The Mississippi River Is in Danger: What That Means for Wisconsin

(TripAdvisor Photo)

By Fiona Hatch

July 24, 2023

A changing climate has left the waterway more likely to flood or dry up than ever before. But there is something you can do.

Fondly referred to as “America’s river”, the mighty Mississippi is an essential natural resource for the entire country. The waterway spans more than 2,300 miles and is home to 400 different animal species. And, as one of ten states that shares its border, Wisconsin is especially dependent on the Mississippi’s health. Unfortunately, one of America’s great rivers is in greater danger than ever before.

An Age of Extremes

The Mississippi has oscillated between two vastly different states over the last several years. At the end of 2022, the river reached a historic low water level–the result of warmer and drier-than-usual weather. In October, parts of the river dropped below 11 feet deep in Tennessee, leaving boats struggling to navigate downstream. 

Fast-forward to April, and the National Weather Service was issuing flooding warnings for the Upper Mississippi after a snowy winter and a rapid warmup. Wisconsin cities bordering the river like Alma, La Crosse, and Lynxville all set records for flooding. 

The Mississippi will continue to see these drastic changes year-to-year and month-to-month as global warming worsens. 

If it’s dry, it’s gonna get drier. If it’s wet, it’s gonna get wetter,” said Dorian Burnette, a professor at the University of Memphis warned, in an interview with Mississippi Today

Other Unfortunate Realities

The Mississippi’s water quality is also at risk. The National Park Service found that certain parts of the river have unsafe levels of mercury, PCBs and bacteria like E Coli. These abnormally-high numbers make stretches of the river’s water unsafe for swimming, fishing, and drinking. 

Other pollutants, like microplastics and pharmaceuticals, are also impacting the river’s water quality. Even natural pollutants like soil and sediment are reaching concerning levels due to increasing erosion. 

The Upper Mississippi River is particularly vulnerable to sedimentation not only because it covers such a vast land area but because the river’s lock and dam system has changed water’s natural movement,” the Wisconsin DNR said. 

Because of this, the Mississippi has been added to the state’s impaired water list.

What This Means For You

Wisconsin will feel the impact of a deteriorating Mississippi in several ways. 

While we get our drinking water from a variety of places, the Mississippi is an important one. Water from the river is mostly used as cities’ public water supply or for agricultural irrigation. Low water levels could hit cities and local farms–both big and small–hard.

The tourism industry could also take a hit. The Mississippi is a big tourist draw–creating $21 billion in annual revenue and 358,000 jobs just in the Upper Mississippi basin. States like Wisconsin collect tourist dollars from riverside state parks, scenic overlooks, and boat adventures. But navigating the river is becoming increasingly unpredictable to accomplish by boat, and long stretches are unsafe to swim. 

Wisconsin wildlife also relies on the Mississippi for its natural resources and habitat. Losing the Mississippi could mean losing much of Wisconsin’s natural flora and fauna. 

What We Can Do

American Rivers, a national nonprofit committed to protecting America’s natural resources, labeled the Mississippi one of the “Most Endangered Rivers of 2022” with particular emphasis on pollution and habitat loss. 

The organization is lobbying Congress to pass the Mississippi River Restoration Initiative (MRRI) Act, which would create a new program under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dedicated to addressing public health and environmental threats related to the river. 

Nonprofits in the Midwest like the Friends of the Mississippi River and the Nature Conservancy are specifically dedicated to protecting the Upper Basin, too. 

There are even incentives for local farmers and landowners to protect the river. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI) in 2009 to help people with land near the river conserve the region’s natural resources.

There’s also the question of initiating a new effort to protect the Mississippi: officially making it a national park. Earlier this year, Albania turned its Vjosa River into the first wild river national park in the world. 

Click here to learn more about what that could look like in the US.

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