Waterbodies were scored in seven quantifiable categories. Two additional categories were identified, but they were not scored due to a lack of data. What follows is a description and high-level summary of the approach used for each category.
Drinking water protection
Access to clean drinking water is critically important for all communities. Waterbodies that are direct sources of drinking water or reserve drinking water sources are vital to the region. These waterbodies automatically qualified as Priority Waters.
Separately, a Drinking Water Protection score for each waterbody was calculated, representing its regional importance for drinking water protection, even if a waterbody is not a direct source of drinking water. Drinking Water Protection scores were calculated using a two-step process. First, a waterbody was awarded points based on the likelihood that surface activities in the area may degrade the quality of a drinking water source, for example by contamination through groundwater infiltration or watershed runoff. More points were given to waterbodies in areas where that likelihood is higher. Then, those points were multiplied by a factor representing the number of people who use that source water. The result is a score that prioritizes waterbodies in areas where source waters are used by a larger number of people and are more vulnerable to degradation from surface activities.
Recreation and tourism
Known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," Minnesota has access to many water-related recreational activities — from swimming in a lake on a hot summer day to enjoying a walk along a river. Recreation is one of the more common ways a person interacts directly with a waterbody.
Recreational opportunities also 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 Park.
Each waterbody received a Recreation and Tourism score using information about regional public access, recreational features, and visitation data.
Waterbodies received points for how accessible they are to the public. Public access was determined by looking for public boat launches and nearby parks and trails. More points were given to waterbodies with both public boat launches and nearby parks and trails, since these provide access to recreational opportunities both on water and on shore. Different numbers of points were given based on the type of boat launch, park, or trail on the waterbody. For example, a state or regional park generally provides more infrastructure to encourage recreation, like restrooms, visitor centers, and picnic shelters, compared to a small local park or trail.
Waterbodies also received points for any recreational features. “Recreational feature” refers to any infrastructure or property of the waterbody that encourages recreation or tourism. This includes features such as public beaches, fishing piers, hunting areas, and more. A waterbody received more points for having more of these features.
Finally, an assessment using cell phone data was used to estimate how many people visit each waterbody relative to other waterbodies in the region. This estimated which waterbodies are the most popular to visit. More points were given to the waterbodies that were more popular.
The points earned from each of the three sections — public access, recreational features, and visitation — were summed together to calculate a waterbody's final Recreation and Tourism score. The highest scoring waterbodies are those that are easily accessible, have features that promote recreational use, and are popular to visit.
Healthy habitats provide a wide range of benefits for wildlife and people. They provide food, water, and shelter for native species in our region such as fish, plants, and birds. They can also provide recreational opportunities, boost physical and mental well-being, and increase nearby property values.
Other benefits of healthy habitat are things we often take for granted, 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.
A Healthy Habitat score was calculated for each waterbody based on the types of species observed at the waterbody and the characteristics and designations of the waterbody and its shore.
The species that live in and around a waterbody can indicate how healthy it is, since some species require very natural conditions, while others can live in degraded conditions. However, not all waterbodies in the region have species observation data, so characteristics and designations of the waterbody and nearby shore were also used to evaluate the potential presence of healthy habitat. Examples of these include unique habitat features, protected shore, ecologically or biologically significant areas, and good water quality.
A higher Healthy Habitat score indicates that a healthy community of species has been observed at the waterbody or there are many designations and characteristics that might indicate the waterbody supports a healthy habitat.
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.
This category aims to identify waterbodies in the region that can provide a tranquil outdoor experience. "Tranquil" in this context is defined as the ability to enjoy the waterbody free from disturbances.
Calculating the Tranquil Connection score was a two-step process. First, we considered four concepts which may impact a tranquil experience: public boat use, noise pollution from road and air traffic, the amount of natural shoreland, and community type (for example, city center vs. rural). More points were given to waterbodies with restricted public motorboat use, less noise from road and air traffic, more natural shoreland, and located outside of urban centers.
In the second step, the points were multiplied by a factor representing how accessible the waterbody is. Waterbodies that are accessible by shore or by water (boat) were prioritized over waterbodies that don't have any public access. Having public access is what makes the waterbody a regional benefit. The result was the final Tranquil Connection score. A higher score represents the waterbodies that are accessible and likely to provide a tranquil experience in nature.
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.
One way to increase equitable access to the benefits provided by waterbodies in the region would be to remove barriers that prevent access. This may look like advocating for better transportation or lower park fees to highly recreational waterbodies, or by addressing systemic issues preventing access to clean drinking water sources.
This project used a different approach to promote equity, based on the data available. This category identifies the waterbodies within communities that score high across three metrics representing concepts related to equity — Transportation, Environmental, and Social. Using this approach, waterbodies within these communities that have equity-related characteristics are prioritized, rather than promoting access to the waterbodies in the region that are already well known to have high benefits. The selected approach meets communities where they are at now.
The Transportation metric refers to the ability to access a waterbody without a personal vehicle. Points are awarded to the waterbodies that are accessible to a greater number of people through public transportation. Points are also awarded to waterbodies in areas that have higher percentages of households without a personal vehicle, because these waterbodies would be easier to access by walking, biking, or traveling in a wheelchair.
The Environmental metric refers to the benefits of the waterbody as a natural space. Points are awarded to waterbodies in areas that suffer from higher temperatures on summer days, representing the "heat island effect". In these areas, the waterbody would be especially valuable as a cooling feature. Points are also awarded to waterbodies in areas that otherwise don't have many other natural spaces such as open water, parks, or forests. These waterbodies may be more valuable to communities because they have few alternatives to enjoy natural spaces.
The Social metric refers to demographics that the Metropolitan Council has identified as important for promoting equity in the region - race, ethnicity, age, income, and ability. Points are awarded to waterbodies near communities that have higher percentages of the following characteristics: Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), recent immigration, lower English proficiency, housing cost burden, areas of concentrated poverty, disability, ages under 18, and ages 65 and above.
For each waterbody, the points for the Transportation, Environmental, and Social metrics were summed together. Then, those points were multiplied by a factor representing how accessible the waterbody is. Waterbodies that are accessible by shore or by water (via boat) were prioritized over waterbodies that don't have any public access. The result was the final equity score — a higher score for waterbodies that are accessible and near communities that score higher in the Transportation, Environmental, and Social metrics compared to other communities in the region.
Industry and utility
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 discharge their treated water back into local waterways.
Each waterbody received a score based on Industry and Utility uses. The uses considered were significant water withdrawal for non-drinking water purposes (for example, for irrigation or to cool equipment), hydroelectric power generation, receiving treated water from wastewater treatment facilities, and barge navigation. A waterbody received points for each use it currently has. Higher scores indicate waterbodies that have multiple Industry and Utility uses.
Science and 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.
Each waterbody's Science and Education score was generated by looking for specific programs that use the waterbody for science and education purposes. Specifically, points were awarded to waterbodies that are part of a long-term academic or government scientific study, waterbodies with a nearby nature center, and waterbodies used for environmental engagement near campsites or as part of urban fishing outreach efforts. Each of these areas awarded a different number of points to contribute to the waterbody's total Science and Education score.
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.
While food provisioning is an important use and benefit, it was not used to help determine the Priority Waters List. We were not able to find data to determine which waterbodies are used more often 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. Despite not using the wild rice dataset for this category, it was used in the Healthy Habitat category. There also are no datasets that generally identify which waterbodies are more often fished for food versus fished as a recreational pastime.
Culture and history
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.
Despite the importance of waterbodies in our history and culture, this category was not used to help determine the Priority Waters List. We considered several datasets to try and estimate a waterbody's cultural and historical importance, but each was incomplete or limited. There are many cultures in the region with different connections to waterbodies, so using datasets which only represent some of those cultures would be biased.
For example, we considered using the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) dataset, which is the U.S. government’s official list of historic places worthy of preservation. A site must meet certain criteria to be eligible for this NRHP dataset. In Minnesota’s history, the indigenous people were forcibly removed from their homelands, disconnecting them from their important cultural and historical sites. As a result, the National Register of Historic Places dataset is not representative of all communities that live in the Twin Cities region. 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 US 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.
When using this Priority Waters List for a project that will impact a waterbody, you should connect with local tribes and communities to understand how they value and interact with the waterbody as part of their culture and history.