The challenge of keeping the upper reaches of the Mississippi clean and flowing.
The Mississippi (with its tributaries) might be our longest river, but it’s hardly our wildest--or even most scenic—except in one place in northern Minnesota where the river begins.
Unlike most other important rivers—the Amazon, say —this one does not originate in the mountains. The official headwaters are in Itasca State Park, just 1,475 feet above sea level. Trickling out from Lake Itasca, the not-so-mighty Mississippi slips quietly between banks of overhanging grasses and under a canopy of conifers, wandering north, then east, then south, through seven lakes. At this point, it plunges through rocky rapids, flanked by seemingly endless forests of pine, spruce, and aspen.
No one familiar with the slow-moving Mississippi that glides past Memphis or St. Louis would recognize this fast-flowing water as the same river. Here it drops in elevation at a rate of about four feet per mile (once it reaches Minneapolis it will level off to about a third of a foot per mile all the way to New Orleans). In the 500 miles between Itasca and the Twin Cities, a fifth of its 2,500-mile length, the river drops half of its total elevation.
The woodland stream where the river begins is home to 242 bird species (including migratory warblers) and 80 species of other animals such as beavers, pine martins, hog-nosed snakes, and otters. But—and here’s the catch--it is also a highly desirable environment for northwoods cabins, and its bankside woodlands have historically encountered the sawmill and could do so again.
Lines on a map
For the purpose of managing barge traffic, the Army Corps of Engineers divides the Mississippi into two parts. The Upper Mississippi stretches from the river’s confluence with the Ohio River at the southern tip of Illinois to the northernmost point of barge navigation at the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam in downtown Minneapolis. The Lower Mississippi runs from the Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico. The upper reaches of the river have locks and dams, the lower do not.
But the most noticeable dividing line is different than the bureaucratic one. It lies in the middle of the Corps’ upper section, near the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, where the Mississippi emerges from the close bluffs and wooded hillsides that flank it from its source near Itasca.
It is downstream from here that it begins to look like the river of lore: a wide, sluggish ribbon that twists back on itself in seemingly unnavigable curves. Below this dividing line, ecological discussions are about levees, wing dams, and the water quality of the Mississippi’s wide tributaries: the Missouri, the Ohio, the Arkansas. Above it, in the headwaters, the river feels narrower, more lush, more hemmed-in.
For its entire length, the Mississippi boasts a unexpectedly rich ecology: 241 fish species, 37 mussels, and 45 amphibians and reptiles. But there are also potential ecological disasters in the making: infestation by zebra mussels and Asian carp, high nitrogen and phosphorous levels resulting from urban and agricultural runoff, and increasingly frequent floods.
Still, the upper reaches remain relatively pristine. For that we can thank a wide variety of public agencies and nonprofit groups: In the urban gorge of the Twin Cities, the largest metropolitan area on the entire river, the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board employ the latest stormwater management techniques to mitigate the effects of polluted urban runoff. In the bluff country of the border region (where Minnesota meets Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois), a 240,000-acre national wildlife refuge has a new comprehensive conservation plan that strives to balance environmental, recreational, and commercial interests.
But it’s the upper reaches that have perhaps the most tenuous planning infrastructure. Back in the mid-1970s, the National Park Service suggested that the first 400 miles of river, surrounded by the pine forests for the far north, should be designated Wild and Scenic. The response from the public was a resounding “No,” primarily because of the fear of regulation by an outside entity. As an alternative, Congress in 1981 authorized the creation of the Mississippi Headwaters Board.
The board oversees the river corridor in eight northern Minnesota counties. Its jurisdiction stretches from Lake Itasca to just north of St. Cloud within a corridor that varies in width depending on river designations (2,000 feet for a “wild river,” 1,000 feet for a “scenic river”). “Headwaters lakes” get a 1,000-foot-wide management strip.
A comprehensive plan, updated most recently in 2001, guides the work of the headwaters board, which is currently working with the eight county boards to pass ordinances adopting the plan – a slow process. In its first 400 miles, the Mississippi passes through eight counties, seven cities, five state parks, national and state forests, and the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, so standardizing the rules is a big part of the planning effort. According to board manager Pam Kichler, all the local codes are already in line with the plan.
The plan requires structures to be set back at least 100 feet from the river and the seven headwaters lakes. It also governs uses and lot size. In addition, the board also funds science programs at local schools to allow children to become “river watchers.” The students collect ecological data that is used to monitor the quality of the waterway.
Though the board was Federally mandated, it has always been funded by the State, initially with $130,000 a year. In 2003 the Board’s budget was cut to $65,000 a year, and another reduction, to $27,000, was expected by the end of 2008. These reductions have left the Board without a full-time staff person.
“If they continue to cut funding,” says Kichler, “and we have to close the doors, it will put a much heavier load on the counties.” Presumably, it will also make it harder to maintain the consistency of local codes. Consistency in managing the ecological health of 400 miles of river is unusual along any stretch of the Mississippi, but is especially critical here, where the river obtains two-thirds of its volume through groundwater, which can be especially effected by residential septic systems.
Farther south, where the river bisects the Twin Cities, the big issue is pollution caused by stormwater runoff, the bane of urban rivers and streams everywhere. Some 3.2 million people live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and all the water from their lawns, driveways, parking lots, rooftops, and roads runs eventually into the Mississippi.
That’s not what you think about, however, when you stand on the Franklin Avenue Bridge overlooking the steep slopes of the gorge at the base of the new I-35W bridge, even on a snowy winter day. The slopes of the gorge are preserved natural areas, complete with trails for a variety of uses. From the gorge, the river opens into a wider floodplain about 15 river miles downstream at downtown Saint Paul.
Waterfalls abound on this stretch of the river, formed by streams dropping into the gorge from the highlands on either side. The gorge itself was created by the upstream advancement of St. Anthony Falls – considered the fastest moving waterfall in the world until it was encased in concrete in downtown Minneapolis.
Today the largest natural waterfall is Minnehaha Falls, which plunges over a sandstone and limestone precipice in south Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park, carrying water from urbanized areas of the city and its western suburbs. Other mini-waterfalls are created by storm sewer outlet pipes that poke from the bedrock 50 feet above the river and spew pollutants into the river after every heavy rain.
The good news is both Minneapolis and St. Paul are beginning to address stormwater runoff through planning, design, education—and the law.
Buffers are the mantra in Minneapolis, where the parks and recreation board is planting native vegetation along the shorelines of six lakes within the city and along five miles of Minnehaha Creek. The shoreline buffers are intended to slow and filter runoff from adjacent neighborhoods. At the same time, the board is installing new infiltration basins next to the creek both to intercept runoff and to accommodate stormwater overflow. It has also created four pre-treatment lagoons next to Lake Nokomis. In the spring, the lagoons will be full of water lilies and will shelter turtles and ducks.
These efforts are improving water and habitat quality in Minneapolis’s lakes and, by extension, the Mississippi, since all the lakes drain directly over Minnehaha Falls into the river.
Over in St. Paul, the Riverfront Corporation, a non-profit that works closely with public agencies to improve downtown and the river, has established a stormwater advisory board to help developers, neighborhood groups, and local officials understand the effects of stormwater along the city’s 17 miles of Mississippi riverfront. In 2007 the group added a river-specific chapter to its 10-year-old master plan “The Saint Paul on the Mississippi Design Framework.” The new chapter proposes the creation of a National Great River Park along the city’s entire river frontage. The park’s motto, “more natural, more urban, more connected,“ encapsulates the Riverfront Corporation’s goal to preserve the ecology of the Mississippi while encouraging recreational use and focusing urban development into sustainable urban villages.
Most recently, the group published a set of Stormwater Best Management Practice Cards, highlighting things than can be done to improve the quality of urban runoff, from street sweeping to rain barrels.
A new kind of billing
Part of the solution to polluted stormwater runoff is actually recognizing the problem. In 2005, Minneapolis began billing residents separately for their stormwater impacts, one of just a handful of U.S.cities to do so. The old system, which wrapped the stormwater fee into the water bill, “was a complete abstraction,” says the city’s stormwater program manager, Karl Westermeyer.
He cites as examples big box retailers that use little water but generate a great deal of runoff from their large parking lots and roof areas, and carwashes, which use a lot of water but have a small footprint. Under the old system, he says, the carwash would pay more for stormwater management. “We needed to look at what drives demand for storm drain construction,” he says—and that is impervious surface.
So Minneapolis, using citywide GIS data, established an average impervious surface quantity for all single-family residential customers. The amount of impervious surface on a lot determines the fee. Customers can lower—or even eliminate—the fee by installing control devices such as rain gardens, cisterns, and detention basins. Residential fees average about $5 a month.
The program has worked well, Westermeyer says, particularly for large commercial and industrial properties such as Dunwoody Institute, a local technical college that installed new stormwater ponds. Several proposed developments are also considering innovative stormwater management as part of their design process, in hopes of obtaining fee credits for their efforts.
Although the program’s primary goal was to equalize the fee structure, Westermeyer notes that it has also had an effect on water quality. The program is still in the early stages so little information is available on actual improvements. Since non-point pollution sources have the greatest impact on river and lake health, however, a program that addresses stormwater management lot by lot is sure to have some effect.
Living with wildlife
A complicating factor in keeping the Mississippi healthy is the extent of its commercial barge traffic. Yet Don Hultman is optimistic. He manages the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which stretches from Wabasha, Minnesota, to just north of the Quad Cities. The refuge includes 260 river miles and 12 navigation pools (each with its own lock and dam) managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The refuge lies on what is arguably the most beautiful stretch of the Mississippi, the part that cuts through the high, sandstone and limestone plateau between the Twin Cities and the Quad Cities. It’s a place where rock bluffs tower 100 feet above the water and fast-moving trout streams plunge through narrow valleys. Plants and animals at the southernmost extent of their range inhabit cool, spring-fed valleys, while others at their northernmost reach claim the hot, dry bluff tops. Lake Pepin, the only natural lake on the entire river below the seven headwaters lakes, looks as though it was stolen from the Alps. Sleepy river towns nestle between the slopes and the shores.
The refuge itself shelters 200 bald eagle nests. It’s a regular annual migration stop for 50 percent of the world population of canvasback ducks. Its islands, sloughs, and open water are home to 119 fish species (about half of all those found in the Mississippi) and nearly all the reptile and amphibian species found in the entire river.
But look down from the bluffs and you’re likely to see a flotilla of barges, laden with grain and cargo, slipping through the locks. “In our planning,“ says Hultman, “the real challenge was balancing the needs of wildlife with human needs,” including all that barge traffic, heavy use by the local hunting and fishing community, and the annual 3.7 million recreational visitors (for purposes of comparison, Yellowstone National Park gets two million).
That need for balance led to the creation of a comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) for the refuge, an effort that began in 2006 and is expected to conclude in 2010. A draft plan released in 2007 proposed new management areas, including closed-to-hunting areas, and slow and no-wake areas for boaters. “That’s when all hell broke loose,” says Hultman. The rules were softened in the final draft plan, which was adopted later that year.
The final draft does close some areas to waterfowl hunting, but it also swaps some closed areas for open ones. The result, Hultman explains, provides “stepping stones” for migratory birds, allowing them safe refuges at key points along the entire corridor. The plan also significantly increases the acreage of slow and no-wake areas.
At the same time, the plan proposes significant new facilities, in part a response to a congressional mandate to create more diverse recreational opportunities. The plan calls for nearly 100 more miles of canoe trails, 26 more miles of hiking or biking trails, 10 new observation decks, three observation towers (there are none in the refuge now), four photo blinds, and more than 100 new interpretive elements. The new management areas are already in place, but most of the built amenities will have to wait for funding. A new parking lot and overlook has been recently completed at Brownsville, just south of the LaCrescent-LaCrosse area, and new habitat islands are currently under construction out in the river at that location.
Hultman is justifiably proud of the new comprehensive plan (its maps, in particular, are well-executed and engaging), but he credits the mere existence of the refuge for the quality of the environment on this stretch of the Mississippi. Since its designation in 1924, the refuge has tried to make sure that the careful balance between ecology and commerce is maintained. More than anything, says Hultman, the refuge provides natural flood protection, potentially saving millions of dollars in flood relief.
Clearly, the Mississippi River’s headwaters have benefited from aggressive planning efforts like this one. Today, the fruit of that planning is a river that works pretty well for everyone (plants and animals included). Hultman has a phrase he uses to describe his refuge. It could just as easily apply to the entire Mississippi River headwaters. “No matter how you like to use it,“ he says, “there’s a place for you.”