U.S. Water News Online
MINNEAPOLIS -- For decades, Upper Midwesterners turned their backs on the Mississippi River, polluting it with urban, agricultural, and industrial wastes with little regard for the consequences, according to the McKnight Foundation. A new report by the foundation suggests that now is the time to invest in the river or risk losing a vital source of the region's wealth.
The foundation report, "The Mississippi River in the Upper Midwest: Its Economy, Ecology, and Management," underscores the Mississippi River's value not only as a great ecosystem and historic asset but as a major factor in the region's economy and quality of life. The study documents the need President Clinton identified in his State of the Union address in calling for a new American Heritage Rivers initiative to protect and restore hometown rivers.
"The Mississippi River enhances our prosperity as well as our landscape," said Michael O'Keefe, executive vice president of the foundation. "But unless we are good stewards of the river, our children and grandchildren may not enjoy the same benefits."
The report covers 125 counties in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois that make up the watershed of the upper third of the Mississippi River. More than 7 million people live within this watershed, according to the report. More than 1.1 million of these rely on the Mississippi as a source of drinking water. Everyone from sightseers, boaters, and anglers to manufacturers, energy producers, farmers, and city dwellers has a stake in the river's environmental health, the report says.
But people's ability to use the river is limited, according to the report. Practices that were accepted and even promoted in the past, such as draining wetlands for farming and building locks and dams for navigation, have altered the river's course and its character, says the foundation. Water quality has been diminished by sediments, nutrients, and chemicals washing off farm fields and cities; by industrial toxins; and by sewage. Impounded by navigational structures, the river has lost its natural power to recover through seasonal ebbs and flows, says the report. Many plant and animal species that once lived in or near the river have declined in number or disappeared, and others are threatened.
The report cites several public-private partnerships as exemplary of the cooperation necessary to conserve the river and, where necessary, restore its health.
"Local efforts up and down the river, with the support of state and federal agencies, have made some stretches of the river cleaner than they had been in years," said Dan Ray, program officer for the environment. "The task before us is to sustain the momentum. If progress is to continue, we cannot afford to pit the economy against the environment. Both are important, and they are intertwined."
Many investments can improve both the ecology of the river and its economic efficiency, according to the report:
Among the report's recommendations:
A project of McKnight's Environment Program, the report represents a first attempt to document both the economic and the environmental status of the Mississippi within the region. Information was culled over more than two years from hundreds of public and private sources. Copies of the report may be ordered at no charge by calling (612)333-4220.
About the McKnight Foundation
The McKnight Foundation is a charitable foundation with a primary interest in expanding opportunities for people who are poor or disadvantaged by enhancing their capacity for productive living. The Foundation also seeks to strengthen community and community institutions, to enrich people's lives through the arts, to encourage preservation of the natural environment, and to support scientific knowledge that can improve people's lives.
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