IJC-backed Wastewater Treatment Project sees Reduction in Nutrient Pollution into Red River


HALSTAD, MINN. –The wastewater facility in Halstad, Minnesota, has seen an approximately 70% reduction in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus released into the Red River annually thanks to a wastewater treatment optimization program funded by the Red River Basin Commission (RRBC) and International Joint Commission (IJC).

In 2021 and 2022, the RRBC and the IJC partnered with the US Environmental Protection Agency to hold a series of seminars and site visits to wastewater treatment facilities in the Red River basin. The site visits yielded some potential low-cost solutions for improving water quality and a pilot project was approved for the city of Halstad. Project funds were used to install automated aeration upgrades at the Halstad wastewater facility and for the purchase of a handheld spectrophotometer for water testing.

“The total cost of our optimization program was $20,000 and yielded a 70% reduction in nutrients discharged from the Halstad plant. That is a significant return on investment! Hopefully, municipalities along the entire transboundary will look to EPA’s optimization strategy to improve outcomes for their communities and watersheds,” stated an enthusiastic Rob Sisson, one of the IJC Commissioners.

Since this work was completed in early 2023, the city has seen marked reductions in both nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients responsible for water quality issues along the Red River and Lake Winnipeg at its outlet. Halstad officials had considered shutting down the facility in favor of a wastewater lagoon, but these preliminary optimization results indicate that these smaller, cost-effective improvements to a facility can prove beneficial and should be considered in future planning.

The IJC’s portion of the funding for these seminars and the Halstad upgrades came through the International Watersheds Initiative, which promotes managing transboundary watersheds across international jurisdictions as whole entities.

"One of the reasons we contributed to this initiative is because of the applicability of the idea to many facilities and – if we can learn from each other and work together - the potential to have a cumulative positive impact. The International Watershed Initiative can support this kind of work that can helps us all think like a watershed,” said Merrell-Ann Phare, IJC commissioner. 

In 2022, the IJC’s International Red River Watershed Board (Board) received a revised Directive from the IJC to include monitoring of contaminants in the watershed. The IJC had previously sent a letter to governments recommending approval of Board-suggested monitoring targets in the Red River.

Quick Facts

  • The Red River basin occupies substantial portions of North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota, southern Manitoba and a very small portion of northeastern South Dakota. It covers 116,500 square kilometers or 45,000 square miles, excluding the Assiniboine River basin, which joins the Red River at Winnipeg.
  • In a December, 2019 letter to the IJC, the Board recommended that concentrations, or specific levels of total phosphorus and nitrogen in the water, would best be limited to 0.15 milligrams per liter (0.15 parts per million) and 1.15 mg/l (1.15 ppm), respectively. The loading targets (i.e., amount of nutrients in the river passing by the international boundary) are 1,400 tons/year for phosphorus and 9,525 tons/year for nitrogen.
  • In addition to monitoring phosphorus and nitrogen levels, five other water quality objectives were previously established for the Red River and are monitored by the Board. They are: Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), Dissolved Oxygen (DO), Chloride (Cl), Sulphate (SO4) and E. coli.
  • The Board’s responsibilities are outlined in an amended 2022 Directive.
  • The IJC is an independent body established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help the governments of Canada and the United States prevent and resolve disputes over use of the waters shared by the two countries. It officially designated the Red River Board as an international watershed board in August 2021.

Associated Links


Christina Chiasson      Canadian Section            Christina.Chiasson@ijc.org   613-293-1031

Kevin Bunch                U.S. Section                    Kevin.Bunch@ijc.org             202-632-2014