for utility, commercial, or industrial benefits. For example, large rivers can be used to transport goods on barges and dams can be used to produce hydroelectric power. Some industries use the water from waterbodies for a variety of reasons, such as equipment cooling or irrigation, and wastewater treatment facilities typically return their cleaned water back into local waterways.

Recreation and tourism
The ability of a waterbody to support visitors and different types of recreation on the water or on shore, such as swimming, boating, fishing, or walking along a trail.

Known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," Minnesota has access to many water-related recreational activities. Recreation is one of the more common ways a person interacts directly with a waterbody. Recreational opportunities go hand-in-hand with tourism. Many of the waterbodies in the Twin Cities are popular destinations for residents and tourist alike, such as Minnehaha Falls, Lake Minnetonka, and Como Lake.

Science and education
The extent to which a waterbody supports use for scientific studies or environmental education.

Waterbodies can be used to grow our understanding of the natural world. Scientists actively monitor waterbodies in our region to better understand how they function. Waterbodies can also be used as educational tools to help teach concepts about the environment.

Tranquil connection
An estimate of a waterbody’s potential to provide a tranquil outdoor experience, free from distractions of human activity.

Natural landscapes allow us to connect with the environment, which can have positive effects on our physical and mental well-being. Waterbodies with limited disturbances provide the opportunity to experience these tranquil and mindful connections with nature.

These two additional categories have been identified as important benefits. They were not used for scoring due to a lack of quantitative and comprehensive datasets. Visit the Considerations when using the list section for more information about the data limitations in these categories.

Culture and history
An estimate of a waterbody’s cultural and historical value for people of the region.
Culture and history help shape who we are and can influence our identity and values, having a significant impact on our experiences. As the metropolitan center of Minnesota, it's important to recognize that our waterbodies have significant cultural and historical value. Some waterbodies have noteworthy contributions to the history of this area. All waterbodies have value to the cultures of the people who live or once lived here.

Food provisioning
The ability of a waterbody to provide food.
Some foods can be harvested directly from the environment, which is a use known as food provisioning. Wild rice harvesting is an example of food provisioning in Minnesota. Additionally, some communities in the region practice subsistence fishing, where they fish as a significant source of food.

Waterbodies qualified for the Priority Waters List slightly differently depending on whether they are lakes or rivers and streams. Different numeric thresholds were used to select waters for the separate lists because of the differences in how scores were calculated. See the Technical Details section for more information on scoring. The process for selecting waterbodies for the list used certain top category scores as well as a well-rounded score, which is an average score of all seven categories.

A lake was selected for the priority list if it met any of the following conditions:

  • Currently used as a drinking water source or reserved as a backup drinking water source.
  • Has a Recreation and Tourism score of 80 or above (out of a maximum score of 100) and is 40 acres or larger.
  • Has a Healthy Habitat score of 80 or above (out of a maximum score of 100) and is 10 acres or larger.
  • Has one of the top 70 well-rounded scores out of all lakes that are 40 acres or larger.

A river or stream was selected for the priority list if it met any of the following conditions:

  • Has at least one reach currently used as a drinking water source or reserved as a backup drinking water source.
  • Has at least one reach with a Recreation and Tourism score of 70 or above (out of a maximum score of 100) and has a clearly defined above ground channel of 2 miles or longer.
  • Has at least one reach with a Healthy Habitat score of 70 or above (out of a maximum score of 100) and has a clearly defined above ground channel of 1 mile or longer.
  • Has one of the top 20 well-rounded scores out of all rivers and streams with a clearly defined above ground channel of 2 miles or longer. For rivers and streams with well-rounded scores from multiple reaches, the highest well-rounded score was used.

Waterbodies were selected for the Priority Waters list following a rigorous quantitative process. All technical details of the Priority Waters list creation can be found in the Priority Waters List Technical Scoring Details document (PDF).

The Met Council considered almost 200 quantitative datasets in establishing the Priority Waters List. We primarily relied on existing datasets, produced by the Met Council or local, regional, state, and national partners. A few datasets were generated as part of the project when the underlying data was straight-forward to organize.

Each original dataset was processed in ArcGIS to spatially link the data to the waterbodies in the assessment. Those results were then used to calculate category scores for waterbodies.

Information on datasets used for the analysis and individual waterbody scores can be found in the Priority Waters List Data and Scores document (Excel file).

The Priority Waters List was created primarily to guide the Met Council but is available for any organization to use. The list is published in an unranked format with up to four reasons a waterbody qualified for the list.

The methodology, data, and scores are available for download in the Technical Details section above. Depending on need, the data and raw scores can be used in other ways, such as sorting the waterbodies by category score or by using the compiled data for other purposes.

Citation formats when using this work:

  • If using the Priority Waters List itself, cite as:
    Metropolitan Council. 2022. Priority Waters List. Saint Paul, MN.
  • If using the project methodology, cite as:
    Metropolitan Council. 2022. Priority Waters List Technical Scoring Details. Saint Paul, MN.
  • If using the compiled data or scores, cite as:
    Metropolitan Council. 2022. Priority Waters List Data and Scores. Saint Paul, MN.

The Priority Waters List was developed with input from local stakeholders, but it remains a regional tool that was created using regional datasets. When using this Priority Waters List for a project in the vicinity of a specific waterbody, we recommend you connect with local communities to understand how they value and interact with the waterbody. The Twin Cities is home to many diverse communities with different cultural and personal relationships to water, so it’s important to incorporate those perspectives in addition to the Priority Waters List when working on local-scale projects.

There are 11 federally recognized tribal nations in Minnesota, consisting of seven Anishinaabe (Chippewa, Ojibwe) reservations and four Dakota (Sioux) communities. These tribes are sovereign nations with their own governments. Two Dakota communities are in or near the seven county Twin Cities area:

Projects using the Priority Waters List that affect waterbodies in or near these communities should collaborate with the tribes. Tribes and tribe members have their own set of values regarding water resources and water resource management, and those should be included and protected in any project using the Priority Water List.

Tribal nations in Minnesota may also have interest in any project affecting waterbodies in the seven county Twin Cities area due to historical connections with the region, despite not having reservations or communities in the seven counties. Depending on the project, it may be appropriate to reach out to cooperate with these tribes as well. Visit the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council to find more resources about the tribes in Minnesota.

Due to the data-driven nature of the Priority Water List assessment, equity was incorporated based on available data. The project team would like to acknowledge that available data does not capture all sources of inequity. This reinforces the recommendation in the “Tribal nations of Minnesota” tab above to engage with local communities when a project or effort using the Priority Water List might affect local waterbodies.

The Equity category of the Priority Waters List identified the waterbodies within communities that score highly across selected metrics representing equity related concepts. Using this approach, waterbodies within communities that score highly for equity are prioritized. This selected approach meets communities where they are at now.

Another approach to increase equitable access to the benefits provided by waterbodies in the region would be to remove barriers that prevent access to the waterbodies that are already well known to have high benefits. This may look like advocating for better transportation or lower park fees to high scoring recreational waterbodies, or by addressing systemic issues preventing access to clean drinking water sources. The scores in the Technical Details section could be used to identify the waterbodies that have the highest scores in each category and then investigate how accessible they are to various communities in the region, either by combining with the equity scores or other sources of information about access and equity.

This project was limited to data that is publicly available and by the quality of existing datasets. Significant data available in the region was useful for assessing the benefits of waterbodies, even when it was not perfect. Some datasets were not ideal or had inconsistencies that required assumptions. Some datasets had to be assembled because no central agency manages the underlying information.

The Culture and History and Food Provisioning benefit categories had limited data which prevented quantifiable scores. Depending on the scale of the project, engaging with local communities can provide information about these valuable concepts so they can be considered alongside the information from the Priority Waters List.

Culture and History Limitations

Despite the importance of waterbodies in our history and culture, this category was not used to help determine the Priority Waters List. Available datasets were incomplete or too limited to estimate a waterbody's cultural and historical importance. Many cultures in the region have different connections to waterbodies, so using datasets which only represent some of those cultures would be biased.

For example, the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) dataset, the U.S. government’s official list of historic places worthy of preservation, is not representative of all communities that live in the Twin Cities region. In Minnesota’s history, the indigenous people were forcibly removed from their homelands, disconnecting them from their important cultural and historical sites. For example, Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, is considered a sacred place of creation to many Dakota people, but it is not on the NRHP dataset. Additionally, given the historical mistreatment of the U.S. government against tribal nations, there is little reason for tribal nations to trust U.S. governmental agencies with information about their important and sacred sites.

Food provisioning limitations

While food provisioning is an important use and benefit, it was not used to help determine the Priority Waters List. Data is not available on which waterbodies are used most frequently for food provisioning. There are a few recorded wild rice stands in the region, but most of the significant wild rice harvesting in the state occurs in central and northern Minnesota. No datasets generally identify which waterbodies are more often fished for food versus fished as a recreational pastime.

Contact us

Emily Resseger
Project Manager
[email protected]