Mississippi River Headwaters Reservoirs

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District
Published March 21, 2019
Updated: April 15, 2024
Mississippi River Headwaters reservoirs

Mississippi River Headwaters reservoirs map

The Mississippi River Headwaters Project consists of six headwaters dams in north-central Minnesota. Cross Lake, Gull Lake, Big Sandy Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish, Pokegama Lake and Leech Lake make up the system. They were constructed or reconstructed between 1900 and 1913 (work on Pokegama started in 1884 and Winnibigoshish in 1885) to aid navigation on the Mississippi River between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Because the navigation mission of the headwater’s dams declined with the creation of the upper Mississippi River 9-foot navigation channel and as recreation grew in importance to the region’s economy, the mission shifted to flood risk management, recreation and environmental stewardship.

The project is located in north-central Minnesota near the towns of Cross Lake, Brainerd, McGregor, Deer River, Grand Rapids and Federal Dam.

The project includes six Corps-managed campgrounds and several day-use areas. The project’s multiple-use water resource management (flood risk management, recreation and environmental stewardship) affects several communities, thousands of property owners, countless recreational users, resource agencies, industry, the public and Native American communities. Since their construction, the headwaters reservoirs have prevented $66 million in flood damages.

A construction contract for approximately $7.5 million was completed in fiscal year 2023 for the Sandy Lake Dam rehabilitation project. Work continues on boundary surveying and rectification of fee and flowage easement lands, and completion of recreation facility upgrades for energy efficiency and sustainability. A federal highway administration-funded replacement roadway is in the project development process for the Gull Lake Dam Road. An easement for the proposed National Loon Center at the Cross Lake Recreation Area has been granted to the National Loon Center Foundation (NLCF) with facility construction pending availability of NLCF funds. Waterfront docks, walkways and shoreline habitat restoration were completed in fall 2021. 

Preliminary engineering reports to include rehabilitation alternatives for Pokegama, Gull and Leech Lake Dams were completed in fiscal year 2023. Recreation funds in the amount of $115,000 were originally cut from the Fiscal Year 2023 President’s Budget. Due to the potential impacts of reduced public recreation services, Corps Headquarters distributed the same amount in Fiscal Year 2022 America the Beautiful Pass funding for carryover and use in fiscal year 2023. The Corps requested $2,063,000 for recreation funding in fiscal year 2024. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding will be used in fiscal year 2023 to repair the toe ditch drain at Winnibigoshish Dam.

The River and Harbor Acts of June 14, 1880 (21 Stat. 180), and August 2, 1882 (22 Stat. 191), authorized the construction of the six dams. Congress directed the Secretary of War to establish regulations governing their operation through the River and Harbor Act of August 11, 1888.


FY 2023:
Allocation    O&M - $6,280,560
    BIL - $750,000

FY 2024:
President’s Budget    $5,647,000