The Kettle River Watershed


The Kettle River watershed covers 672,235 acres and spans into parts of Aitkin, Carlton, Kanabec, and Pine counties. The headwaters for the Kettle River begins in southwestern Carlton County and flows 104 miles south to join the St. Croix south of Hinckley. The Kettle River watershed includes dozens of lakes and wetlands and a few small streams that flow into the St. Croix River, which borders the watershed on the southeast. There are 23 lakes 100 acres or greater in the Kettle River watershed. Major cities include Hinckley, Kettle River, Barnum, Willow River, Moose Lake, Sturgeon Lake, Sandstone, and Finlayson. The watershed also includes part of the Fond du Lac tribal lands.
Land uses in the Kettle River watershed are predominately forest (55%), agriculture (20%), and wetlands (19%). Currently impairments are mercury (lakes and Kettle River), bacteria, and biota.


In 2016, ten lakes in the Kettle River Watershed were monitored by local volunteers, Conservation Corps and the Carlton SWCD.   The monitoring was funded by a Surface Water Assessment Grant (SWAG) through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Monthly samples were taken for Total Phosphorus, Chlorophyll a, and Secchi Disk Transparency from May through September.  Four sites were also sampled for Sulfate and in June, Calcium and Hardness were measured on all lakes. Want to see what we learned? Visit the Kettle River 2016 Monitoring page.

In addition to the SWAG lake monitoring grant, five streams were monitored in Carlton County through MPCA SWAG and Clean Water Partnership Grants. All data collected will eventually be included in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) document.

Want to learn more about what MPCA is doing in the Kettle River Watershed? Check out

Other Projects
The Kettle River is a part of the larger St. Croix watershed which is impaired for excess nutrients; specifically the levels of phosphorus exceed the state standard. (You can learn more about the St. Croix TMDL study here.) To address the excess phosphorus entering this system in our region, the Carlton SWCD has partnered with neighboring Pine county SWCD, Aitkin county SWCD, and Kanabec county SWCD to identify potential conservation projects in areas most likely to contribute high amounts of phosphorus.  The Kettle River Watershed Phosphorus Reduction Project uses a variety of data sets to identify the priority conservation areas and to reach out to private landowners in those areas for conservation projects.   Learn more about this project in the  The Kettle River Watershed Phosphorus Reduction Project page.

Special Characteristics

Designated Wild and Scenic River

The Kettle River is a State-designated Wild and Scenic River that has a diversity of habitat and gradient along its 80 mile length. The river originates in a series of small, slow flowing bog streams near Cromwell in Carlton County. From river mile 62 (near the Carlton County 131 crossing) downstream, the river is large enough to have suitable gamefish habitat. The width of the river ranges from 75 feet at the beginning of the navigable portion to 250 feet in the lower reaches.

The Kettle River contains some rocky, high gradient rapids, most notably the series of whitewater rapids as the river flows through Banning State Park known as Hells Gate. This area most be avoided or portaged around as it is extremely dangerous. Rapids also occur south of Robinson Park near Sandstone at the old dam site, at river mile 18.5 (between Sandstone and Highway 48, known as the Friesland Rapids), and near the mouth of the river in St. Croix State Park. The Friesland Rapids and the area in St. Croix State Park can usually be canoed during most water conditions, although during low water you may need to pull the canoe through some spots. Most of the rest of the river can be paddled easily by a novice canoeist.Since much of the water comes from runoff, the Kettle River is subject to low flows in late summer, especially in the upper reaches. It is recommended that boaters check gauge readings  before making a trip.

Click here to go to the MN DNR Kettle River webpage for more details about fishing the Kettle River: MN DNR Kettle River Page

Lake Sturgeon

One notable fishing characteristic of the Kettle River is the recovering Lake Sturgeon population. small lake sturgeon

In the early 1990’s fisheries managers at the Hinckley area office began to investigate the status of lake sturgeon populations in the area, particularly in the Kettle River. There were concerns that the numbers of lake sturgeon were declining; anglers reported seeing fewer large sturgeon, and fish population assessments on the Kettle and St.Croix rivers showed few sturgeon. At the time very little was known about the life history and distribution of lake sturgeon in area river systems. To find the needed information, DNR Fisheries personnel in Hinckley applied several study methods including tagging (mark and recapture) and radio telemetry.

Why is tagging a useful tool in studying fish populations? Tagging helps biologists recognize individual fish and track information such as migration and growth rate as the fish are recaptured in subsequent years. It also allows biologists to calculate estimates of the total number of fish living in a lake or river system.

Click here to go to the MN DNR Lake Sturgeon studies webpage for more details about fishing the Kettle River: MN DNR Lake Sturgeon