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St. Croix Watershed Research Station

St. Croix Watershed Research Station (SCWRS) is the field research station of the Science Museum of Minnesota. Station scientific staff conduct ongoing ecological research at the watershed scale. The SCWRS supports an active year-round program in environmental research and graduate-student training, guided by a full-time in-house research staff with direct ties to area universities and colleges. We collaborate closely with federal, state, and local agencies with responsibility for managing the St. Croix and upper Mississippi rivers and are a full partner with the National Park Service for resource management in parks of the western Great Lakes region. The SCWRS welcomes visiting researchers conducting field investigations here or in the area, and has both housing and laboratory facilities for the scientific and educational communities.

“The mission of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station (SCWRS) is to foster, through research and outreach, a better understanding of the ecological systems of the St. Croix River basin and watersheds worldwide.”

To accomplish our mission we…

Conduct research directly related to environmental management and policy for the St. Croix River

  • Excess nutrients and eutrophication from point-source and non-point runoff
  • Watershed modeling for best-management to reduce nutrient and sediment inputs to the St. Croix
  • Effects of land-use change, including urbanization and agricultural intensification on water quality in the St. Croix and its tributaries

Conduct research addressing global-change issues

  • Mercury pollution from long-distance atmospheric transport
  • Effects of climate change on lakes and watersheds
  • Aquatic biodiversity in the remote and unstudied regions of the world
  • Erosion and sediment sources in rivers draining agricultural watersheds
  • Ecology and biogeochemistry of shallow lake systems
  • Cultural eutrophication of lakes and rivers

Promote conservation of ecologically important lands in the lower St. Croix valley through acquisition and cooperative management

  • Metro Greenways corridor
  • Ownership and management of other SCWRS lands (Spring Creek, Pine Needles, Tanglewood)
  • Ecological restoration of upland habitats using native seed sources and techniques to maximize diversity

Foster understanding of the ecological systems of the St. Croix basin through educational programs, outreach, and technology transfer

  • Newsletters, research conferences, lectures and hikes, community open house
  • Pine Needles Artist/Writer in Residence program
  • Science Training and Research Skills (STARS) program  providing research experiences and career-building opportunities for high school and college students
  • TAPWaters - Technical Assistance Program for Watershed Management
  • Exhibits and public programs through the Science Museum of Minnesota
  • Hosts undergraduate and graduate training through area colleges and universities

The Land Base

SCWRS lands harbor numerous rare and unusual species including several that are state or federally listed. Together the SCWRS and the St. Croix River watershed provide valuable research opportunities in ecology, limnology, and field biology. The 150-ha (370 acres) land base of the SCWRS is divided into three tracts.

Spring Creek Tract (77 ha)

Fifteen distinct habitat types, typical of the watershed in general, are available on this tract within several hundred meters of the facilities. These include the entire course of Spring Creek (a first-order trout stream), two additional first-order coldwater streams, main channel and backwater river habitats including flood-plain forest, artesian springs, fens, a pond, cattail wetland, restored prairie, old field, and shrub swamp habitats, in addition to birch-tamarack, ash-basswood, oak-aspen, and pineland forest segments. Access trails are maintained to several key sites.

Tanglewood Tract (65 ha)

The Tanglewood Tract includes a 24-ha addition, recently acquired through Minnesota’s “Metro Greenways Corridor” program. The corridor (1100 ha total area) connects the Spring Creek and Tanglewood tracts with the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Warner Nature Center and is jointly managed by the SCWRS and its neighboring non-profits.

Pine Needles Tract (8 ha)

The Pine Needles Tract serves as the primary venue for the station’s Artist in Residence program (now in its 10th year), and as supplemental housing when the residence is not in session (spring and fall).

Management of the Tanglewood Tract follows a detailed plan that includes removal of invasive trees from natural prairie openings. Experimental prairies on the Spring Creek Tract are burned on a multi-year rotation, and plot boundaries are maintained by mowing. Detailed records of preparation and management of prairies (including seeding rates and site preparation) have been maintained since their establishment (> 10 years). Other Station lands are managed largely in their native state, allowing successional processes and natural perturbations to proceed without intervention. Large-scale experimental efforts to control non-native European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) by dormant-season herbicide application, cutting, and burning, have proven largely ineffective and are now largely discontinued. Lands are routinely inspected for new invasives, such as garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and detected populations are removed by hand-pulling. A program of managed deer-harvesting by adult-mentored youth bow-hunting has been ongoing  on SCWRS lands for about the last 10 years.


The primary research and office facilities of the SCWRS are located in two adjacent buildings.

The main facility is the 6200 ft2Harmon Research Center, which supports four laboratories, research library, conference room, administrative and office space, equipment storage areas, and garage.

The Harmon Research Center is a single-floor, fully ADA accessible structure with state-of-the-science laboratories. The main laboratory is equipped with a full array of research instrumentation including a LACHAT QuickChem 8000 Autoanalyzer, Teledyne-Tekmar UV carbon analyzer, Varian UV-Vis spectrophotometer, Edwards Modulio 5-L bulk freeze dryer system, and general laboratory equipment including fume hoods, Millipore water deionization system, drying ovens, muffle furnace, bench-top and water-bath shakers, high-capacity centrifuge, autoclave, steam scrubber, fluorometer, electronic balances, pH meters, lab-refrigerators, and walk-in cold room.

The microscope lab is equipped with three Olympus BX50-51 research-grade compound microscopes and a Leica MZ8 stereomicroscope. The compound scopes have Plan Apo objectives with matching condensers and multiple-illumination capabilities; each is equipped with a digital camera that is connected to a dedicated computer workstation. The laboratory houses an extensive collection of diatom reference material including slide collections, a large digital-image database, and a comprehensive library of taxonomic references.

Other specialized laboratories include the 210Pb dating lab and the gamma spectrometry lab, which serve in the dating of lake sediment cores and for current research on sediment-source fingerprinting.

The second facility, the Spring Creek building, houses the TAPwaters hydrological modeling lab, various staff members, graduate students, and visiting scientists.

A four-bedroom full-log cabin, completed in 1994, provides year-round housing for up to eight visiting researchers. One seasonal cottage located on the Pine Needles Tract serves as the primary venue for the station’s Artist in Residence program.

A newly constructed 3500 ft2 garage and maintenance facility houses a fully equipped shop for repair and fabrication along with storage space for station vehicles, boats, ATV, and other heavy equipment. The SCWRS has two vehicles  for use in field research, a full-size AWD Chevrolet van and an AWD Honda Element. In addition the station owns a three-quarter ton 4WD pick-up for maintenance and snow removal.

In addition to a boat-launch and docking facility on SCWRS property, the station owns three trailer-mounted boats (with outboard motors) including a 20-ft high-performance jon-boat for large waters, an 18-ft jon-boat, and a 12-ft lightweight rowboat. The fleet also includes several canoes and inflatables for remote and wilderness-based research. The SCWRS has standard field equipment for general limnological work, including field meters and samplers for water, plankton, and benthos. More specialized equipment is also available for hydrological monitoring, including a dozen Campbell data loggers, YSI and Hydrolab sonde units, five ISCO automated samplers, and three current meters. The station has a full array of equipment for sediment coring with gravity corers (four), Livingstone corers, surface piston corers, and more than 100 m of light-weight magnesium drive rod.

The SCWRS maintains a modern distributed network of personal computers and peripherals. A hard-wire (ethernet) and wireless LAN connect computers in both buildings to peripherals (multiple laser and inkjet printers and a 42” HP DesignJet plotter) and the internet (via business DSL).

The primary holdings of the J.W.G. Dunn Research Library include its journal collection, reference texts, agency reports, and map and photo collections. The library has acquired an extensive set of technical and general reference books and paper subscription to nearly 50 scientific journals covering aquatic biology, ecology, limnology, paleoecology, hydrology, and soils. The station library holds the largest regional collection of agency reports (“gray literature”) on the St. Croix River, along with a rich archive of historical maps and photographs from the St. Croix valley. All collections are computerized for efficient searching.

Ongoing Research

The research program at the SCWRS is strongly focused on scientifically important questions that are directly related to environmental management and policy. Recent and ongoing projects include:

  • Lake St. Croix nutrient loading and ecological health assessment
  • Effects of agricultural drainage on river flows and erosion
  • Burial of organic carbon in temperate shallow lakes
  • Evaluation of the sulfate standard to protect wild rice in Minnesota lakes
  • Effects of mining-sulfate on mercury methylation and cycling
  • Lake of the Woods historical phosphorus mass-balance
  • Great Lakes restoration effects on fish mercury levels
  • Diatoms biomonitoring and paleolimnology in the Western Great Lakes National Parks
  • Mapping and biological studies of shoreline rock pools in three Lake Superior national parks
  • The history, mechanism, and drivers of botulism outbreaks near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, Michigan
  • Synthesis of national coastal assessment data for Great Lakes National Parks
  • Modeling the effects of past and future climate change on National Park lakes in the Great Lakes Network
  • Nitrogen deposition to lakes of the National Parks within the Great Lakes Network
  • Dioxins derived from antibacterials in Minnesota lakes

The SCWRS maintains a large and active collection of diatom reference materials as well as a substantial archive of dated sediment cores. These reference collections are from lakes and rivers throughout the world, but also have a strong focus on Minnesota.

Public Engagement

SCWRS sponsors an annual conference, the St. Croix River Research Rendezvous. This forum, held annually the third Tuesday of October, brings together scientists, resource managers, agency staff and the interested public to hear presentations about research plans, projects and findings in the St. Croix watershed.

The Friends of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station provides an additional level of public interaction and support for the research station. Members are invited to special Friends-only events that feature behind-the-scenes introductions to the research, scientists, and activities at the station or in the St. Croix watershed.

The mission of Science Training and Research Skills (STARS) is to provide authentic scientific research experiences and career building opportunities for high school and college students, particularly students from groups underrepresented in the sciences. It accomplishes its mission through two main components: immersive high school workshops and mentored internships for college students. The high school workshops develop participants' familiarity with water quality issues and the tools that scientists use to study aquatic systems. The mentored internships are designed to give undergraduate students in the natural sciences an opportunity to perform their own research and learn about careers in their field.

The Artist at Pine Needles residency program invites natural history artists or writers to spend two to four weeks to immerse themselves in a field experience, gather resource materials, and interact with environmental scientists and the local community.

Research Opportunities

The SCWRS encourages research activities by visiting scientists and students using its landbase and facilities. Studies that make use of unique habitats present on or adjacent to Station lands – coldwater springs and trout streams, fens, floodplain forests, large-river backwater environs, and restored prairies – are especially welcome. A list of past and ongoing projects can be found online. All researchers proposing to conduct research involving the use of the facilities or lands of the SCWRS need to submit an application for research. Click here for further information for visiting researchers, including application procedures.

The SCWRS provides housing and lab space at a reduced rate as in-kind support on a case-by-case basis – especially for students lacking other resources.