US Army Corps of Engineers
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Mississippi River Headwaters Reservoirs

Published March 21, 2019
Updated: April 15, 2020
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 headwaters lakes 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. The navigation mission of the headwaters 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 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-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 general public and Native American communities.

Since their construction, the reservoirs in the headwaters have prevented $66 million in flood damages.


Funding in fiscal year 2019 was used to complete the plans and specification for the Sandy Lake Dam rehabilitation project. Construction funding of $7.5 million was received in the fiscal year 2020 work plan. Work continues on boundary surveying and rectification of fee and flowage easement lands, and completion of a special status species inventory for the Mississippi River Headwaters Reservoirs Project. A section of Gull Lake Dam Road will be closed to through traffic on December 1, 2025. A federal Highway Administration-funded replacement roadway is in the project development process. 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 construction pending availability of NLCF funds. Associated waterfront activities such as docks and interpretive kiosks are planned for summer 2020.


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 2019:
Allocation                                                        $5.2 million

FY 2020:
President’s Budget                                        $4.4 million
Work Plan for Sandy Dam Rehab               $7.5 million