Column: State of the Mississippi River

Pictured is the Mississippi at the mouth of Minnehaha Creek. (Submitted photo)
Pictured is the Mississippi at the mouth of Minnehaha Creek. (Submitted photo)
Angie Hong
Angie Hong

In 2012, Friends of the Mississippi River and National Park Service worked together to develop the inaugural State of the River Report, which assessed several indicators of health for the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

The report prompted changes at a state and local level, including the closing of the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam to prevent invasive carp from swimming upstream; the introduction of statewide legislation to phase out the use of coal-tar sealants (for driveways and parking lots) and triclosan (in antibacterial soap); and the initiation of several clean water grant projects to reduce runoff pollution to the river.

Late last year, the two groups released a new State of the River Report that revisits 14 key indicators of river health and provides recommendations for how we can continue to improve our Mississippi River.

The Mississippi is the largest river in North America, flowing 2,350 miles from its headwaters at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. The river collects water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces, with a watershed that covers approximately 40 percent of the land in the continental U.S.. In addition to providing drinking water for 18 million Americans, the Mississippi River is home to 260 species of fish, 145 species of amphibians, 50 species of mammals, and 38 species of freshwater mussel. It is a migratory flyway for 40 percent of the waterfowl in North America and a navigational corridor for American businesses as well.

One of the biggest changes for the Mississippi during the past 70 years is a 24 percent increase in water flowing through the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Some of the increase in river flow is due to changes in weather, with Minnesota seeing more heavy rains in recent years.

More is the result of our changing landscape. There is more runoff from farms than from prairies and wetlands, and many farms in Minnesota now use drain tile to dry out fields more quickly in the spring and after it rains. As a result, we see more erosion along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which results in more sediment in the water.

We’ve achieved a 35 percent reduction in phosphorus concentrations in the metro Mississippi River, mostly due to improvements at wastewater treatment plants, but that improvement is somewhat counteracted by the increase in flow coming from upstream. Phosphorus is a major problem in Lake Pepin, where the nutrient feeds massive algae blooms each summer.

In the Twin Cities area, E. coli bacteria makes the river unsafe for swimming throughout most of the metro area, from the Crow River near Dayton and Ramsey, down to Pigs Eye Lake. The exception is a short stretch between the Ford Dam and the confluence with the Minnesota River, near Minnehaha Park and Fort Snelling State Park, where the water is considered safe for swimming except for up to 48 hours after a rainstorm.

Many of the river’s tributaries are impaired by bacteria as well, including Minnehaha, Bassett, Rice and Shingle Creeks and the Crow River. Common sources of bacteria include feedlots and manure applied to farm fields in agricultural areas, as well as geese, dog feces and failing septic systems in the urban area.

Other issues of concern highlighted in the State of the River Report include fish consumption advisories due to mercury and PCBs in fish tissue, a 44 percent increase in nitrate concentrations since 1976, chlorides from road salt and pharmaceuticals from prescription and over-the-counter medications that are dumped down the drain and can’t be removed by wastewater treatment plants.

Signs of hope include a strong and stable bald eagle population, the return of some native mussel species, and flourishing smallmouth bass and walleye populations.

Though many of the problems affecting the Mississippi River will require systemic approaches and policy change, we can all help to protect the river by making simple changes at home and in our communities. Dispose of your expired and unused medications at one of the Washington County Service Centers (Forest Lake, Stillwater or Cottage Grove); “adopt” a storm drain near your house and sweep leaves, grass clippings, and sediment out of the street throughout the year; pick up after your dog; and incorporate rain gardens and native plantings into your yard.

Read the full State of the Mississippi River Report at stateoftheriver.com.

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water, mnwcd.org/emwrep. Contact her at 651-330-8220 ext. 35 or [email protected]