Upper Mississippi River

Managing the Upper Mississippi River

Restoring America's River: Using the Water Resources Development Act To Mend the Upper Mississippi River
Structures built to facilitate barge navigation on the Mississippi River significantly damaged river ecosystems. In this report, the Nicollet Island Coalition shows how existing federal programs can be used to restore the river and create diverse local economies while maintaining the river's role in America's transportation system.

The Upper Mississippi River is one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet. It includes 50 species of mammals, 45 of reptiles and amphibians, 37 of mussels, and 241 of fish. The river is home to the most ancient linage of freshwater fisheries in North America – the aquatic counterpart to the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Rivers are naturally dynamic landscapes; they change seasonally in flow, depth, and content. Over time, the river’s ecosystems – including backwater, wetland, marsh, and forest areas and the flora and fauna that live within these areas – adapt to the natural ebb and flow.

Humans have altered this natural dynamic state in very profound ways, causing significant degrading of river ecosystems. The primary cause is the impoundment of rivers by dams. Other significant but less direct causes include the conversion of natural land to human-developed land uses (primarily to agriculture), urban pollution, and agricultural runoff.

The symptoms of a degraded river can be obvious but are also often very subtle. Some of the specific symptoms and their causes include

  • Sedimentation: Eroded soils fill the pools behind dams and eliminate backwaters and side channels that are vital for recreation, fish, and wildlife.
  • Disconnected Floodplains: Levees isolate rivers from large segments of their floodplain and limit forest diversity.
  • Hydrological Changes: Dams alter water levels and annual pulses in ways that decrease biodiversity.
  • Pollution: Agriculture runoff from fertilizers and pesticides is a major contributor and remains exempt from regulation. Urban runoff also continues to be a significant but more localized problem.

The Upper Mississippi River suffers from all of these symptoms. In the impounded section (the length dammed from Minneapolis/St. Paul south to Alton, Illinois, and the llinois River) sedimentation and hydrological changes are major problems. From the Quad Cities to Cairo, Illinois, and the majority of the Illinois River, levees have disconnected large segments of the floodplain from the river.

The Izaak Walton League is leading efforts to reform the Upper Mississippi navigation system and the Army Corps of Engineer's management and mitigation processes. We are working with other environmental and conservation organizations through the Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC) on whether existing Upper Mississippi River navigation facilities should be expanded, improved, or merely rehabilitated.  In addition, NIC strongly supports the implementation of a long-term efficient and effective ecosystem restoration program for the Upper Mississippi River basin.

The League is working through several venues to affect river navigation and restoration issues, including agricultural impacts on the river, and promoting sustainable agriculture practices and the development of farm conservation programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Whether in policy development or localized action, the League maintains a priority position for the Upper Mississippi River basin.

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