Mississippi River Headwaters Reservoirs

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District
Published March 21, 2019
Updated: March 29, 2022
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 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.


A construction contract for approximately $7.5 million was awarded in early fiscal year 2021 for the Sandy Lake Dam rehabilitation project. 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 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 construction pending availability of NLCF funds. Waterfront docks, walkways and shoreline habitat restoration were completed in fall 2021. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds were used to install hands-free fee machines throughout the project area.


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 2021:

President’s Budget                                       $4,366,000

CARES Act                                                         $113,758

FY 2022:

Allocation                                                       $6,510,000