Mississippi River report reveals progress – It ain’t so bad, but it needs help


Over forty years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, a new report on the health of the Mississippi River shows that while progress has been made we must maintain our vigilance and explore new solutions to preserve the health of the river.

We Northsiders live on the river and so the State of the River Report, which was just released by Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service Mississippi National River and Recreation Area unit, examines the status and trends of 14 key indicators of the river’s health, including bacteria, phosphorus, nitrate and sediment levels, as well as the river’s viability for recreation and wildlife. It also addresses new or emerging contaminants of concern, such as microplastic fibers and chloride.

“The Mississippi River is a complex natural system, with many factors affecting its overall health and vitality,” said Whitney Clark, executive director of the Friends of the Mississippi River. “‘State of the River’ serves as a report card, helping us determine how the river is doing compared to the past, and which efforts have been effective at improving its health. In short, this report reveals that there has been a great deal of progress, but we must maintain our vigilance and push for new solutions — particularly in regard to agricultural pollution — to adequately conserve and protect the river for generations to come.”

Among the positive trends, bald eagle, mussel and fish populations are increasing, which are signs of a restored river that is home to healthy and abundant wildlife. However, there are also disturbing trends in lead levels for eaglets, and fish consumption advisories are in place throughout the river due to elevated levels of contaminants like PFOS and mercury.

Recreation and aquatic habitat on the river is being increasingly degraded by excess sediments and phosphorus, and some portions of the river are impaired with excess bacteria. Much of this can be attributed to agricultural sources.

Several indicators show disturbing trends and are causes for serious concern moving forward, according to the scientific advisors who helped compile the report:  River flows have multiplied to worrisome levels (24 percent increase since 1976). This leads to destabilization and also flushes large amounts of pollution into the river. Nitrate concentrations have increased substantially (44 percent increase since 1976), potentially expanding the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  Invasive Asian carp continue to move upstream, threatening aquatic life and recreation throughout much of the state. A number of additional contaminants, such as triclosan, pharmaceuticals and microplastics  — tiny pieces of plastic shed from everything from car tires to washing our polyester and synthetic clothing — present risks to the river that, while not yet fully understood, are cause for concern due to their potential impacts on human and aquatic health.

“To solve these problems, we need to better understand their causes and consequences,” said John Anfinson, Superintendent, National Park Service, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. “This report provides a solid base from which to spur a public conversation about how to preserve and improve the river, and develop strategies for doing so.”

Three companion guides have been published with the report: Stewardship Guide that provides practical steps for individuals to take in their homes, yards and communities to improve the health of the Mississippi River; a brand-new Teacher’s Guide to help teachers and students carry the lessons of the report into the classroom: and Friends of the Mississippi River’s Policy Guide that offers priority actions that federal, state and local leaders can take for the river. The State of the River Report and companion guides are available at www.stateoftheriver.com.

The State of the River Report was funded by the McKnight Foundation, the Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation, Mortenson Family Foundation, Capitol Region Watershed District, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, and Mississippi Park Connection. Learn more at stateoftheriver.com, fmr.org and nps.gov.miss.