• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

    "Great book and great blog - thanks for the first book I have seen that addresses the contemporary river, headwaters to gulf." Dan McGuiness, Audubon, St. Paul, Minnesota

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Low Water on the Mississippi and Thebes Gap

Thebes Gap:

Alexander County, Illinois

“Here is a vast ledge of rocks, which stretch across the river in a direct line. The best channel in the middle of the river, in which place in low water, there is not more than six feet over the rocks.”–Zadoc Cramer, 1814

Rock Formation in the Middle Mississippi at Thebes Gap, 2006

Rock Formation in the Middle Mississippi at Thebes Gap, 2006

The Mississippi is running very low. After the Flood of 2011, the river drained away very quickly and the rain stopped. By the Summer of 2012, we in the Midwest were well into the Drought of 2012 and the river was showing the effects. Now in January 2013, the Upper Mississippi is frozen and the system of locks and dams is retaining water north of Alton, Illinois. On the Missouri a similar system of dams is retaining water in South Dakota and too little water is flowing into the Mississippi to maintain water levels for the 9-foot navigation channel on the Middle River.

Look at any aerial photograph of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi. The muddy Missouri spews a flume of silty water into the relatively clear Mississippi. They flow side by side downstream--the Missouri on the west, the Mississippi on the east--for several miles. During the very cold winter of 2000-2001 it was possible to see this phenomenon from the Illinois bank near the spot where Lewis and Clark started their journey up the Missouri: Lock and Dam 26 at Alton trapped ice coming down the Mississippi. South of the dam the river flowed free of ice, but ice did flow out of the mouth of the Missouri. At the confluence the two rivers, the icy Missouri and the ice-free Mississippi flowed side by side in the Mississippi channel.

Look at any aerial photograph of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi. The muddy Missouri spews a flume of silty water into the relatively clear Mississippi. They flow side by side downstream–the Missouri on the west, the Mississippi on the east–for several miles. During the very cold winter of 2000-2001 it was possible to see this phenomenon from the Illinois bank near the spot where Lewis and Clark started their journey up the Missouri: Lock and Dam 26 at Alton trapped ice coming down the Mississippi. South of the dam the river flowed free of ice, but ice did flow out of the mouth of the Missouri. At the confluence the two rivers, the icy Missouri and the ice-free Mississippi flowed side by side in the Mississippi channel. In the Winter of 2013 too little water is spewing out of the Missouri to feed the Middle Mississippi.

 Thebes Gap is the geological break point between the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi. The Upper Mississippi flows through a rocky gorge from Minneapolis to Thebes Gap. South of there the Lower Mississippi meanders across an alluvial plain.

At the beginning of the glacial age, the Lower Mississippi flowed along the western valley wall through an alluvial floodplain in the Western Lowlands along the Black, White, and St. Francis Rivers.

From The Mississippi: “Geologists have speculated that the river abandoned its alluvial valley and diverted through Thebes Gap, a narrow bedrock canyon in the Benton Hills, through the series of glacial floods at the end of the Wisconsinan age. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, seismologists questioned why the Mississippi would abandon its comfortable alluvial valley to ream a new course through bedrock. They noted that fault lines in the Benton Hills were active 10,000 years ago, and speculated that an earthquake along fault lines in the Benton Hills opened the canyon that is Thebes Gap. Glacial River Warren, which broke out of a glacial lake that covered northern Minnesota and North Dakota and reached north into Canada,  thundered through it, and deposited a classical alluvial fan at the mouth of the canyon.”

 “Thebes at the head of the Grand Chain and Commerce at the foot of it were towns easily rememberable as they had not undergone conspicuous alteration. Nor the Chain, either–in the nature of things; it is a chain of sunken rocks admirably arranged to capture and kill steamboats on bad nights.–Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Thebes Gap, where the Mississippi takes a wide turn into the narrow reach of Thebes Gap.

Thebes Gap, where the Mississippi takes a wide turn into the narrow reach of Thebes Gap.

Mark Twain knew Thebes Gap, and while it is no longer killing steamboats, this winter modern tows can’t get through this narrow gorge between the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have contracted with Newt Marine and Kokosing, a marine engineering firm out of Iowa and Michigan,  to remove the rocks from Thebes Gap. When they are done there on January 11, they will move on to Grand Tower.

A tow steams passed Tower Rock at the beginning of December.

A tow steams passed Tower Rock at the beginning of December.

The river level today at Chester, Illinois is -0.6 feet, which means it is possible to walk out to Tower Rock and see just how low the Mississippi is.

[i]             Cramer, 173; Harrison, Richard W., “Report on Investigations of the Benton Hills, Scott County, Missouri, in Midwest Friends of the Pliestocene, 42nd Annual Meeting, 19-21 May 1995, 7.3; Harrison, Richard W., “Mid-Continent Urban Corridor Mapping Project,” USGS Project No.: 7160-11, U.S. Geological Survey, http://erp-web.er.usgs.gov/reports/annsum/vol40/cu/harrison.htm; Elfrink, Neil, “Gujarat Analog Response,” Archives of Central U.S. Earthquake Hazard MailList, March 21, 2001, http://clifty.com/hazard/archives/1010302-021954.html; Guccione, Margaret, “Re: ‘Gujarat Analog,’” Archives of Central U.S. Earthquake Hazard MailList, Feb 16, 2001, http://clifty.com/hazard/archives/1010216-111758.html.


Mississippi River Trail-By Water or By Land

I found a new site yesterday, The Mississippi River Trail, which encourages people to canoe from Saverton, Missouri to Cairo, Illinois, a distance of two hundred miles. Saverton, the starting point just south of Hannibal, hugs the bank of the river in Pool 24. The site, which seems to be under construction, includes maps of Pool 24 and a variety of other maps of the trail, but not all. You can find the Upper Mississippi navigation maps , which are available for purchase, but which you can print on your home printer. It’s not perfect, but it works. You can also print USGS maps, show you the river, but also the roads to the river’s edge.

I have a sorry history with canoeing. For my work on The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I floated the Headwaters, dumped three times, almost lost my camera (fortunately a wooden camera that dried out), and quit before I was about to back over a waterfall. Not a great experience.

If you want to explore the wetlands created by the river, go by road.

Ted Shanks Wildlife Management Area: Flag Lake

Ted Shanks, just north of Louisiana, Missouri, is a Missouri Conservation Department managed wetland and will worth the visit.

Norton Woods, June 1994

You will need USGS maps to find Norton Woods, at the northern end of Stag Island. It is not easy to find. It is on a skinny strip of land that is swamped every time the river floods.

Norton Woods on the USGS map

Cuivre Slough

A boat ramp at Cuivre Slough gives access to the river. To get there travel across the old channel of the Cuivre River.

Duck Chute at the Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi River

Duck Chute is a part of the complex of wing dikes that direct the current of the Missouri River into the Mississippi and keeps the rivers from taking over Duck Chute at the main navigation channel. You can get to it from the Columbia Bottoms Wildlife Management Area.  You to get to the viewing platform, look to the left and you will find the trail worn by anglers who descend into the chute for the fishing. It is only available when the river is down.

Harlow Chute

Harlow Chute, south of Crystal City, Missouri, is a part of the Middle Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.  Use a USGS map to get to it.

Degonia Creek at Cora, Illinois

Degonia Creek streams into the battue lands, on the river side of the levee, at Cora, Illinois, and forms its own little floodplain, within the larger Mississippi Floodplain.

There are other places to explore. I will touch on them another time.

It’s Duck Season on the Upper Mississippi

Wigwam Slough off Goose Island

The duck are migrating and need to find quiet places to fatten up and rest about every fifty miles. There are refuges on the mainland, like Green Island in Iowa and Spring Lake in Illinois. And there is the river itself, once a maze of islands and sloughs, changed by the construction of the dams:

“From Minneapolis to Alton, the river drops 327 feet in elevation. Along that stretch of the Upper Mississippi, the locks and dams and the nine-foot channel formed a river staircase of twenty-six shallow lakes or pools. The locks lifted or dropped shipping from one pool to the next. The dams created three distinct habitats within each pool: In the tailwater, downstream from the dam, the river remained almost unchanged, a maze of deep sloughs and wooded islands, a home to diving ducks, especially scaup. Here, transitory islands that might have washed away in the next flood became permanent islands. In the mid-section of each pool, there were large areas of shallow, open water where the dams flooded hay meadows and floodplain forests. These areas turned into broad marshlands–Weaver Bottoms, Spring Lake, and others, where wildlife–fish and puddle-ducks like mallards–thrived.”–From The Mississippi: A Visual Biography

At the end of the twentieth century the Wisconsin DNR and the Corps of Engineers made the first attempts to aleviate the flooded conditions of the lower third of the navigation, by drawing down water levels behind the dams. They started on a small scale in the 1990s and graduated to whole pools in the first years of the twenty-first century, when they drew down Pool 8 and watched the grasses grow.

At the beginning of the summer of 2001, the Corps of Engineers drew down Pool 8 by eighteen inches to expose submerged sandbars and allow dormant seeds to germinate. The Flood of 2001 delayed start of the drawdown by three weeks and shortened its duration to forty days. It did, however, expose two thousand acres of sediment. The seeds responded: arrowhead, nutgrass, rice cutgrass, millet, smartweed, and American lotus. Fifty species of moisture-loving plants, emergent plants, and aquatic plants took root. Shore birds and wading birds patrolled the exposed mud flats. Swimmers basked on the sandy islands; campers pitched their tents; anglers cast their lines.

Plants in the mid-section of the pool remained above water longer than those in the lower regions of the pool, which were reinundated in mid-August. In October migrating waterfowl–tundra swans, ducks, and geese–stopped to rest and feed on the new plants.

U.S. Geological Survey personnel from the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center at Onalaska, Wisconsin monitored the growth of the vegetation in eight backwater areas in Pool 8, including the pond between Goose Island and the delta of Mormon Creek. There they found an increase in both submergent plants–coontail and various pondweeds and rooted floating leaf plants–water lilies. The agencies repeated the drawdown in 2002.[i]

Goose Island: Stoddard Slough

The drawdown of Pool 8 was so successful, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to close sections of the pool to boats and hunting to allow migrating ducks a place to rest. They first close the 984-acre Goose Island complex of islands and sloughs to boats and hunters in 2007 and they will this year from October 15 to the end of hunting season on December 4. Two other areas will be closed: the Wisconsin Islands–behind Lock and Dam 8, also in Pool 8 and the Lake Onalaska Voluntary Waterfowl Avoidance Area in Pool 7. Strategically placed buoys alert hunters that they are entering a no-go area.
While hunters may not enter these resting and feeding areas, they do lurk outside them and blast away at the ducks as they leave, injuring more ducks than they kill.

[i]             Eberhard, Christina, Drawdown, habitat restoration may be coming to Pool 5 soon,” Winona Post Online, Sunday, August 11, 2002; USGS, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, Vegetation Response to a Water-Level Drawdown of Pool 8 of the Upper Mississippi River,” http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/aquatic/drawdown_p8_veg.html; USGS, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, “ Pool 8 Transect Data Summary,”  http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/data_library/vegetation/transect/pool8/p8_summary.html; Verstegen, Peter, “Pool 8 drawdown recharges plants, helps waterfowl,” Crosscurrents, October, 2002, St. Paul District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, http://www.mvp.usace.army.mil/docs/crosscurrents/October2002a.pdf.

Ecosystem Restoration: The Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana Coast, Studied to Death

Weaver Bottoms

While I was researching The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I spent a morning with Mike Davis, who researches mussels on the Upper Mississippi for the Minnesota DNR. Mike pointed to a shelf in the corner of his conference room at his office in Lake City, and ranted about the number of studies the Corps of Engineers does that go no where or not far enough. The following morning he took me out into Weaver Bottoms and Half Moon Lake near West Newton, Minnesota and showed me how deposits of sediment trapped behind Upper Mississippi  dams–Lock and Dam #5 in this cas–from its tributaries were smothering mussel beds in Weaver Bottoms.

In 1986 Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act which included the Upper Mississippi River Management Act, which acknowledged that the Upper Mississippi is a nationally significant ecosystem as will as a nationally significant navigation system and was an effort to restore its degrading marshes and islands.

Bayou Rigolettes Shoreline Restoration Project

In 1990 Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act which included the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protections, and Restoration Act, also know as the Breaux Act and know familiarly twenty years later as CWPPRA. Both acts funded small ecosystem restoration projects.

Lock and Dam 26, Alton, Illinois

Neither act did anything to change the factors that caused the degrading ecosystems. The dams on the Upper Mississippi remained in place and continued to trap sediment behind them, smothering mussle beds.

MRGO at Ycloskey

Navigation channels like MRGO and oil company channels  remained in place, funneling salt water into freshwater marshes, killing them. The levees along the Mississippi would remain in place, depriving marshes in Barataria Bay and Breton Sound precious freshwater and sediment whenever the Mississippi had a flood like the one of 2011 or any other flood.

By 1998 the people working  to restore the Louisiana coastal marshes–the Corps of Engineers, the Louisiana DNR, the EPA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, etc–recognized that small projects were never going to do the job. They signed the Coast 2050 Feasibility Cost Share agreement, by which they would share the $14 billion cost of repairing Louisiana’s coastal marshes. Not until 2003 did the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers come up with the draft study of the project. The Bush administration paled at the cost and sent the engineers back to work to come up with the smaller, more focused, less expensive proposal of projects that could be completed in the near term. The Corps published the $1.9 billion Louisiana Coast Area Ecosystem Restoration Study in 2007 and Congress authorized it in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, but did not fund it.

In the years following the passage of the 1986 Upper Mississippi act, it became clear that small projects were not going to do the job there. In 2000 the Corps of Engineers treated the nation to the lock extension scandal, a proposal to extend the locks on five dams north of the Alton Dam, #26, north of St. Louis. It seems the engineers cooked the books to justify the extension and a Corps economists called them out on it. When the dust settled, Congress authorized the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which included the lock extension, but also authorized a$1.7 billion ecosystem restoration program in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, and ordered the Corps of Engineers to pursue lock extension and ecosystem restoration simultaneously, but funded neither.

That Congress included the Louisiana Coast Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, puny though in was in light of the need, and the  Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, even if it included lock extension, in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act brought hope to those of us who care about the Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana coastal islands and marshes. The economy was in recession when President signed the act into law. The economy crashed the following September. Congress still has not funded either program.

That Congress has not funded the lock extension gives Upper River environmentalists hope that they will never be funded, but nor will ecosystem restoration.

BP agreed to a $20 billion fund to compensate those people whose businesses along the Gulf Coast were harmed by last summer’s massive oil spill. Environmentalists and others hoped that some of that money could go into ecosystem restoration.

Last week the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers signed yet another agreement with the State of Louisiana to study the possibility of redesigning the Mississippi to divert water and sediment to Barataria Bay to the east and Breton Sound to the west.

We know what needs to be done on both the Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana Coast. We have studied the ecosystem deterioration to death and the marshes continue to die. What we end up with is a pile of unfunded studies.

The Middle Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, Part 1

The best thing that came out of the Flood of 1993 was the Middle Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge. In August 1993, even before the flood water had drained away from the American Bottom, Congress gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to purchase frequently flooded lands from willing sellers and establish the Middle Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge in the region along the river between St. Louis and the Ohio, a region where there were too few stopping places for migrating birds and waterfowl. Willing sellers are those farmers who had tired of seeing the crops go under year after year.

Congress authorized the purchase of 17,000 acres. As it stands now FWS has purchased 7,000, mostly on islands in the Middle Mississippi. The refuge is broken down into divisions: Meissner Island in Monroe County, IL, Harlow Island in Jefferson County, MO, Beaver Island, Horse Island, Crains Island, and Rockwood Island in Randolph County, IL, and Wilkinson Island in Perry County, MO and Jackson County, IL.

Meissner Island is tiny, 78 acres, and no longer and island. FWS manages it by doing almost nothing, by allowing what were once farmfields to return to floodplain forest, and by planting oaks and other nut bearing trees to provide food for wildlife.

Lucas Slough, a relic channel of the Mississippi, once separated Meissner Island from the floodplain.

In 1993 floodwaters breached the levee at Harlow Island and inundated 800 acres of agricultural land. Three years later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased all 1225 acres of the island and did not repair the levee. A young forest, made up of willow, cottonwood, and silver maple, took root in the old cornfields.

The narrow channel between the island and the mainland carries water from Muddy Creek and Saline Creek to the Mississippi. The Fish and Wildlife Service would like to reconnect the channel to the river and dredge it to deepen it for habitat for over-wintering fish.

Harlow Island and Chute

Degognia Creek streams out of the uplands into the batture lands on Rockwood Island and flows between farm fields and a levee to the Mississippi. Here, Degognia Creek built its own little floodplain, edged by willows and cottonwood, just the kind of batture lands the USFWS seeks for the Middle Mississippi River NWR. To the south farmers on Wilkinson Island put 1,900 acres in the WRP in the wake of the 1993 flood. The USFWS purchased 632 acres for the refuge. To the north a $1.10 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation allowed Southwestern Illinois Resource Conservation and Development and the American Land Conservancy to purchase land on Rockwood Island for the refuge.

Rockwood Island, Degognia Creek

The American Land Conservancy, which takes on projects other organizations find too small or complex, identified as many batture lands outside the levees of the Middle Mississippi as it could purchase, with the intention of restoring and reforesting flood prone farmland and opening side channels to fish. The ALC purchased 3,200 acres on Kaskaskia Island, enrolled 2,220 acres in the batture lands in WRP, and began restoration, planting 178,672 oak, cypress, hickory, pecan, and tupelo seedlings on 410 acres and building contour levees to impound water for wading birds. In time the ALC will donate the land to the Middle Mississippi NWR.

Picou Pond, Kaskaskia Island

When I was finishing up The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I contacted Robert Cail, the Middle Mississippi River NWR, and asked if he could get me out to Liberty Chute and Rockwood Island.  He said, “When the flood gage on Chester drops below 17 feet and stays there for three weeks, we will be able to go out to the island.”

I saw him a year ago and complained that I had not been able to get down to see him because the river and I had not been on the same page for more than a year. When I had a day to spend on the island, the river was always flooded and so to the island and all the lands in the Middle Mississippi NWR. He responded, “Yeah, ever since I got here I have seldom been able to inspect the refuge. Only by boat during flood time.”


Lake Pepin is Filling with Sediment

Lake Pepin, Central Point, near Lake City, Minnesota

When a fast moving river meets a slowing moving or still body of water, it deposits its load of sediment in the still or slow moving body of water. It forms a delta. This is how the Mississippi created the Louisiana coastal marshes, this is how the Mississippi created Lake Pepin, which occupies the Upper Mississippi Gorge between Wabasha, Minnesota and Red Wing, Minnesota.

When the Des Moines lobe of the Wisconsin glacier pulled back behind the divide that separates drainage to the Gulf of Mexico from drainage to Hudson Bay, Lake Agassiz pooled between it and the retreating ice sheet. The lake filled to overflowing and spilled over a moraine at Brown’s Valley, Minnesota. River Warren was a torrent that swept the Upper Mississippi Gorge of sediment clear down to bedrock. When River Warren petered out, the Mississippi was reduced to a trickle, an underfit stream, flowing at the bottom of its bedrock canyon.

Delta of the Wisconsin River

When its fast-moving tributaries poured into the slow-moving Mississippi, they deposited their loads of sediment in the river and built its floodplain, a maze of islands and sloughs. The Mississippi eroded the islands at their heads and deposited the eroded sediment on the downstream ends, creating a series of C-shaped islands.

Chippewa Delta, Indian Slu

The Chippewa River deposited so much sediment in the Mississippi that it dammed the river. Lake Pepin pooled behind the natural dam, and extended clear north to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Head of Lake Pepin, Trenton Slough

Then the Minnesota and Mississippi itself began to deposit their sediment and form a delta in the head of Lake Pepin, which it extends south to Red Wing.

The construction of the system of locks and dams, that made the 9-foot navigation channel on the Upper Mississippi, possible stopped the river’s ability to move sediment downstream. A river that moved sediment very slowly, stopped moving it altogether.

But the tributaries did not stop depositing their sediment in the river and what the Minnesota is contributing to Lake Pepin is destroying it. The State of Minnesota has started to determine how much sediment and nutrients the lake can handle. The next step will be to find ways to retain sediment that pours into the Minnesota River and others in the uplands.

The Upper Mississippi–A RAMSAR Wetland of National Importance

Trempeleau Bay

From The Mississippi: A Visual Biography:

“It is a well-kept secret that the Upper Mississippi River, with its 2.7 million acre floodplain and its towering bluffs, is a tourist mecca. In 1999 the Upper Mississippi River corridor, with its fifty active bald eagle nests and eighteen active heron rookeries in its refuge, racked up 11 million recreational visits, more than Yellowstone Park. People came to hunt, fish, boat, bird and eagle watch, enjoy the fall colors, roam the old river towns, party at its festivals and fishing tournaments, and gamble on its riverboats. They spent $6.6 billion and provided jobs for 140,000, mostly in the hotel, restaurant, and retail industries.”

Last week the RAMSAR Convention recognized 300,000 acres of the Upper Mississippi River and its floodplain as a Wetland of International Importance. Included in the designation was the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, recognized since the 1930s as and important wildlife refuge.

On August 21, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside 706 acres of Mississippi River floodplain near Trempealeau, Wisconsin as a refuge for migratory birds and waterfowl. In 1979 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the Delta Fish and Fur Farm and added 5,617 acres to the refuge. In the fall of 1997 the American Bird Conservancy designated the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge and the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge as Globally Important Bird Areas in the United States, the conservancy’s highest designation for a refuge.

Upper Mississippi, Wigwam Slough

The refuge provides breeding, resting, and feeding places for a wide variety of birds: grebes, cormorants, canvasback ducks, wood ducks, mergansers, shovelers, tundra swans, herons, osprey, eagles, coots, sandhill cranes, and others. It draws 70,000 visitors a year for hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, and photography.

Winniesheik Bottoms

In 1923 the Corps of Engineers proposed draining 30,000 acres of the Winneshiek Bottoms and turning them over to agriculture. It was the ensuing fight over the draining of the bottoms, which stretch from bluff to bluff north of Lansing, Iowa, that led Congress to purchase 200,000 acres of Upper Mississippi islands and sloughs and create the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

The RAMSAR Convention was formed in 1971 to highlight the importance of wetlands to humans and animals. For humans the protect water quality by filtering out pollutants and sediments. For animals they provide breeding, feeding, and nesting places. For humans, the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which extends from Minnesota to Illinois, provides numerous places to fish and hunt or merely observe the animals. Now is migration time, an ideal time for birders who live near the refuge.

Images and text, Copyright @ Quinta Scott, 2010