Mississippi: sick, not dying

The State of the River Report examined the 72-mile stretch of river that flows through the Metro. Photo by Tom Reiter.

The Mississippi River needs help.

A new report suggest raking the yard, planting a rain garden, picking-up after your pet and avoiding synthetic fabric are all things you can do to benefit the health of the Mississippi.

The river meets drinking water standards and supports life, but water quality remains an issue, according to the report by the National Park Service and Friends of the Mississippi.

“If you think of this like a check-up for the river, it’s sick,” said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River. “That doesn’t mean it’s dead. It doesn’t need to go to the emergency room. And, for the most part, we know what to do to fix it.”

Lark Weller, water quality coordinator with the National Park Service and co-author of the State of the River Report released Sept. 21, said life is an indication of good river health.

“The river is once again home to healthy bald eagle, mussel and fish populations. As pollution has been cleaned up and habitat restored, wildlife has rebounded,” Weller said. “These are symbols of our shared ability to rejuvenate the Mississippi River, and are an inspiration for future success.”

The report looks at the 72 mile stretch of the Mississippi that runs through the metro area. The findings were mixed, but there have been major improvements since the 1920s, Weller said.

Policy changes like the Clean Water Act, implemented more than 40 years ago, have been credited for improvements, but Weller said water quality experts are maxing out the corrective actions taken.

Well-researched issues like invasive species, bacteria, pesticides and nitrate are still concerning. But experts know less about new problems, like microplastic fibers that wash away from our clothes; triclosan, which can be found in liquid soaps, toothpaste, cosmetics and sportswear; and the effect of pharmaceuticals on aquatic life.

“Microplastic fibers, pharmaceuticals and triclosan-derived dioxins in the metro river pose uncertain risks to aquatic life and health,” Weller said. “Additional research and collective action are required to mitigate their potential long-term impacts.”

Trevor Russell, water program director for FMR and co-author of the report, said incentivizing farmers to plant perennial crops would be the best way to improve water quality.

“While the challenges we face are complex and daunting, the river today is healthier thanks to the actions of previous generations,” Russell said. “The return of abundant wildlife to a once-dead river is evidence that restoring the Mississippi is possible.”

He added, “[Planting perennials] is probably the single most important tool for restoring river health.”

Clark said he agrees that perennials are crucial to the health of the Mississippi.

“We used to grow lots of perennial crops in Minnesota. Now we don’t,” Clark said. “That’s the main reason our river is so sick.”

As researchers learn more about emerging risks to the health of the Mississippi, other solutions will become clear, Weller said.

“When we’ve had success, it’s because we’ve all decided to do something about it. Successes aren’t accidental,” she said. “Many of these indicators of river health stand to return to problematic levels if we don’t take clear, large-scale action.”