For as long as people have lived along the mighty Mississippi, the River has provided an incredible natural bounty: an abundance of birds, fish and wildlife, water to drink, and unbelievable scenic beauty. Since the early days of Native American settlements, millions of people have made the Mississippi River their home. Today, nearly 11 million people live in the 123 counties that border the River.
While the River is profoundly important to those who live along it, the Mississippi is also essential to the nation as a whole. Draining 41% of the area of the contiguous United States and providing a 30 million acre floodplain, the River provides an ecological lifeline for all of North America. The Mississippi River and its associated blufflands and adjacent land habitats provide a vital migration corridor and are home to many hundreds of species of fish and wildlife. The River is also a crucial economic engine since it serves as a source of water for industry; provides a significant transportation route for grain and cargo; creates a recreational destination for tourists, bicyclists, boaters, hunters, fishers and birders; and provides sediments and nutrients that, at appropriate levels, help the Gulf Coast wetlands and fisheries thrive.
Tragically, we have not taken proper care of this national treasure. Human activities, sometimes with unanticipated consequences, have pushed the Mississippi River into dramatic decline – monitoring shows that the ecological health of the River is severely degraded and is getting worse. Today 90% of the Mississippi River natural floodplain is cut off from the River by levees. Dikes, dams, and dredging have so altered the 10% that remains, that it is incapable of supporting anywhere near historic levels of birds, fish, and wildlife populations. Adjacent lands are being developed and altered – fragmenting important habitats and adding to River degradation.
It is far past time to turn the nation’s attention to restoring and protecting the health of the Mississippi River. We must ensure that the River and its delta can provide for future generations. This will require greater awareness at the local, regional, and national levels, as well as federal and state funding and policy reform.