Sometimes we don’t notice even the largest problem – even when it’s right before our eyes.
The advocacy group, American Rivers, named the upper Mississippi River running through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, as the most endangered river in the country.
Climate change is driving more intense rain storms, leading to more frequent and prolonged flooding in the Upper Midwest, according to the group’s report.
The solution, in addition to addressing the larger climate-change threat, is better watershed management that gives the river room to flood safely, restoring habitat and involving communities in decisions about land use. The ranking is based on the significance of the river to people and wildlife, the magnitude of the threat and the need for critical decision-making during the next 12 months.
The report finds the current situation puts people, habitat and infrastructure at risk – and communities along the upper Mississippi are dangerously unprepared. These risks are greatly exacerbated by two centuries of shortsighted floodplain development that cut the river off from hundreds of thousands of acres of its floodplain, constricting the upper Mississippi River.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Last year, record-breaking flooding along the Mississippi and its tributaries swallowed towns, farms, roads, bridges, levees and dams, causing more than $6 billion in damage.”
American Rivers’ report says “The 2019 flood along the upper Mississippi River broke records, not only in terms of flood levels, but also in duration — homes, farms, roads and businesses were underwater for more than 100 days. The flood came on the heels of three consecutive years of record-breaking rains across the country.
“The magnitude of major flood events in the Mississippi basin has increased by 20 percent over the past 500 years. Much of that increase has been caused by the combination of river engineering and climate change. Throughout the basin, 40 to 90 percent of the land has been developed and almost every river has been dammed, leveed and/or constricted.”
Much of the watershed has been developed to enhance agricultural productivity so drainage moves water off the land as quickly as possible.
The river generates $345 billion annually, provides more than 643 million gallons of water per day for domestic and industrial uses along its 133-county corridor and supports a $673 million shipping industry.
The economic gains come with a cost.
The upper Mississippi River lands have been heavily developed to support agriculture and people. Loss of the region’s natural floodplains and diverse river habitats is a major contributor to the decline of numerous federally protected species. The Mississippi is a globally significant flyway used by hundreds of species of birds and provides unique habitat for fish, mussels, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.
Even with this damage, the Mississippi’s natural resources are able to support a vibrant economy. Tourism and outdoor recreation along the river generate roughly $25 billion annually and support more than 420,000 jobs.
Unfortunately, efforts to develop the watershed study and flood risk management plan are already threatened by lack of public engagement and lack of adequate funding.
American Rivers urges people to support an integrated water management plan that will prioritize natural and nature-based solutions to protect communities from flooding and deliver a wide range of benefits.
This is the 13th year since 1991 the upper Mississippi has been named one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers.
It’s time to act so next year, our river is off the list.