Treasures and Tragedy of the Upper Mississippi

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The Upper Mississippi River at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border - credit National Park Service

Next year, we will remember the creation of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which the Izaak Walton League forged in 1924. The League leveraged its growing membership and influence to convince Congress, the White House and four states to set aside the rich wetlands along the river. But as noted water expert Chris Jones explains, many challenges remain. Here is his take on the Mississippi, past and present.

Chris Jones

The Upper Mississippi’s hydrology and water quality have suffered from the onslaught of civilization and modern agriculture for two centuries. While polluted water can be sourced back to various human activities, disturbed hydrology can multiply pollution’s deleterious effects for sensitive species.

Cleanup of industrial and municipal wastewater discharges began in 1938 when the Minneapolis-St. Paul wastewater treatment plant was completed, and the Clean Water Act of 1972 regulated these “point” sources at the national scale. The law, however, left most “non-point” source pollution from agricultural and urban runoff unregulated, although rules governing urban runoff have been in place for about 20 years for cities with a population greater than 10,000.

Although it’s fair to say that the river’s water quality has improved in many respects since 1972, nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution from agriculture is likely as bad as it’s ever been, especially that which is sourced back to nitrogen fertilizers.

The upper river can send south nearly 1.5 billion pounds of nitrogen from row crop and animal agriculture in an average year. This helps feed nuisance algae blooms in the river itself and downstream in the Gulf of Mexico, where a “dead zone” forms every year because oxygen is depleted by the dying algae. The Izaak Walton League has launched a program to monitor nitrate pollution nationwide—Nitrate Watch. This is a grassroots effort to get citizens engaged in the science of water quality.

About any water pollutant you can think of is present at some level in the Upper Mississippi—heavy metals, E. coli bacteria, PCBs, pesticides, and maybe most importantly, the emerging contaminants in the PFAS “forever chemical” family. That all being said, if the Upper Mississippi were an interior warmwater stream in states like Iowa, it would be the very best in terms of overall water quality, and this by a long shot. By that I mean to say the interior rivers and streams in Iowa are in really bad shape.

Can the river’s disturbed but somewhat acceptable condition endure future stressors? Climate-change-driven flow extremes, more navigation infrastructure, intensification of agriculture and invasive species like Asian carp will degrade the river—for the aquatic life, recreation and municipal water supply. It’s hard to see the river maintaining status quo without robust intervention by state and federal government.

Still an Oasis

Today, the Upper Mississippi refuge is still an oasis for fish and wildlife and worthy of celebration during its 100th anniversary in 2024. And it sits in the middle of the Driftless Area, which has its own unique ecosystems, geography and history.

The League’s first national president, Will Dilg, loved the Upper Miss and claimed to fish there at least 60 days every year. He regarded efforts to drain and farm what’s known as the Winneshiek bottomlands as the “Drainage Crime of the Century.”

It's hard to see the river maintaining status quo without robust intervention by state and federal government.

He said this of the river: “The Upper Mississippi bottoms are America’s most prolific spawning grounds for black bass and for all warm-water game and food fishes.... Nowhere on this earth are there such natural feeding grounds for ducks, brant and geese. Here also are found every species of our four-footed little animals, such as mink, muskrat, raccoon, skunk, squirrel, swamp rabbit, etc.

“And last but not least, every kind of songbird by the countless thousands. Veritably, these river lands offer you and your boy and posterity the greatest sport to be found on this planet.”

In this region, the Mississippi River sloughs around Lansing, Iowa, and DeSoto, Wisconsin, a place known as the Winneshiek Bottoms.

That area is now part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge that was saved (barely) from agriculture’s insatiable appetite for land by the two-year-old Izaak Walton League in 1924, the second big conservation win for the nascent organization. (The first was preventing road construction into the Superior National Forest of Minnesota.)

Although Dilg and the League helped save the Winneshiek Bottoms from drainage, the area wasn’t spared from flooding. Much of the bottomland was inundated when the river was made suitable for navigation by the modern lock and dam system. Nonetheless, the League’s efforts left a great legacy: only three percent of the floodplain above Rock Island, Illinois, is farmed. Below Rock Island: 50 percent.

Indigenous History Echoes Through the Region

Names like Winneshiek and Blackhawk are familiar to Iowans mainly because they were attached to two of our counties. Numerous places, schools, sports teams, military weapons and even a community college and a country club bear the Blackhawk name. The iconic Blackhawk Bridge, made famous by the movie The Straight Story, is one of a series of four bridges that span the Mississippi.

But the Mississippi’s Iowa-Wisconsin river corridor is also where Sauk Chief Blackhawk was defeated in 1832, opening Iowa to white settlement. Blackhawk’s people had crossed the river into what is now Wisconsin, violating a treaty they misunderstood, to access their traditional summering ground. U.S. troops drove women and children of Blackhawk’s tribe into the Mississippi, where they drowned near what is now the tiny village of Victory, Wisconsin, so named to commemorate the U.S. conquest.

Winnebago Chief Winneshiek (Coming Thunder) was an advisor and confidante of Blackhawk whose people occupied areas of northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin, and they were known to have encampments along the Upper Iowa River. Winneshiek was asked to side with U.S. troops in the Blackhawk War; he refused.

The river town of DeSoto, Wisconsin, is thought to have been built upon the burial ground of Winneshiek’s tribe, and Winneshiek himself is rumored to have been buried on the bluff that overlooks the DeSoto, aptly named Mount Winneshiek.

Non-Farmers in a "Farm State"

I think a lot these days how these events are relevant to my own life. My ancestors were among those that poured into an Iowa made “open” by Blackhawk’s defeat. They farmed in the counties of Des Moines, Davis and Wapello (another Native American chief ) in southeast Iowa, and Warren County in south central Iowa. My uncle had a museum-quality collection of Native American artifacts unearthed by his uncle’s plow in Davis County.

Your right to enjoy nature, and especially clean water, should not be debased by the fact that you're surrounded by farmable land.

I sometimes wonder if fate might have had me farming now, had my ancestors been better at it. I now reside in an old Amish cabin on the edge of DeSoto, Wisconsin, although I’m still pretty much anchored in Iowa City.

Farmers proudly boast that they are the 5th or 6th or Nth generation of their family to earn a living off their patch of Iowa. “Never sell the home section” is a deathbed command made by many to their heirs across the generations, a concept foreign to the peoples of Blackhawk and Winneshiek.

I too am a 5th or 6th generation Iowan, and I see my rights as a non-farming citizen as being no different from those that farm. And whether your genes have been in Iowa for two hours or two centuries, I think your right to enjoy nature, and especially clean water, should not be debased by the fact that you’re surrounded by farmable land.

It’s not uncommon to hear some variation of “we’re a farm state, get used to it.” I reject that. And I think if the state is to have a prosperous future, this outlook needs to be rejected by the masses.

I can sit in my humble little cabin and see the Iowa bluffs and the Blackhawk Bridge from seven miles away, the latter especially at night when it is decoratively lit. I wish I could put into words the irony I feel in being able to look up from typing this and see my home state from afar. If you’ve never seen the Blackhawk Bridge, I suggest you plan a trip to Lansing because it will soon be gone and replaced with something better.

The beauty of this Driftless Area and especially the Upper Mississippi have endured, thanks in no small part to the Izaak Walton League. Hopefully, we and our leaders will continue to have the good sense to recognize the value it brings to the Midwest and America.

What Is the Driftless Area?

The Driftless is arguably the most scenic part of the U.S. Midwest, and it’s fair to say the bluffland beauty that encloses the Upper Miss compares favorably with anything America has to offer. It’s an oasis in a corn desert for Midwesterners thirsting for natural scenery, and one of the few places of such beauty that remains undiscovered by the crowds that sometimes plague places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

In geology, “drift” refers to all the debris transported and deposited by glaciers and their meltwater, and this glacial garbage can be as much as 500 feet thick in the states of the Upper Mississippi River basin: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

Glaciers spread drift across the landscape like peanut butter on an English muffin, masking surface roughness and leaving much of the landscape approximately level and ideal for crop farming. Little of the region was left untouched by glacial ice, save a roughly oval piece of plain muffin we call “The Driftless” that straddles the Mississippi River from Red Wing, Minnesota, down to Clinton, Iowa.

In truth, driftless is a misnomer for the Iowa and Minnesota portions, as only the Wisconsin and some of the Illinois side is completely without drift. But the effects of glaciation were small enough and long enough ago west of the river that erosion has made the Iowa and Minnesota portions look much like the rest, giving it all a common natural and cultural identity. Thankfully, the geologists have not insisted that those west of the river become incongruent with the purebred Driftlessians.

Top photo: The Upper Mississippi River at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Credit: National Park Service.

Chris Jones is author of "The Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth about Agriculture and Water," published by Ice Cube Press. Until recently Jones was a Research Engineer with IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa. He holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Montana State and a B.A. in chemistry and biology from Simpson College. Previous career stops include the Des Moines Water Works and the Iowa Soybean Association.