The Red River flows quietly past the Sorlie Bridge and downtown Grand Forks every day of the year, but intrudes into daily life only rarely - and the same goes for the web of creeks and streams that feed it. To passersby, perhaps the most complicated question for the Red River is when it's finally frozen hard enough for snowmobiles.
Not so to environmental officials in North Dakota, Minnesota and beyond. They see a vibrant, interconnected thing, filled with fish and wildlife, that is a vital part of both states' ecosystems. For someone like Rochelle Nustad, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, what happens in the Red River Basin is an important part of what happens in Lake Winnipeg. And, Nustad said, with growing concern over big algae blooms, what happens in Lake Winnipeg is increasingly turning scientists' eyes upstream.
"The project that we're currently working on is a water quality trend analysis for the international Red River Basin," she said. Drawing on historical data from a range of sources, a report is due out next year that will trace the basin's health back decades. What researchers learn will help them start building solutions for how to fight algal blooms, which experts believe are fed by an overabundance of water-borne nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous.
The study will help address a long-standing problem. The CBC reports that, over the past five years, millions of dollars spent on Lake Winnipeg's health saw phosphorus flows into the lake decreased by less than 1 percent - and, the CBC report notes, "About two-thirds of the phosphorus coming into Lake Winnipeg comes from the Red River."
That underscores both the close, interconnected nature of the watershed as well as ongoing efforts to keep the area healthy. The majority of the basin stretches across the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, but extends down into a corner of South Dakota and upward into Manitoba over a sprawling total area.
Federal law requires states to keep close tabs on water quality and regularly report to the Environmental Protection Agency. Generated biennially, those reports are exhaustive. North Dakota's 2016 report flags 128 separate lakes and stretches of water in the Red River Basin across 22 pages, including portions of the Red River, Bois De Sioux River, Wild Rice River and others. It details a slew of issues and contaminants, from selenium levels in the English Coulee to methylmercury in the Red River near Grand Forks to various other contaminants and impairments throughout eastern North Dakota.
A similar list, submitted earlier this year to the federal government by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, includes data on that state's portion of the Red River Basin. Its findings look similar - across several different sections of the watershed, there are pollutants and "stressors" affecting watershed health. Listed items range from mercury in fish tissue to E. coli levels to water turbidity.
Reading the lists - a cascade of "impaired" waters - gives the impression that water health might be dire. But officials in both states say their quadrants of the Red River Basin are generally healthier than others, owing to the region's relative lack of large urban centers.
"When I first started my career 28 years ago ... the conversations (on environmental protection) were not nearly as well-received as they are now," said Jim Courneya, a watershed unit supervisor with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "I think there's an overall kind of an attitude shift, that people realize that, yes, we have to have productive land up here - we have to be able to make a living, whether it's in a city or on a farm or whatever - but they realize that everybody needs to be (environmentally) protective."
And the local and state officials focused on the watershed's health make up an ecosystem unto themselves. Ted Preister is executive director of the Red River Basin Commission, a group that helps coordinate the care of the basin across state and international boundaries.
"Each of the states, North Dakota and Minnesota, probably have between a dozen and 20 sub-governmental organizations that pay attention to the health of the water, from county to watershed districts to soil and water districts," he said, not to mention groups like the International Joint Commission, which manages U.S.-Canada boundary waters. "There are literally hundreds of organizations that are spending time thinking about the river and doing things to support the health of the river."
And Preister added that the most important work to preserve watershed health happens at the local level. A $10 million project in the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District starts there soon to clear a creek, relieve flooding and improve water quality downstream in Fargo. Another project is underway near Thief River Falls to ease the effects bank sloughing and wastewater discharge can have on nutrient levels - like the phosphorous Nustad is looking for in the historical record.
"Generally, the health of the ecosystem is still relatively good," Preister said. "Now, Lake Winnipeg is suffering, and no one can deny that. But 70 years of increasing use of the river has created those conditions-so nothing we do is going to fix it next year."
But, he said, every little thing helps.