"Old Man River" Gets Health Check Up
It took a million years but the Upper Mississippi River System has finally received a systemic health checkup. The results, while not surprising to river researchers and managers, indicate how the ecological health of the river has been altered by human activity.
The findings appear in a report jointly released by the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and five upper midwestern states (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin). The report, prepared through the Upper Mississippi River Long Term Resource Monitoring Program— authorized by Congress in the Upper Mississippi River Management Act of 1986—provides river managers and policymakers information to address competing uses of the river system.
"For the first time," said one of the report authors, USGS biologist Dr. Kenneth Lubinski, "a massive and consistent set of data has been summarized alongside historical observations and other scientific findings. This report marks the first time broad ecological criteria have been used to assess the various reaches of the river system."
As a result of the Clean Water Act, steady progress has been made on such things as reducing regulated point source pollutants to the river system. As this report points out, however, complex environmental problems relating to management of the river remain. Habitat loss, sedimentation, and competition from nonnative species are disrupting the ecological conditions of the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
The effects of river regulation and modification to the river system watersheds and floodplains create challenges to the ecological health of the system. The authors are quick to add, though, that each river reach has been affected differently. Dr. Lubinski noted that improved water quality in several areas of the river is a positive sign that the river reaches can recover if given the chance.
Fourteen scientific experts in areas such as water quality, hydrology, fish, vegetation and invertebrates authored the 16 chapters of the report providing a broad ecological perspective on the river system. One chapter, for example, focuses on lessons learned from the flood of 1993 and another on the history of the Illinois River. The report concludes with a comparison of existing ecological conditions to six criteria proposed as measures of large, floodplain river ecological health.
The report compares river health criteria with measured observations and, in the final chapter, conveys this comparison by a series of gauges that reflect stable, declining, or improving conditions. Accompanying the river assessments are a series of river forecasts. Despite the need for varying degrees of rehabilitation, the ecological potential of the river system remains high.
The scientific evidence provided in this report suggests the river needs continuing attention if the current ecological benefits are to be maintained and degraded conditions restored. An ongoing effort to document environmental trends and monitor ecological health will be crucial to making sound decisions in managing the river. Robert Delaney, the monitoring program director, said he hopes the data in this report serves as a foundation for long-term efforts in managing this important resource. "I hope," he said, " it also serves to stimulate further discussion and leads to informed solutions for a healthier river system and economy for the public we serve."
The 240-page report was produced at the USGS, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, 2630 Fanta Reed Rd., La Crosse, Wisconsin. The public can view and download a copy of the report from the Center's web site at www.umesc.usgs.gov.
As the nation's largest water, earth and biological science and civilian mapping agency the USGS works in cooperation with more than 2000 organizations across the country to provide reliable, impartial, scientific information to resource managers, planners, and other customers. This information is gathered in every state by USGS scientists to minimize the loss of life and property from natural disasters, contribute to sound conservation, economic and physical development of the nation's natural resources, and enhance the quality of life by monitoring water, biological, energy, and mineral resources.