Reviewing and Updating Water Quality Objectives and Alert Levels in Rainy-Lake of the Woods

Bev Clark
Aquatic Scientist
March 05, 2019
rainy river

A project by the IJC’s Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, which began in 2018, aims to review and update water quality objectives and alert levels in the basin.

Water quality objectives are international guidelines that protect water quality or aquatic ecosystem health. They’ve been established by Canada and the United States for sanitary sewage, suspended solids, slime bacteria, coliforms and dissolved oxygen. The objectives apply only to the Rainy River and were meant to restrict historic pollution from industrial and municipal sources. These were adopted by the governments in 1965 and are likely now out of date due to improvements in water quality that have occurred since they were adopted.

Alert levels are advisory level triggers meant to cover other substances not included in the water quality objectives and not ratified by the two governments. They are meant to act as alerts to the watershed board when exceedances occur for any of the guidelines; they also exist only for the Rainy River portion of the watershed.

Current alert levels cover any substance monitored in boundary waters by entities such as Ontario, Minnesota, Environment and Climate Change Canada or the US Environmental Protection Agency and set guidelines for individual substances or conditions as the most stringent used by any of the agencies.

rainy river
The Rainy River. Credit: Lee Grim


The mandate for the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, which began in 2013, requires that water quality objectives and alert levels be reviewed for the entire watershed including areas outside of the Rainy River.  This current project focuses on steps to provide a comprehensive examination of current objectives and alerts and provide guidance to the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board regarding any required updates.

The first step, completed in January 2019, was to review primary documents with respect to water quality and aquatic ecosystem health criteria and identify priority issues. This document review identified the key priorities as nutrients, contaminants, water levels and erosion, climate change and aquatic invasive species.

The second step was to identify appropriate boundary water segments within the watershed that should be considered separately for water quality objectives and alert levels and determine segments of the watershed that are impacted by each priority. This process was completed in January 2019.

The third step is to assess aquatic ecosystem health indicators and metrics that are appropriate to report on the effectiveness of recommended water quality objectives and alert levels. Much has been done and this step will continue following expert workshop feedback.

Finally, the project includes a gap analysis and guidance with respect to lessons learned in other areas.

Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed
The map shows the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed. Credit: Koochiching Soil and Water Conservation District


This first phase of the project is due to be complete in November 2019. Phase 2 will follow by identifying the specific guidelines that will be assigned to the recommended water quality objectives or alert levels.

It is important to note that the recommendations being developed will be ratified and possibly expanded through future expert, stakeholder and public consultations.

Consultations for the current project will begin at the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Forum in International Falls, Minnesota, in March 2019 and continue throughout the summer in different areas of the basin. For further information, contact Kelli Saunders at

Bev Clark
Aquatic Scientist

Bev Clark is an aquatic scientist who authored the 2nd Edition of the State of the Basin Report and has worked on science projects in the basin for several decades. He is a co-investigator together with Nolan Baratono on this project.