I spent Wednesday with the biologists and scientists who are members of the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee. These are the people who are devoted to the river and who make it their life’s work to study the critters who depend on the health of the river to live out their life cycles. The scientists work for the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge and for the state Departments of Natural Resources. I was there to peddle my book, The Mississippi: A Visual Biography; they were there to see each other face to face and learn from each other, which they said makes them very efficient in their advocacy for the river.
This is the oldest advocacy group on the river. These are the people whose objected to the creation of a 12-foot navigation channel on the Upper Mississippi after 1968 led Congress to reject a 12-foot channel in 1972. These are the people whose opposition to a second 600-foot lock on the new Lock and Dam 26 led Congress to declare the Upper Mississippi a nationally significant ecosystem and create the Environmental Management Program and limited restoration of the Upper Mississippi ecosystem in the 1986 Water Resources Development Act.
In January 2000 the group published A River that Works and a Working River , a strategy to restore and maintain the Upper Mississippi River System. The report detailed the importance of the natural resources of the river, described how we have changed the river’s physical processes, explained how we could use the processes to manage its ecosystem, itemized the components of the strategy for restoring the river’s ecosystem, and laid out the means of implementing the strategy. They list other publications on their web site, including two histories, one on wildlife and hunting and one on fish and fishing. The site is worth a visit.
When I first started developing the text for The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I studied the geological history of the river, how the river was formed by glacial action. I learned that geologists are very generous people and were willing to check my research to see if I got it right.
I also learned that Upper River geologists never seemed to talk to Lower River geologists and visa versa. The guru of the formation of the headwaters writes about glacial melt that streamed out of the headwaters to “St. Paul and beyond.” The guru of the Lower Mississippi never seemed to acknowledge where all that sediment that built the floodplain south of Cape Girardeau came from. But people studying sediment in the Gulf of Mexico related it to sediment that had streamed out of the headwaters. This isolation is beginning to change and Upper River geologists are beginning to collaborate with Lower River geologists on different studies.
So, I was not surprised to find that this group of Upper Mississippi scientists suffer from a similar isolation. As they paged through the photographs in my book, they noted how different the Lower Mississippi valley, where the river meandered from valley wall to valley wall (a distance of up to 70 miles), leaving behind wetlands every time it shifted to a new course, from the Upper Mississippi valley, where the river is confined to a narrow gorge and is the wetland. Nor was I surprised to hear that many had never been to the White River NWR or the Cache River NWR in the lower valley, nor had they been to the Louisiana coast.
Nor have my friends who live on the Louisiana coast ever seen the magnificent Upper Mississippi River Gorge and its wetlands, which are as stressed, for different reasons, as their beloved Louisiana wetlands.
When Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet floated floated out of the mouth of the Wisconsin River into the Upper Mississippi, they discovered a river that was an integrated system from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. Each part was depended on every other part. As we saw in 2008, when Hurricane Ike blew up through Arkansas into Missouri and Illinois and set off the second flood of the year, even Louisiana hurricanes can have consequences on the upper valley. I conclude The Mississippi: A Visual Biography this way:
“Mud: it’s the most important ingredient the Mississippi has to contribute to coastal restoration. Where the river deposits these mineral soils in still waters, it settles and builds land. Freshwater and nutrients come with the mud and nourish the vegetation that takes root in it. The vegetation holds mud in place, filters more mud out of the water column, grows, dies, and decays into organic soil, and sustains the new land against subsidence and rising sea levels.
“Mississippi mud came from wind blown loess–rock flour– deposited on the uplands overlooking the Upper Mississippi and returned to the river by its tributaries. It came from the limestone and sandstone canyons of the Upper Mississippi, from the glacial debris that lined the banks of the Ohio, from the shale and sandstone cliffs of the Upper Missouri, from the eroded banks of the Lower Mississippi. And, in the twentieth century when we built dams on the Upper Mississippi, on the Upper Missouri, and on the Ohio, when we built headwater dams on all the tributaries of the Lower Mississippi, when we built revetments on the Lower Mississippi to straighten its channel and stop its meandering ways, and when we diverted one-third of the river’s water and sediment to the Atchafalaya, we deprived the river of this most valuable ingredient. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the river delivered eighty per cent less sediment to the Gulf of Mexico than it had at the beginning of the twentieth. And, because we turned Southwest Pass into a deep draft navigation channel, what sediment was left in the water column, poured out of the pass and drifted westward, driven by the wind, away from the delta and over the continental shelf.”
I admonish all those people who love the Mississippi to get to know all its parts.