A Brief History of the Red River

The Red River begins at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers at the border between Minnesota and North Dakota. Then the Red River flows north through Manitoba into Lake Winnipeg. The Red River lasts 175 km, the portion located in Manitoba, is designated as a Canadian Heritage River due to its cultural and historical value. The river’s basin covers about 251,000 square kilometres (97,000 sq mi), extending roughly 320 kilometres (200 mi) north-south and 160 kilometres (100 mi) east-west, with the terrain sloping towards the south, giving it an average flow in Manitoba of about 2 m³/s.

Flora and Fauna

The Red River is located in a temperate grassland region and most of the territory is converted for agricultural purposes. The land near the river is home to cottonwood, Manitoba maple, green ash, mussels, clams, snails, crayfish, walleye, northern pike, channel catfish, burbot, common carp, bass and crappie inhabit the river in addition to salamanders, snapping turtles, western painted turtles, three species of box turtles, skink, ringneck snakes, plains garter snake, red-sided garter snake, Wisconsin’s state reptile the common snapping turtle and five species of frogs.

Flora and fauna of the Red River Corridor were chronicled as early as 1812 by Alexander Henry. He commented on the abundance of yellow-flowered tick trefoil and purple loosestrife in the river valley while noting that the native grasslands had been largely replaced by introduced species.

Birds of the Red River Valley have not fared well, in part due to changes in land use but also because of industrialization and intensive agriculture. The loss of riparian habitat along rivers has contributed to a decline in migratory bird populations. Raptors like the peregrine falcon, red-shouldered hawk, and broad-winged hawk; sharp-shinned hawk, and Cooper’s hawk are now rarer.

Environmental Concerns

The quality of the water is a concern in the Red River and is affected by both natural and human substances. The river supplies drinking water to municipalities in southern Manitoba, Minnesota, and North Dakota, as well as water for all industrial and agricultural needs (e.g., irrigation).

According to the result of human activities in these regions, the Red River contains high concentrations level of nitrogen and phosphorus, which enter the river through agricultural and urban runoff. High phosphorous levels can lead to increased algae growth resulting from eutrophication.

This is also a concern in the Red River, and increased algae populations cause problems with water treatment because of decreased light penetration for photosynthesis, leading to high levels of organic matter in drinking water. This organic material can be harmful to humans.

Eutrophication is also known as water pollution due to plant nutrients that lead to the excessive growth of plants or algae. Eutrophication results in oxygen-depleted water which can cause the death of aquatic animals. It is caused by natural or artificial inputs of nutrients to the water body. The major nutrient causing eutrophication is phosphorus, but nitrogen also contributes to it. High concentrations of phosphorous are mainly due to runoff from agricultural lands using phosphate-containing fertilizers and discharge from sewage treatment plants.

Water pollution is the contamination of water bodies, usually as a result of human activities. Water may become polluted by the discharge of domestic sewage, industrial effluent, or agricultural runoff into natural waterways or infiltration into groundwater. The many forms of water pollution are interrelated and often cumulative; therefore, the total impact of one form of pollution on water quality may be greater than imagined.

The Red River is also affected by sedimentation, which reduces light penetration at the water’s surface and thus affects photosynthesis in aquatic vegetation. Sediment is caused by runoff from agricultural lands or human activity, such as construction.


Lake Winnipeg is the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world, with a surface area of 31,153 square kilometres (about 12,044 square miles). The southern portion of the lake borders Manitoba and its northern shore forms part of the boundary between Ontario and Minnesota. Its name comes from an Ojibwe word meaning “muddy waters” and is in reference to the dark coloration of the lake in areas where it is shallow. The clear waters in deeper areas are a stunning teal that changes from green to blue.

Lake Winnipeg was carved out by glaciers during the last ice age, and it has been a bountiful fishing area for thousands of years. Contact with Europeans came relatively late in Lake Winnipeg’s history. French explorer Étienne Brûlé was the first to map the area, and his team’s observations were eagerly sought by many European nations who were vying for fur trading rights with the native populations along the lake.

The Red River got its name from an Ojibwe word meaning “muddy water” due to the alluvial deposits that make its riverbed distinctively red. Its watershed drained much of southwestern Manitoba into Lake Winnipeg and was originally known by early French explorers as La Rivière Rouge.

The Red River is significant not only for its history but also for what it gives people today. The international border between Minnesota and the western edge of Lake Winnipeg was defined in 1845 by the United States and Great Britain to follow this river. The Red River basin supplies 90 percent of Manitoba’s agricultural land, supporting cereal grain crops, cattle farming, dairy farms, and bison herds.

The south shore, close to Winnipeg, is characterized by many large man-made lakes, with hundreds of kilometres of canals and dikes. In the 1800s, the Red River was a vital waterway in Canada’s settlement and development westward, but it is no longer a major transport route because its waterways have been made obsolete by train and truck transportation.

Lake Winnipeg is a source for several rivers including

  • There are three major rivers that supply Lake Winnipeg: Red River, Saskatchewan River, and Winnipeg. As a result of its many waterways, Lake Winnipeg is a source for several other rivers, including Buffalo River, Partridge River, Rorketon Creek.
  • Lake Winnipeg drains approximately 155,000 square kilometres (60,000 square miles) via the Red River, Lake Winnipeg, and the Nelson River into Hudson Bay.
  • The combined delta (including that of the Saskatchewan River) occupies an area of over 14,000 square kilometres (5,400 square miles).
  • Lake Winnipeg is home to more than 160 species of fish which attract sport fishing enthusiasts from all over the world.